On the cusp on what could be a very interesting 2023 season for the New York Giants, we now (almost) know who the players will be, and we can imagine what they might be capable of doing. GM Joe Schoen and his staff have done a remarkable job of overhauling a talent-deficient roster in just two off-seasons. At this point a lot of it is projection of what players could be once the Giants’ superior coaching staff gets their hands on them.
Still, you have to shake your head at how previous positional weaknesses have been turned into strengths or at least into something adequate without mortgaging the future:
- Wide receiver: From a team giving lots of snaps to Marcus Johnson and David Sills, to a team still without a real WR1 but with so much quality depth that NFL-caliber players would not have made the 53 if there hadn’t been injuries. There has been so much fuss over Jalin Hyatt and tight end Darren Waller that 2022 leading receiver Darius Slayton, 2022 heart throb Isaiah Hodgins, free agent speedster Parris Campbell, and promising 2022 rookie Wan’Dale Robinson are rarely talked about.
- Cornerback: From Adoree’ Jackson (for half a season) and a bunch of just-a-guys, to a team that can afford to move Jackson to slot cornerback at least some of the time because not one but two draft picks, one a sixth-rounder, appear to be starting-caliber.
- Linebacker: From a team with no good options to one with better-than-average Bobby Okereke at the MIKE. The other linebacker position still a weakness? No problem, give up a seventh-round pick for former No. 8 pick Isaiah Simmons.
- Edge defender: From a team with two potentially excellent starters and no depth, to a team with former second-round pick Boogie Basham, acquired for an exchange of low draft picks in 2025.
The Achilles’ heel of the Giants’ roster?
There is still one position group that (speaking personally) generates agita, however: The offensive line. Andrew Thomas is a brick wall at left tackle, but there are questions about the other four positions. It’s not that Schoen hasn’t tried to address them. He drafted three offensive linemen in 2022, in Rounds 1, 3, and 5, and came back and drafted one in Round 2 in 2023. Yet the queasy feeling persists:
- Evan Neal was a disaster at right tackle in 2022. He has lost weight, added muscle, and worked with an outside expert on his pass sets. We have every reason to expect him to be better in 2023. Unfortunately he gets Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence right out of the gate. Tell me with a straight face that you’re not worried.
- John Michael Schmitz looked promising at center in pre-season. We have every reason to expect that he will settle in and be at least adequate as a rookie, especially in run blocking, which was his forte in college. Will he hold up in pass protection?
- Some combination of Mark Glowinski, Ben Bredeson, and Joshua Ezeudu will man the two guard positions. Does the rotation of all three between left and right guard during camp worry you as much as it worries me?
I can talk myself into believing that somehow five of those six players will play well enough for Daniel Jones to be able to dictate to opposing defenses this year rather than running for his life most Sundays. What if one or more of them get hurt, though?
For a while Matt Peart was the ONLY backup offensive tackle on the roster, until the Giants brought back Tyre Phillips after waivers and signed Jalen Mayfield to the practice squad...and then released Phillips a day later and signed Jaylon Thomas. Even now, Shane Lemieux and Marcus McKethan are the only other backup guards. Has Lemieux learned to pass block? How good is McKethan after missing his entire rookie season to an ACL injury?
In the Detroit and Jets pre-season games, we saw little forward push from the offensive line in the running game and outright jailbreaks in the passing game. Poor Tyrod Taylor and Tommy DeVito were running for their lives more often than not. Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I checked Pro Football Focus to see what they thought. Here are the five lowest team pass blocking grades for the preseason:
Ouch. A 37.5 pass block grade averaged over three full games, worst in the league. And unlike the next four worst teams, the run blocking grade was hardly any better (39.7).
Maybe there’s hope, though. Here are the individual player blocking grades:
Lemieux, he of the 0.0 PFF pass blocking grade in one of his first pro games in 2020, got a lot of work in the preseason and graded an excellent 89.3 on 69 pass snaps with no pressures yielded. He wasn’t facing Aaron Donald, but maybe there’s hope that he can be a solid backup. He wasn’t good in run blocking (42.4), but he showed flashes of skill in that as a rookie. McKethan only got 10 pass snaps but also graded highly (82.1), so maybe he will stick as useful inside depth.
Of more immediate interest, projected starters Ben Bredeson and Evan Neal graded 80.5 and 73.8 in pass blocking, albeit with one sack given up by each. Surprisingly, Schmitz graded a poor 39.2 in 50 pass snaps with one hurry. He didn’t play against the Jets; the low grade came totally from the Carolina game (22.7), while he was fine against Detroit (72.9). I’ll assume that was an outlier...but I’ll be keeping my eye on him on passing plays in the Cowboys game. Glowinski was who Glowinski always is - an OK run blocker and slightly subpar pass blocker. Josh Ezeudu was subpar but not awful in the pre-season, and pretty consistent in each of the three games, with one QB hit and two pressures.
My biggest concern coming out of preseason Week 3 was Matt Peart. You didn’t need to consult PFF to know that Peart played terribly against the Jets, but for the record: 33.9 pass block grade, six pressures allowed including two sacks. Peart did pass block better in the first two pre-season games, though (62.4, 72.4, with one hurry surrendered in each game), so we’ll hope that the Jets game was an anomaly and he can be a useful backup.
How much does a good offensive line really matter?
In the passing game, it matters a lot. Ed Valentine decided to kick a hornet’s nest last week by having BBV writers give their opinions on which quarterbacks we’d trade Daniel Jones for straight up. One writer in particular (ahem) left off Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott, claiming that they are merely “Jones with a great OL and great receivers.” One or two readers didn’t exactly agree with that ;-)
To support my case at least about the offensive line, though, here are some stats from Pro Football Focus about the performance of the 22 most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL in 2022 when under pressure (22 of them so that Dak would make the list):
Jones had the third-most pressured dropbacks and the second highest percentage of pressured dropbacks (behind only Justin Fields) in the league last season. Hurts was pressured 79 fewer times, Prescott 107 fewer times.
Quarterbacks don’t like to be pressured, even the great ones (think Tom Brady Super Bowls against the Giants, Peyton Manning Super Bowl against the Seahawks, Patrick Mahomes Super Bowl against the Buccaneers). You can see in the chart above that only Josh Allen (an astounding 87.2 PFF grade under pressure) and rookie Kenny Pickett (an impressive 72.4 under pressure) were above average quarterbacks last year when the defense took it to them. Jones was a slightly below average 58.2 under pressure, but that was better than Hurts (52.2) and Prescott (51.5).
Some people dismiss PFF grades as being subjective. Fine. Let’s look at some hard numbers for these quarterbacks under pressure:
- Completion percentage: Jones 55.6, Hurts 44.4, Prescott 50.5
- TD/INTs: Jones 6/1, Hurts 4/2, Prescott 7/6
- Big-time throw/turnover-worthy play percentage: Jones 2.7/3.8, Hurts 1.7/2.9, Prescott 3.4/4.8
- NFL passer rating: Jones 83.8, Hurts 66.8, Prescott 67.7
And for the record, when kept clean, Jones had an 86.6 PFF offense grade and a 97.4 NFL pass grade; Hurts 92.1 and 112.2; and Prescott 77.5 and 99.8. Keep Jones clean in 2022, and he’s only a little worse than Hurts and better than Prescott in PFF’s eyes, and his production with a subpar group of receivers isn’t that much worse than the other two who had one or two great receivers to throw to. This is what is at stake with the offensive line of the 2023 Giants. There is no way to know whether Jones with a great offensive line and great receivers would turn into 2022 Hurts...unless he gets those things in 2023.
Can a team go far in the playoffs without a great offensive line?
Maybe this Giants line will jell as the season goes on, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, does it ruin the Giants’ chances for a deep playoff run? Not quite. A great OL sure helps - among the final four teams in last year’s playoffs, Philadelphia had an 84.9 pass blocking grade, leading the NFL, San Francisco graded 74.4 (No. 5), and Kansas City graded 73.6 (No. 6).
The poster child for the Giants’ hopes, though, was Cincinnati, No. 31 in the NFL in pass blocking at 56.1. (The Giants were tied for 24th at 62.0.) Here are their top six offensive linemen (in blocking snaps) for 2022:
For comparison, the Giants’ top six:
The Bengals have no one on their offensive line that can hold a candle to Andrew Thomas. Last year they had two terribly performing offensive linemen who got significant snaps, and both were tackles (La’el Collins, Hakeem Adeniji), while the Giants only got really poor pass blocking from Evan Neal. Cincinnati did get good interior blocking from center Ted Karras and guard Alex Cappa. So it’s possible to go far with a poor offensive line.
On the one hand, preseason means little. In 2022, Jon Feliciano graded 82.2 and Glowinski 80.1 in preseason pass blocking, performances they didn’t come close to matching when the bell rang in Week 1. On the other hand, Evan Neal’s 46.5 preseason grade was a harbinger of things to come.
We’ll begin to find out for sure when the Cowboys come to town whether the line has improved from 2022, and whether it can stay healthy. A deep playoff run may hang in the balance.