Job 1 for New York Giants GM Joe Schoen this offseason is to solidify the quarterback position. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to do that before the season starts. Schoen probably thought he’d already done it by signing Daniel Jones to a four-year contract with an out after two years, Tyrod Taylor to a two-year contract the year before, and Tommy DeVito as an undrafted free agent. (Schoen may well have intended to draft a backup in 2023 to replace Taylor but gave up several picks to move up for Tae Banks and Jalin Hyatt.)
It didn’t work out that way because of the Giants’ horrendous early schedule, an offensive line that was somehow much worse than the unsatisfactory 2022 OL, Jones’ poor play until he got hurt in Miami, and his second, season-ending ACL injury as soon as he returned. This put the Giants in a bind because not only did they not get to see whether Jones would rebound and improve upon his 2022 play when he returned, but they also will not know by the time of the NFL Draft in April whether he’ll be ready to step on the field for Game 1.
This means the Giants almost certainly have to draft a QB this year. Their No. 6 draft position makes that problematic. Chicago will either take a QB or try to trade down with a team that will (e.g., Atlanta). That team could be the Giants, but recent history says that the ever-increasing cost of moving into the top 5 backfires on the team trading up more often than not (see Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Trey Lance, Bryce Young, though the latter two still have time to change the narrative). With Washington and New England also ahead of the Giants, the odds of the top three QBs (generally considered to be Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels) being off the board by the time the Giants draft are fairly high.
If so, the Giants will have to choose from among the remaining QB prospects, all of whom would be a reach at No. 6. The Giants could go in a different direction, e.g., wide receiver, with that pick, and then hope to grab a QB from among the next tier of candidates when their next pick comes up at No. 39: Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, or J.J. McCarthy. All of those QBs might be gone by then, so Schoen might consider a trade-up from No. 39 back into the bottom of the first round. Baltimore got Lamar Jackson that way. Schoen might even take a flyer on someone like Michael Pratt, whom Chris Pflum sees as a late Round 1 value even though most projections have him going in Round 3.
Whoever the Giants draft, the looming question will be: Who starts in Game 1?
Benefits of letting a rookie QB sit
These days, fans want instant gratification. Draft a promising rookie, just get him onto the field, and let him learn on the job. It wasn’t always that way. Consider the following examples of decisions made on starting QBs:
Mahomes has never played the Giants at MetLife. He was on the sidelines in 2017 as a rookie, though, because he sat almost the entire season behind predecessor Alex Smith. That terrible 3-13 Giants team beat Smith and the Chiefs that day, 12-9. The Chiefs won the AFC West anyway but lost in the Wild Card Round to Tennessee, blowing a 21-3 halftime lead.
Might Kansas City have won it all that year if Mahomes had started right away? He came out of college with a reputation for needing to learn NFL defenses, get used to playing under center, and tone down his adventurous play in an Air Raid offense. Even in his first training camp, he wowed coaches and teammates, yet he only played the final game of the season, when he started and won at Denver.
In the offseason, Kansas City traded Smith to Washington for Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick. Mahomes became the starter in 2018, threw for 53 TDs, and almost won a thrilling AFC Championship Game against New England. The rest is history.
Could Mahomes have started immediately? Probably. The rookie season allowed him to acclimate to NFL football, gain the respect of his teammates, and make them comfortable with moving on from Smith at the end of the season.
Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love
Green Bay seems to have a formula for quarterback success: Draft a QB late in the first round, let him sit for three years, and then start him. The first time, Aaron Rodgers fell to Green Bay at No. 24 in the 2005 draft after San Francisco took Alex Smith No. 1 and no other team selected a QB. Rodgers sat for three years while starter Brett Favre mostly froze him out before eventually leaving for the Jets. He almost immediately became an elite NFL quarterback when he did start.
Fast forward 15 years and Green Bay drafted Jordan Love at No. 26 in the loaded 2020 draft, but they didn’t bother to let Rodgers know they were doing it. Love started only one game in his first three years, a deer-caught-in-the-headlights performance in Kansas City (29.2 PFF passing grade). Finally, Love became the starter this season after Rodgers left for the Jets (Love should start negotiating with the Jets now to sign as a free agent in about 15 years). After a mediocre first two months, he took off in Week 9 and has not had a below-average game since then, except for his loss to the Giants. Last weekend he had one of the best playoff performances ever by a quarterback, destroying an excellent Dallas defense.
Manning, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft whom the Chargers traded to the Giants, did not start right away. The Giants had signed Kurt Warner as a free agent for two years, $9.5M, with the understanding that Warner would tutor Manning but be allowed to compete for the starting job. Warner started the season for a Giants team that had gone 4-12 the previous year. He went 5-4 but had lost three of his last four games when head coach Tom Coughlin decided to switch to Eli.
By any measure, Eli was a bad quarterback as a rookie: 48.2% completion rate, 6 TDs, 9 INTs, 55.4 NFL passer rating, and a 1-6 record. He followed that with somewhat better but still subpar 2005 and 2006 seasons, before finally breaking out in the 2007 playoffs and becoming an elite QB. Would things have been better if Warner had been allowed to finish the 2004 season and maybe start the 2005 season while Eli sat and learned? (Warner did have a 2-year contract, and he almost won a Super Bowl with Arizona a few years later.) There’s no way to know.
Fast forward to 2018. Eli has just come off an ill-timed late-season benching for Geno Smith in 2017, which was part of what cost Ben McAdoo his job as head coach. Pat Shurmur, a QB-friendly head coach, has replaced him. Manning is slowing down by this point, and working behind a leaky offensive line, is being called “Checkdown Eli.” The Giants choose not to select a QB in the 2018 draft, though, believing that Shurmur can coax another great season or two from Eli. He doesn’t.
In 2019, the Giants drafted Daniel Jones, and although the plan is for Jones to sit his first year, Shurmur is feeling the heat after two dispiriting losses to start the season - the annual shellacking in Dallas, and a dispiriting home loss to Buffalo, a team coming off a losing season with a rookie QB, Josh Allen, who had not looked good the previous year.
After only two games Shurmur sits Manning and starts Jones, who shocks the world with a stirring 2nd-half comeback in Tampa Bay to win his first game. Shurmur simplifies things for his rookie QB, giving him mostly half-field reads and letting him use his legs on rollouts and zone reads. Jones wins his next game but then loses 8 in a row as better defenses start to intercept him regularly, a fumbling problem emerges, and his tendency to lock onto first reads causes him to hold the ball too long.
As the quality of the offensive line degrades over time (71.5 to 50.7 to 52.9 from 2019 to 2021) and a more conservative approach emerges under Joe Judge and Jason Garrett, Jones becomes a technically better QB (PFF passing grade 65.5 to 78.4 to 71.1) but a less explosive one, with his big-time throws going from 20 to 24 to only 7 by 2021.
Should Jones have sat in 2019 rather than starting only three games into the season? Shurmur wasn’t around by the following year, and the Giants’ mistake was not hiring an offense- and quarterback-oriented head coach to replace him. Four years after he entered the league, Jones has become less turnover-prone, but he hasn’t nurtured the early mindset he had to attack a defense, hasn’t learned to progress through reads, and hasn’t learned to efficiently manipulate the pocket.
There are other examples. Philip Rivers did not start his first two years in San Diego, sitting behind Drew Brees (who himself did not start a game his rookie year). Dan Marino only started 9 games as a rookie. Lamar Jackson did not start until his 10th game. Jalen Hurts did not start until his 13th game. There are of course QBs who have started from Day 1, too, like C.J. Stroud, who had a rough opening game in Baltimore and has taken the league by storm since then. Statistically, there may be a slight edge in development for QBs who do not start a lot right away:
(In addition to completion percentage, similar trends are seen in TD passes and INTs).
What should the Giants do in 2024?
It all depends on the situation - and that is what makes the 2024 Giants such a difficult case. They have an incumbent starter who is coming off injury and played poorly when he did play. In all likelihood, they will be drafting a borderline Day 1 - Day 2 prospect rather than one of the “blue chip” QBs. What separates the prospects at the bottom of Round 1 from the top 10 group is some combination of weaknesses in their game, the quality of opponents, and the nature of the team around them, which makes assessments incomplete or uncertain. Consider the three most likely choices (these are just impressions from a non-expert to make a point):
J.J. McCarthy: He is highly rated by many analysts despite playing for a team that relies on its running game and defense. You can’t blame Jim Harbaugh, because Michigan had the No. 1 defense in the country, his conference opponents included the No. 2, 3, and 7 defenses, and his best receiver, Roman Wilson, is only considered late third-round caliber. McCarthy seems to have good pocket presence, great accuracy (72.3%), real zip on the ball, willingness to throw into tight windows and great mobility. He was rarely asked to win a game, though, so unless he decides to play in the Senior Bowl, we won’t get to see any evidence that he can be explosive and can go through read progressions.
Michael Penix Jr.: To me, he looks like the most NFL-caliber of all the lower first-round prospects. He loves to throw the deep ball, and the Washington offense with him at the helm looked unstoppable at times. Partly, though, that was due to his receivers, Rome Odunze, who is a possibility for the Giants at No. 6, and Ja’lynn Polk, and partly it was because he played in the defense-optional Pac 12. Facing the ferocious Michigan defense, he looked ordinary. Penix is also the least mobile of the top QB prospects, and his extensive injury history is cause for concern.
Bo Nix: He looked great in that quick RPO-heavy Oregon offense (77.4% accuracy), but if you get him out of that system will he be as impressive? Nix has a reputation for not going through read progressions and fleeing the pocket when his first read isn’t there. As with Penix, Nix plays in the Pac-12, and has a potentially elite receiver in Troy Franklin, limiting evaluators’ ability to project his ceiling.
The question is: Can you develop these players, given time to do so before you stick them into NFL games? One reason Aaron Rodgers dropped to No. 24 was because he was seen as a “system” quarterback who, like other Cal QBs, would fail once removed from that system. Suffice it to say that turned out not to be a problem - but would it have been if Rodgers started as a rookie? Did his years behind Favre help him develop? Love’s years behind Rodgers seemed to because this year he looks nothing like the QB who started that evening in Kansas City.
Let’s assume the Giants draft one of these players. What happens then in September?
Scenario 1: Jones is not ready to play when the season starts
We don’t know yet what the Giants’ 2024 schedule is going to look like, though we do know that the opponents at this moment look a bit less fierce than those the Giants faced in their early games in 2023. We have no idea, though, whether Jones will be ready by Game 1. If he isn’t, it would probably be a bad idea to throw a rookie QB out there, for two reasons:
- As the examples above are intended to show, there can be benefits to letting a rookie sit for a while in his first year. That applies even more to late first-rounders with holes in their game than to top 10 players who may be more complete.
- Not much talked about is the dynamic in the locker room. Daniel Jones by all indications is extremely popular with his teammates, because of his work ethic and because he doesn’t point fingers at others for the offense’s failures. My guess is that the team will be OK handing the reins to a rookie by mid-season if Jones is given the chance to perform at a higher level than he did in 2022 and is unable to do it. They will not be OK if he is just tossed aside at the start of the season after working to return from ACL surgery.
If Jones isn’t ready by Day 1, though, it would be better to have a solid veteran backup in place than to start a rookie who still has holes in his game. The Giants did have a capable veteran backup this past season in Tyrod Taylor. In several games, he was more than capable. He showed that even with the Giants’ OL in such sad shape, explosive plays were possible. if the Giants use No. 6 on an elite WR, could they get out of the gate fast with Taylor at the helm? It’s hard to imagine it happening, partly because Taylor was not happy not to be brought back as the starter as soon as his injury healed. But a QB room with Jones, Taylor, and a rookie doesn’t sound bad, if Taylor would be willing to return for another year and if there was a price point that worked for both sides. That would relegate Tommy DeVito to the practice squad, which risks him being signed by another team, but there are ways to keep players a team wants to keep.
Scenario 2: Jones is ready to play when the season starts
In this case, with a high-level draftee on the roster and Jones healthy, it’s hard to imagine Taylor wanting to return under any circumstances. Jones starts Game 1, and by mid-season, Brian Daboll either sees what he wants from Jones’ development and keeps him as the starter, or sits Jones and inserts the rookie as starter for the remainder of the season. In this case, DeVito remains as QB3 for as long as it takes the Giants to decide whether he is worth developing further.
Schoen will have to make the decision on bringing Taylor back when free agency begins in February, long before Jones’ recovery is complete and before the draft as well. That’s not ideal. If Jones is unavailable by Week 1 and a rookie QB isn’t ready yet, would they risk a second consecutive disastrous start to a season by not having a high-level backup like Taylor already in-house? Can they risk yet another Jones injury without having a replacement? They can try to defer the decision until summer, but the longer they wait, the more established free-agent backup QBs like Jacoby Brissett, Teddy Bridgewater, etc., may be off the market.
The equity that Schoen accumulated in his first year has partly dissipated. He got burned by not having reliable OT depth on the initial 53. He presumably noticed his MetLife co-tenant flush its 2023 playoff chances down the drain by not having a quality veteran backup at QB. This year he may decide to play it safe.