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The next step in the Giants’ offensive evolution

After improving their offense in 2022, the Giants’ offensive masterminds have a plan to fill in the missing pieces in 2023

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NFL: New York Giants Training Camp
Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, left, with Daniel Jones.
Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Giants declined Daniel Jones’ fifth-year option in the 2022 offseason, it seemed like the writing was on the wall. New GM Joe Schoen signaled to Jones and the NFL that he did not believe in his quarterback and was hoping to ride out the last year of Jones’ contract before starting over.

Fast forward to the end of the season, and things looked very different. Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka realized that the modified offense they installed to try to win with less might actually be a stepping stone for growth rather than a short-term Plan B. With their moves this offseason, the Giants indicated that they can envision a way to make their offense fire on all cylinders.

Of course, the Giants still have flaws on offense. Their receiving corps is unproven, they have several injury concerns, and their offensive line is a work in progress. Despite all of that, the offense has the potential to become a highly efficient machine in 2023. Here’s what I think Daboll and Co. have in store.

Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 vs. 2022

Alex Rollins recently put out a YouTube video titled “Patrick Mahomes isn’t who you think he is.” Rollins’ overarching point is that despite Mahomes’ reputation as a downfield gunslinger, he has morphed into an underneath-throwing, opportunistic, efficient passer. The statistic that best demonstrates this is Mahomes’ average depth of target (ADOT), which has fallen significantly since his 2018 MVP season in his first year as a starter, per Pro Football Focus.

via Pro Football Focus

In other words, Mahomes has been throwing downfield at a much lower rate. In fact, his deep passing rate has dropped in each season, from 15.9% in 2018, ranking third in the NFL, all the way to 9.7% in 2022, which ranked 26th. In fact, he has always thrown a relatively high rate of passes behind the line of scrimmage, ranking in the top four among quarterbacks in that category three times in his five years as a starter (and 13th in the other two seasons). In the last two seasons, he has simply shifted many of his deep attempts toward an even spread between short and intermediate passes — passes with a much higher completion probability (CP), leading to heightened efficiency.

Rollins points to the proliferation of two-high defensive looks as the reason for this change. In 2021, Mahomes had what was perceived to be a “down” year for him, ranking 16th among quarterbacks in PFF passing grade at just 73.2. His 3.3% big-time throw rate ranked 27th. Although he looked like his dominant self in the epic Divisional Round showdown with Daboll’s Bills, his struggles manifest once again in the second half and overtime in the AFC Championship Game, leading to the Chiefs’ playoff exit.

However, with the departure of Tyreek Hill, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Mahomes figured out how to punish defenses for those soft looks despite a lack of elite receiving talent. Rather than trying to make a highlight-reel play on each down, Mahomes constantly took shorter passes.

When defenses play quarters coverage consistently, that means there are only three underneath defenders; overloading that area of the field usually produces open space. With the speed of the Chiefs’ running backs and receivers, they can maximize YAC and move the chains. Reid also utilizes clever motions to evade press-man looks, and Travis Kelce is the great mismatch as Mahomes’ security blanket. When defenses double Kelce, the other receivers have more room to work with.

As a result, after Mahomes’ yards per attempt dipped to 7.4 in 2021, it rose back up to 8.1 in 2022, ranking second in the NFL. While that is not as absurd as the 8.8 mark he put up in 2018, it tied his 2020 season. This was despite the fact that his big-time throw rate was 7.4% in 2020 compared to 4.8% in 2022. Mahomes might not have thrown as many insane passes, but he put up far more gimmes and still matched his per-play production.

2023 Giants: Replicating the 2022 Chiefs

Daniel Jones is not Patrick Mahomes, and I am not foolish enough to attempt to make that argument. However, some of the moves the Giants have made to fortify their offense are eerily reminiscent of how the Chiefs constructed their 2022 offensive unit.

  • Elite tight end - check
  • No true No. 1 receiver - check
  • Speed all over the field - check
  • Veteran speedster signed to hold down the fort - check
  • Promising young receiver to phase into the offense - check
  • Late-round rookie running back who could be sneakily impactful - check

The Giants appear to be trying to replicate the Chiefs’ offensive formula. Unlike in 2022 when teams tried to load the box to stop Saquon Barkley, the offense is likely to see more two-high looks due to the sheer speed on the field. Therefore, they signed a bunch of players with short-area burst and quickness designed to punish those softer looks.

Meanwhile, if those defenses try to play press-man coverage, Kafka (Mahomes’ former quarterbacks coach) is clever enough to scheme up free releases for his receivers. If Jalin Hyatt is actually as ahead of the curve in that area as he appears to be in training camp thus far, so much the better.

Darren Waller, like Kelce for the Chiefs, could be that mismatch and security blanket. He offers route-running skills akin to Kelce’s and the ability to find open space. Trying to cover him with one linebacker or safety is futile, and he will feast against nickel cornerbacks, as well.

For this plan to work, there are some elements of the Giants’ 2022 plan that can actually remain. Then there are a few that must change.

Staying ahead of the sticks

In 2022, the Giants ranked 22nd in the NFL with a 37.82% third-down conversion rate, yet they ranked 10th in the NFL in offensive DVOA (an opponent- and game context-adjusted efficiency metric) at 7.1%. How did they manage that?

Conventional NFL wisdom suggests that third-down conversions are critical to keep drives alive and sustain offensive success. However, third-down success tends to fluctuate by season, and too much success in that area often means regression is due. Instead, the true factor to look at is staying ahead of the sticks, which means avoiding third down altogether.

In 2022, the Giants had the ninth-fewest total third-down offensive plays in the NFL with 208 (not including third-down field goal attempts). Their 1.69 third downs per offensive drive were also ninth. Furthermore, when you extend this to fourth down, just 21.4% of the Giants’ offensive plays were on change-of-possession downs—tied for fifth in the NFL. Correspondingly, they tied for sixth in converting 27.8% of their first- and second-down plays into another first down or touchdown.

Despite a seeming lack of elite offensive talent, the Giants managed to be an efficient offense by staying away from lopsided situations. It’s far easier to game-plan on first down than it is on third. Additionally, play-calling becomes far more predictable on third down, which wreaks havoc on offensive efficiency. We can quantify this statistically.

An NFL play is considered predictable if it has a 55% pass probability (called XPASS) or more on a pass play or a 45% XPASS or less on a run play. Here are the rates of predictable play calls by down across the NFL.

  • First down: 66%
  • Second down: 66.4%
  • Third down: 76.8%

These numbers are almost identical when you eliminate garbage-time plays (62.1%, 63.8%, and 76.9%, respectively). Furthermore, they apply even when comparing second-and-long (68.4% with 8+ yards to go) vs. third-and-long (81.4%). It is simply difficult to get creative when you’re behind the sticks.

Lest you believe that predictability has no impact on the result, here is the average EPA per play on predictable vs. unpredictable play calls.

  • Predictable: -0.037
  • Unpredictable: 0.059

Kafka and Daboll are cut from the NFL cloth of coaching that intends to stay unpredictable. Unlike the old-fashioned “run to set up the pass” mentality, their idea is to do what the defense is not expecting. It is far easier to do so when the continuity of the drive is not at stake. They did an excellent job of scheming that up in 2022, and it’s likely at the forefront of their 2023 plan.

Giants’ advantage

One area in which the Giants actually have an advantage over the Chiefs is an explosive running back. As well as Isiah Pacheco played down the stretch, he is not nearly as explosive as Saquon Barkley. I have been critical of Barkley lately, but that is only in comparison to his lofty salary expectations and high ranking among his peers. I recognize that he was ranked the seventh-most explosive runner of 2022 for a reason: he was the only real big-play threat on the Giants’ offense in 2022.

Now that this is no longer the case, look for Barkley to potentially increase his efficiency in 2023. Against loaded boxes in 2022 (defined as a play in which there are more defenders in the box than blockers), he ranked 27th out of 44 backs with -0.0435 rush yards over expected (RYOE) per carry. However, when the offense had enough blockers, Barkley ranked 14th with 0.601 RYOE per carry. He is far better at creating more out of enough space than he is at creating something out of nothing.

Calculated risk vs. reward

You, I, and the Giants all know that the biggest element missing from their offense in 2022 was explosive passing plays. They ranked last in the league with just 28 pass plays of 20+ total yards. Daniel Jones ranked second-to-last in attempting deep passes (20+ yards downfield) on just 4.9% of his attempts.

However, notice which quarterback was directly ahead of Jones in that category: Joe Burrow, an MVP finalist and widely considered a top-three passer in the NFL, at 8.6%. As mentioned earlier, Mahomes was 26th at 9.7%. It isn’t as if throwing a deep pass is the only way to generate explosive plays: the Chiefs ranked first in the NFL with 73 pass plays of 20+ yards, while the Bengals ranked 12th with 54.

In terms of performance on deep passes, Burrow ranked third with a 95.0 PFF deep grade, while Mahomes ranked fifth at 93.3 and Jones ranked eighth at 91.8. Although small sample sizes tend to generate outliers, Jones was also an efficient deep passer in his rookie season. He has shown the potential to generate some nice deep throws; can he sustain that when his rate is above 4.9%? How far above there does he even need to go for the Giants’ offense to thrive?

Statistically, the chances of scoring are four times higher on a drive with an explosive play (20+ yards). Across the NFL, 80.5% of the explosive plays in 2022 were pass plays. By contrast, 34.9% of the Giants’ explosive plays came via the run and only 65.1% via the air. Unsurprisingly, they ranked last in the NFL with 43 explosive plays.

This would make it seem like Jones needs to start throwing deep a lot more often. However, when you look at the air yards (yards past the line of scrimmage) of these explosive pass plays, you find something interesting.

  • 20+ air yards (deep): 46.1%
  • 10-19 air yards (intermediate): 33.5%
  • 0-9 air yards (short): 14.6%
  • Under 0 air yards (behind line of scrimmage [LOS]): 5.85%

Although the majority of explosive pass plays did travel 20 or more air yards, the number is not nearly as stark as you might think. Furthermore, here is the comparison between efficiency metrics:

  • EPA per pass play: 0.301 deep, 0.368 intermediate, 0.082 short, -0.203 behind LOS
  • Completion percentage: 35.6% deep, 55.6% intermediate, 69.4% short, 78.4% behind LOS
  • Completion percentage over expected (CPOE): -0.480 deep, 0.222 intermediate, 0.628 short, -3.24 behind LOS
  • Yards per attempt: 11.9 deep, 9.81 intermediate, 5.71 short, 4.37 behind LOS

Although there are more yards per attempt to be gained from a deep pass, intermediate throws are far more efficient. This is how Burrow and Mahomes are succeeding: not by merely chucking the ball deep, but by utilizing other parts of the field in space and allowing their receivers to gain YAC.

As much as the Giants want to push the ball vertically more often, they also want to better utilize YAC. Hyatt (7.3 YAC per reception in 2022), Parris Campbell (4.5), and Darren Waller (5.6 in 2020, his last full healthy season) join Darius Slayton (5.8) and Saquon Barkley (7.8) to form a YAC-fest.

Sure, the Giants will likely want Jones to take more shots. They’ve been practicing it consistently during camp and talked about it all offseason. However, I don’t think that’s their sole plan to improve their offense. They want to open up the middle of the field — hence, their roster full of slot receivers.

All this being said, deep pass attempts do result in an explosive pass play at a far higher rate (36.3%) than any other type of pass. Intermediate passes (14.6%), short passes (2.62%), and passes behind the line of scrimmage (3.14%) do not come close. That’s why Jones does need to increase his deep attempt rate at least somewhat. Nearly 4% lower than the next-lowest passer and ahead of only the skeleton of Matt Ryan won’t open up the offense.

The missing piece

Jones obviously must take another step up in 2023 for the Giants’ offense to improve. However, there has been one constant piece preventing him from doing so: his pass protection. In 2022, he was pressured on 42.4% of his drop backs, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Mahomes had the 17th-highest rate at 33.4%, while Burrow, surprisingly, had the third-lowest pressure rate at 26.5%.

To a certain extent, pressure rate is a quarterback statistic. The passer who can quickly find the open receiver avoids pressure that way. However, when the pressure comes in under 2.5 seconds, there is often little a quarterback can do unless the play call was a screen.

PFF blamed Jones for six of his 44 regular-season sacks and 15.2% of his total pressure, which ranked in the 42nd percentile among quarterbacks. His 17.8% pressure-to-sack ratio was in the 66th percentile. Still, he faced an extraordinary amount of immediate pressure where there wasn’t much he could do. In the under-2.5-second category, Jones had the 11th-fastest average release time at 1.85 seconds, yet he still faced the eighth-highest pressure rate at 21.1%.

Admittedly, getting rid of the ball more quickly is something Jones needs to work on; just 34.3% of his drop backs fell into that category, the fourth-lowest quarterback rate. (Burrow is a master at this, ranking second in the NFL at 59.4%.) Still, Jones’ struggles could be partially attributed to quick pressure and partially to having nowhere to go with the ball too often. Additionally, rushing quarterbacks often have somewhat skewed time-to-throw numbers due to their propensity to prolong plays with their legs.

Can the Giants’ pass protection improve in 2023? We’ve talked about this all offseason. Andrew Thomas is a snubbed ‘Top 100’ player and a top-five tackle in the game. Mark Glowinski is who he is, a mediocre guard who can at least hold down the fort on a decent line (assuming he does, indeed, retain the spot). However, the other three spots along the line have significant question marks.

How will John Michael Schmitz perform as a rookie? His 2.6% pressure rate allowed as a college senior was better than the NFL average (3.3%), which is a promising sign. However, Tyler Linderbaum, the first-round center selected by the Ravens in 2022, had a 1.6% pressure rate in his final college season and a 4.4% rate in his first NFL season. He was certainly subject to the rookie learning curve in pass protection.

At left guard, the Ben Bredeson vs. Joshua Ezeudu battle appears ongoing. Bredeson’s overall pressure numbers were actually fairly solid, as he allowed no sacks and a 3.4% pressure rate on 322 pass-blocking snaps (the guard average was 4.4%). Ezeudu, by contrast, posted a 9.8% rate on 153 snaps.

Even in true pass sets, which eliminate easier blocking reps such as play action, screens, and passes released in under 2.5 seconds, Bredeson’s 7.4% pressure rate was basically at the league average for guards of 7.5%. Still, PFF did not like his pass-blocking, as his 52.9 grade ranked 56th out of 71 guards. Ezeudu leaked pressure on those plays at a 13% rate, and his 45.9 PFF grade indicates his struggles.

Then we come to the Evan Neal conundrum. Going through the concussion protocol is not a great way for Neal to fill his early days of camp, though it’s not his fault. Will Neal’s hard work in the offseason pay off? If it doesn’t, how long will the Giants keep trotting him out there? I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this could be the make-or-break question for the Giants’ offense.

The Bengals signed Orlando Brown Jr. to anchor Joe Burrow’s blindside. The Chiefs, who lost their blindside protector, picked up stud pass-blocker Jawaan Taylor to take his place. The Giants, short on salary cap space, simply need to hope that their 2022 top-10 pick plays like the protector he was supposed to be.

Can Jones do it?

Given these factors — efficiency on early downs, lack of explosive plays, increase in speed, pickup of an elite tight end, and questionable pass protection — can Jones make the Giants’ plan work?

In Kansas City, Reid always seeks to make the offense as easy for his quarterback as possible. Despite Mahomes’ greatness in reading defenses, the help from his play-caller buoys his performance.

The Giants did the same with Jones in 2022, albeit with a different intention. They provided him with a pure-progression playbook, seemingly with the caveat that if there was open space to run, he should take it. That allowed Jones to sign a second contract and earn the chance to become the Giants’ true franchise quarterback in 2023.

This year, the Giants will likely open up the playbook more and ask Jones to make multiple reads. Will he be able to look downfield a little more often? There’s a reason that he ranked 27th in big-time throw rate on deep passes despite his strong PFF grade in that area; he took the attempt only if the pass was wide open.

Just as importantly, can Jones read the defense and figure out which intermediate pass will be open? There were many examples of him forgoing the open intermediate pass in favor of a check down or scramble attempt because his eyes were in the wrong place.

I think that the intermediate area of the field will be the litmus test for Jones more than the deep part. When he’s comfortable in the pocket, he reminds me of Jared Goff a bit: able to stand in and deliver an accurate ball. That’s what the Lions gave Goff last year, and he thrived. Will the Giants give Jones the same, and can Jones utilize the time he has to find the correct target?

It’s difficult to judge anything based on Jones’ pre-2022 performance due to the dizzying array of coaches, supporting (I use the term loosely) casts, and injuries that he has compiled throughout his career. 2022 is the best hope the Giants have that he can take the next step, the best evidence that he will, and simultaneously the continued doubt that he won’t.

What do you think, Giants fans? Does Jones have what it takes to execute this plan — not like Patrick Mahomes, but perhaps like 2022 Jared Goff?