The Update: New York Giants 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update” which will focus on 1) where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint, 2) where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts, 3) who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were and 4) where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season. Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

Throughout this series, we’ve noted that treating single-score games as ties, not wins or losses, is the best way to project a team forward. Since 2006, no franchise, other than the Indianapolis Colts, can even come close to making a case that they tangibly have the ability to win close games. From 2006 through 2015, 10 non-Colts teams won more than two games over .500 in close games, and every single one of them regressed the next season. Here are those teams:

  • 2015 Denver Broncos (9-3 in close games, 12-4 record to 9-7 in 2016)
  • 2015 Carolina Panthers (6-1 in close games, 15-1 record to 8-8 in 2016)
  • 2014 Green Bay Packers (5-0 in close games, 12-4 record to 10-6 in 2015)
  • 2014 Detroit Lions (6-1 in close games, 11-5 record to 7-9 in 2015)
  • 2012 Houston Texans (5-0 in close games, 12-4 record to 2-14 in 2013)
  • 2012 Atlanta Falcons (7-2 in close games, 13-3 record to 4-12 in 2013)
  • 2011 Oakland Raiders (7-2 in close games, 8-8 record to 4-12 in 2012)
  • 2010 Atlanta Falcons (7-2 in close games, 13-3 record to 10-6 in 2011)
  • 2009 San Diego Chargers (6-1 in close games, 13-3 record to 9-7 in 2010)
  • 2008 Miami Dolphins (7-2 in close games, 11-5 record to 7-9 in 2009)

The difference, on average, was about five more losses than their “lucky” season. What’s the flip side of that? 15 teams from 2006 to 2015 lost more than two games under .500 in single-score games. Every single one of them improved their record the next season. Here are those teams:

  • 2006 Detroit Lions (1-8 in close games, 3-13 record to 7-9 in 2007)
  • 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 10-6 in 2007)
  • 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-6 in close games, 1-15 record to 11-5 in 2008)
  • 2008 Green Bay Packers (1-7 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 in 2009)
  • 2008 San Diego Chargers (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 13-3 in 2009)
  • 2009 Washington Redskins (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 6-10 in 2010)
  • 2010 Dallas Cowboys (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 8-8 in 2011)
  • 2010 Cincinnati Bengals (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 9-7 in 2011)
  • 2011 Minnesota Vikings (2-9 in close games, 3-13 record to 10-6 in 2012)
  • 2012 Carolina Panthers (1-7 in close games, 7-9 record to 12-4 in 2013)
  • 2012 Detroit Lions (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 7-9 in 2013)
  • 2013 Houston Texans (2-9 in close games, 2-14 record to 10-6 in 2014)
  • 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8 in close games, 2-14 record to 6-10 in 2015)
  • 2015 New York Giants (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 in 2016)
  • 2015 San Diego Chargers (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 5-11 in 2016)

The difference from those teams is about four to five more wins in the season after their “unlucky” season. Let’s recap this: 1) of the 310 non-Colts seasons between 2006 and 2015, only 25 teams were above or below .500 in single-score game by more than two games (8.07% of seasons over the decade), and 2) every single one of those 25 teams had a predictable and significant regression back to the mean the following season. That’s significant.

The Giants are in a particularly interesting situation, as the team looked like a perfect breakout candidate last season and looks like a perfect breakdown candidate this season.

In 2015, the team won three multi-score games and lost two multi-score games, but finished with a 6-10 record. In 2016, the team won three multi-score games and lost two multi-score games, but finished with an 11-5 record. The truth is, there wasn’t much difference between the 2015 and 2016 Giants outside of three bounces of the ball in close games. On paper, they played like a team hovering around .500 last season. If you believe the numbers though, you’d expect New York to finish on the lower end of the .500 spectrum this coming season.

Giants fans should at least keep in mind that this season is likely to be the sobering year.

Offense:

Backs: The New York Giants finished 3rd in sack percentage, 14th in completion percentage, 23rd in yards per completion and 24th in interception percentage in 2016. Numbers like these usually suggest a type of mindset in the passing game: short, efficient passes that get the ball out quick an neutralize a team’s offensive line play. What’s odd about the Giants’ rankings is that they were still 24th in interception percentage, even within the context of running that quick-strike offense.

Quarterback Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, because he got hot for two months, but New York fans have to be getting tired of the turnovers he consistently forces. You won’t find many people who believe that Manning will be benched this season, but the drafting of Davis Webb of California in the third round this season is certainly a sign that the Giants have starting thinking about the post-Eli era.

Other than the background of head coach Ben McAdoo, one reason that New York embraced a quick-strike passing game is that they couldn’t run the ball. Their offense, outside of efficiency differences between Manning and Matthew Stafford, wasn’t too different on that side of the ball from the Detroit Lions last season. They were 22nd in run percentage, meaning that the team didn’t run the ball often, even though they won 11 games last season, and they were 30th in yards per carry in 2016. While you can hide an offensive line with quick passes in the air game, there is no masking for an offensive line in the ground game. The team finished 12th in TFL percentage, meaning that the low rushing totals fall completely on the shoulders of the backfield.

The Giant’s significant running backs last season consisted of Rashad Jennings (181 carries, 3.3 yards per carry), Paul Perkins (112 carries, 4.1 yards per carry) and Shane Vereen (33 carries, 4.8 yards per carry). Jennings is still a free agent, and I don’t think New York is going to miss him, but Perkins and Vereen return. Perkins was a rookie last season, and Vereen battled through triceps injuries that kept him out of games, so there’s at least some cautious optimism at the position. The addition of fourth-round rookie Wayne Gallman of Cleman doesn’t hurt, either.

While the Giants didn’t run the ball much, they were one of the best teams in the league in protecting the football last season. They ranked second in fumble percentage.

Pass-Catchers: Five players caught 30 or more balls from Manning last season: receiver Odell Beckham (101 receptions, 13.5 yards per reception), receiver Sterling Shepard (65 receptions, 10.5 yards per reception), tight end Will Tye (48 receptions, 8.2 yards per reception), receiver Victor Cruz (39 receptions, 15.0 yards per reception) and Jennings (35 receptions, 5.7 yards per reception). Cruz and Jennings are no long on the team, because of the Giants’ choosing, and Tye seems to be pushed down the depth chart.

This offseason, the team spent their first-round pick on Evan Engram, a hybrid tight end and slot receiver from Mississippi. Unless the Giants start rolling out empty packages at a significant rate, that means that Engram will either 1) step on the toes of Tye at tight end, 2) step on the toes of Shepard in the slot or 3) not see the field. The squad also signed hybrid fullback and tight end Rhett Ellison from the Minnesota Vikings on a four-year, $18 million contract. Displacement is going to happen with the slot and tight end types someway or another.

The team’s biggest splash signing of the offseason was an outside receiver: Brandon Marshall. Marshall recorded 59 receptions for 13.4 yards per reception with the crosstown Jets in 2016, but was a cap casualty for the rebuilding team. For as many questions that the Giants offense has, you can’t deny that their pass-catchers are the strength of that side of the ball. Beckham and Marshall should see the field on every significant snap the team plays when the duo is healthy, and the “pick two” options of Shepard, Engram, Tye and Ellison can force teams into four different personnel fleets on any given down out of one-back looks.

Linemen: Six offensive linemen played at least 40% of the Giants’ offensive snaps last season according to Football Outsiders: Ereck Flowers, John Jerry, Weston Richburg, Bobby Hart, Justin Pugh and Marshall Newhouse. All but Newhouse remain on a team that finished 3rd in sack percentage and 13th in TFL percentage. Again, that sack percentage ranking is a bit disingenuous because of the nature of the offense, but the interior offensive line of the team is very solid.

A long-term replacement at both bookend spots will likely be positions that the Giants address in the next few seasons. Former first-round pick D.J. Fluker signed a one-year, $3 million deal, a low-level veteran contract, and should be a flexible piece that could play guard or right tackle in a pinch. If New York suffers an injury or two that makes “playing their best five” a difficult situation, Fluker can give them some relief with his flexibility. With that said, he’s not an ideal starter.

 Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: As an avid fan of defensive linemen, I can tell you that the Giants are very different from most 4-3 teams. First, they like to play with two nose tackle types instead of trying to get into the backfield, which is why most teams run a 4-3 defense in the first place. Second, no 4-3 team relies more on their starting defensive ends to generate all of the team’s pressures, hits and sacks than the Giants.

Last year, New York signed Damon “Snacks” Harrison from the crosstown Jets. That forced former second-round pick Johnathan Hankins to a heavy three-technique role, which earned him a three-year, $27 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. Hankins’ replacement will likely be new second-round pick Dalvin Tomlinson of Alabama, another space-eater. Those bodies will work well in the ground game, but aren’t ideal on passing downs.

The Giants finished 2nd in yards per carry, 15th in TFL percentage and 23rd in sack percentage last year. That’s a pretty good reflection of what the defensive line plays like. Other 4-3 teams that play two heavy tackles end up pulling one off the field on third down, kicking a defensive end to defensive tackle and pulling a pass-rushing specialist off the bench. The problem with the ecosystem of New York’s defensive line at the moment is that they have no one to pull off the bench behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, who are two of the four most-expensive defensive ends in the sport according to Spotrac.

2015 third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa hasn’t panned out so far, as Kerry Wynn and Romeo Okwara, two undrafted players, passed him on the depth chart last season. A late signing in Devin Taylor and the fifth-round selection of Avery Moss of Youngstown State could provide more depth behind the line, but I’m not sure there’s a true third pass-rusher in this unit.

The story for the 2017 Giants defensive line will likely mirror the 2016 Giants defensive line: If healthy, they’re great against the run. If banged up, the drop is stark.

Backs: Linebacker has been an issue for New York for years, but the addition of Harrison greatly improved the team’s overall run game. TFL percentage and fumble percentage are two the two biggest isolated efficiency statistics to measure how fast linebackers are flying to the football, and the Giants finished 15th and 23rd in those numbers last year.

That’s not the end of the world. Jonathan Casillas, Keenan Robinson, Devon Kennard and Kelvin Shepard were the linebackers who played significant snaps for the team last season. All but Shepard, who is still a free agent, return this season. Expect a repeat of the Giants’ front seven from 2016 in 2017, as long as everyone stays healthy and Tomlinson and replace Hankins efficiently.

Like receiver and the defensive line, secondary is another deep position for New York. Last year, they finished 2nd in completion percentage, 11th in interception percentage and 18th in yards per completion, despite the Giants finishing just 23rd in sack percentage.

Five defensive backs played at least half of the snaps for the team last season in safety Landon Collins, who had a defensive player of the year campaign, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a Pro Bowler and a Second-Team All-Pro, safety Andrew Adams, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a Second-Team All-Pro, and Eli Apple, a rookie cornerback who plays a hybrid slot role at a high level. If Darian Thompson, a second-year, top-100 safety, takes steps to replace Adams, this unit could contend with the Denver Broncos for the best secondary in the NFL.

2017 Prediction: The numbers suggest that the Giants will be in for a regression year, but it’s hard for me to imagine this team finishing significantly under .500. A disaster scenario would probably include injuries to key players on the defensive side of the ball, Eli Manning turning the ball over often, the team still not having a running game to lean on and the exposing of their tackle talent. Still, they did a solid job of masking their line and backfield issues last year, and Manning wasn’t exactly sharp in 2016.

There’s nothing that really leads me to believe that the team will look differently in the eyes of the public this year, even if they can’t match their 11-5 record. They play in a highly-competitive NFC East, so a playoff berth isn’t promised, but hovering around .500 shouldn’t be looked at as a negative in their situation. They aren’t a Super Bowl contender, but they aren’t a team you can sleep on by any means. With their defense and receivers, they are certainly more likely to make the playoffs than stumble back to a back picking in the top 10 in 2018.