Daniel Jones and the Giants start over under rookie head coach Joe Judge
For the third time in five years, the Giants are starting over. That's an unprecedented level of turnover for a franchise that was once a model of stubborn stability. And this time they're doing it in an unconventional way, with a 38-year-old rookie head coach plucked out of obscurity and an unpopular holdover general manager who turned 69 earlier this year.
Sure, Giants fans have heard this before, but ownership thinks its new approach will work, and the odd couple of GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Joe Judge will be good for each other. And they're banking on a lot, considering the franchise has lost 11-plus games for three straight seasons, has had double-digit losses in five of its last six years and has made the playoffs just once since 2011. It's as bad a streak as the Giants have ever had.
But they are hopeful it's about to end. They believe Judge, the former Patriots special teams coach, will inject some youthful energy and a little magic from that dynasty he left up in New England. And they are hopeful that three years of drafts from Gettleman are about to bear fruit.
If not, Gettleman will almost certainly be nudged into retirement after the season, and everything about the way the Giants do business might have to change.
Even though it took Judge four months to say the name "Daniel Jones," don't be fooled: This is Jones' team now. The Giants could not have been more thrilled with his rookie season, even under difficult circumstances. His turnovers — particularly his fumbles — were a bit high (18 in 13 games), but that's not unusual for a rookie. And the Giants expect he'll quickly blossom now that the retired Eli Manning is gone.
He certainly has enough weapons around him. Saquon Barkley, if healthy, still has the power, speed and moves to be the best running back in the NFL. Golden Tate proved to be a reliable and still-dangerous receiver last year, and if Sterling Shepard can stay on the field, he's the possession receiver every team needs. Best of all, while Shepard was out, Jones and his fellow rookie Darius Slayton developed some chemistry. Slayton has the speed and explosiveness to be a big-play receiver and deep threat.
If there are any questions, they're at tight end and along the offensive line. And tight end is really only an issue if Evan Engram gets hurt again or is slow to recover from offseason foot surgery. When healthy, he's dynamic and a major mismatch (58.4 yards per game in eight games last season). And the Giants signed big Levine Toilolo to be the primary blocker at tight end, freeing up Engram to be a receiver.
As for the line, drafting Andrew Thomas will help a lot, and it's deeper with young talent than it's been in years. There's a major hole at center, where Jon Halapio is coming off a torn Achilles. And Nate Solder, who has struggled in his two years with the Giants, has decided to opt out this season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Jones should get more protection than last year, but the line is definitely in flux.
It's been bad — really bad — for the last two years, but this has a chance to be a much-improved unit. It is loaded with young players whom Gettleman has either drafted or signed in the last three years. Almost the entire defense is 26 and younger. And this is the season the GM expects all that young talent to arrive. Gettleman likes to say it all starts up front, and he definitely has added some potential there. He drafted the big and strong Dexter Lawrence in the first round in 2019 and acquired Leonard Williams from the Jets in October. Williams has never been the pass rusher everyone wants him to be, but he's a good run defender and strong enough to collapse the pocket.
The Giants are missing players who can sack the quarterback, but they are hoping the scheme of new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham can find sacks with a team effort. Much of the responsibility will fall to newly signed edge rusher Kyler Fackrell, who had 10.5 sacks playing for Graham in Green Bay two years ago. But the Giants are also counting on Lorenzo Carter, who has flashed speed at times but hasn't been consistent. Maybe it's a lot to ask, but they dream of the two forming a fast 1-2 punch off the edge.
The rest of the defense is more than solid. Free-agent pickup Blake Martinez is the smart, speedy linebacker they feel they need in the middle to pull everything together. And they signed cornerback James Bradberry to pair with DeAndre Baker, another first-rounder from 2019, at cornerback. Baker struggled his rookie year, but his issue was more blown assignments than a lack of talent. Of course, his status is up in the air after he was arrested on charges of armed robbery and aggravated assault in May. Baker was put on the Commissioner's Exempt List prior to the start of training camp. So his legal situation and any potential discipline from the league, which could result in a suspension, would need to be resolved before he's able to play. Sam Beal, a third-round pick in the 2018 supplemental draft who has played in just six games in two seasons because of injury, was in line to be Baker's replacement, but he opted out this season. That leaves the Giants with a collection of inexperienced options to fill out the rest of the cornerback rotation.
The best part of the Giants' defense, meanwhile, should be the back end. Jabrill Peppers was beginning to emerge as an impact player and leader last year before he fractured his back. He's a strong, box-type safety, and now he's paired with 2020 second-rounder Xavier McKinney, a versatile safety who figures to complement him as the centerfielder.
So their pass rush might not be dominant, but the Giants have built a strong enough back end (cornerback TBD) that maybe that won't matter as much.
After a Pro Bowl 2018 season, last year was a huge disappointment for Aldrick Rosas. He didn't get a lot of work, but when he did, he was erratic, connecting on just 12-of-17 for a conversion rate that ranked No. 29 in the league. The Giants brought him back because he showed a lot of promise in 2017-18, hitting 86.2 percent of his field goals. He could have been affected by a lack of action last year.
Their punter, Riley Dixon, is much more reliable. He's got a strong leg and is a good directional kicker. He's got all the tools that Judge, a former special teams coach, will love. And they hope they bought some consistency in ex-Broncos long-snapper Casey Kreiter, who has the experience they needed to replace Zak DeOssie.
Tate (on punt returns) and Corey Ballentine (on kickoff returns) are the pseudo-incumbents on returns, but neither has the ideal speed or moves for those spots. Keep an eye on rookie cornerback Darnay Holmes, a speedy fourth-rounder out of UCLA.
This will be an improved team, in part because it couldn't be worse than it's been the last two years (9-23). But also because there is a lot more talent on the roster, and a lot of young talent that should be ready to bloom.
Among the young players Gettleman has brought in are Jones, Barkley and Slayton on offense, and 10 of 11 starters on defense, all having shown at least some flashes of potential. If he's right about Jones, that he's truly a franchise quarterback, all he needs is decent protection in front of him to make that offense run. And on defense, nine players Gettleman has drafted the last three years should be key players this year. And then there are his acquisitions like Williams, Peppers, Martinez, Bradberry and Fackrell.
The Giants are betting everything on Judge, who was on nobody's coaching shortlist this past offseason. They are praying that Bill Belichick's strong recommendation was right this time, since he's been wrong about so many other former assistants. If he can coach, there's enough talent for this to be a .500 team, to hang around the fringes of the playoff chase and to have the arrow pointing up towards 2021. If he can't, then hold on, because turnover and turmoil coming the Giants' way may be unlike anything they've ever seen.