The Giants are in a full-out sprint to win one last championship in the Eli Manning Era. And the clock is ticking.
That’s what the last two offseasons have been all about. They spent $200 million a year ago to completely rebuild their defense, and then this offseason they added a 33-year-old receiver (Brandon Marshall) who is the kind of big target Manning has been sorely missing. The goal is to squeeze one last Super Bowl out of their franchise quarterback before his contract expires after the 2019 season.
They went 11–5 last year in Ben McAdoo’s rookie season as head coach and returned to the playoffs for the first time since their last championship season, 2011. That was a good start, but they got bounced out of the playoffs with a lopsided loss to the Packers in Green Bay. This season, they are expecting a better ending.
One of the biggest selling points for hiring McAdoo as Tom Coughlin’s replacement was the fact that the Giants’ offense finished in the top 10 in both of his seasons as offensive coordinator. Manning was thriving and the Giants didn’t want to lose that momentum. So imagine their shock when they finished 25th in the league in total offense in 2016 and averaged less than 20 points per game.
Odell Beckham Jr. has emerged as one of the top playmakers in the game, but the Giants became overly reliant on the All-Pro from LSU, who suffered through a nightmarish performance against Green Bay in his first career playoff game. The Giants need to diversify. Gone is Victor Cruz, who just wasn’t his old self after knee and calf surgeries. In is Marshall, the big ex-Jet who at 6'4" is the tallest regular receiver they’ve had since the days of Plaxico Burress (6'5") and Amani Toomer (6'3"). Manning has been desperate for a big target, especially in the red zone, and Marshall and slot receiver Sterling Shepard should take plenty of defensive attention away from Beckham.
The Giants also added speedy tight end Evan Engram in the first round of the draft. Engram is really more of a receiver, but he will replace the unreliable Will Tye and Larry Donnell as a deep option over the middle and provide another weapon who can free up Beckham. Also, the speedy Paul Perkins is taking over for the aging Rashad Jennings at running back, and the hope is that his emergence will force defenses to concentrate on the run more in 2017.
One problem, though: The offensive line was awful last season, and with the exception of the addition of underachieving fifth-year lineman D.J. Fluker, it basically returns intact. It appears that the embattled Ereck Flowers will remain at left tackle, mostly due to a lack of better options. And there’s uncertainty on the right side, where Fluker will likely battle John Jerry for the right guard position, leaving former seventh-round pick Bobby Hart as the starter at right tackle.
Whatever the alignment, if the line doesn’t improve, the immobile Manning once again won’t have the time to take advantage of his many weapons.
What does $200 million get you? Apparently a top-10 defense, and the good news for the Giants is that 10 of 11 starters are back for another go-round. And the one they lost — defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins — was their fourth-best lineman, and he was replaced in the second round of the draft (Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson).
The loss of Hankins shouldn’t hurt the run defense, which is anchored by Damon Harrison — arguably the best run-stuffing lineman in the league. Tomlinson should provide some strength in the middle, although like Hankins, he may not provide much of a pass rush. That’s OK, because the Giants will get Jason Pierre-Paul back after he missed the end of last season and the playoff game with a sports hernia. The shame of that injury was that the Giants’ pass rush was just beginning to kick into gear when JPP got hurt. If he’s back at full strength, he and Olivier Vernon are a dangerous pass-rushing duo, especially with Harrison causing problems in the middle of the line.
The defense’s strength, though, is the secondary, which locked down everyone right up until the second half of the playoff loss in Green Bay. Not only is a unit anchored by corner Janoris Jenkins and safety Landon Collins back intact, but it could also be even better this season with the return of Darian Thompson, a promising safety whose rookie season was ruined by a foot injury. With Thompson and Collins providing the last line of defense behind Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple, there won’t be much room for receivers to get open.
And if the Giants can generate a pass rush? Look out.
One word of warning, though: The defense is not deep at all, which is why JPP and Vernon were forced to play more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps last season. The secondary is a bit on the thin side too. The Giants were able to mostly survive their one big injury (JPP) last season. There’s no guarantee they could survive a big hit again.
Brad Wing became a weapon at punter last season, showing off a strong leg capable of high, arching punts while also becoming an expert at dropping them inside the 20. For most of the season, he seemed to have a knack for making his kicks unreturnable, or at least keeping them up just long enough for the coverage teams to get downfield.
Unfortunately there’s not much else to like about the Giants special teams. The Josh Brown scandal last season forced them to jettison one of the most accurate kickers in team history, and they wouldn’t spend the money necessary to keep veteran Robbie Gould for the 2017 season. The replacement is Aldrick Rosas, a first-year player who has never kicked in an NFL game. It’s hard to imagine a team that believes it’s ready for a Super Bowl entrusting such an important position to someone so green. Surely they will have their eyes on any veteran kickers who come available.
Meanwhile, they could use a boost to their return game as well. Dwayne Harris has been respectable but not necessarily explosive, and while he rarely misses games, he’s often banged up. Maybe the return to health of running back Shane Vereen will help if he’s used on kickoff returns. Really, though, the Giants’ most dangerous returner last season was Beckham, who saw sporadic action on the punt return team. He’s an intriguing option, but a dangerous one. Other than Manning, he’s the Giants’ most valuable offensive player. No one wants to see him get hurt fielding a punt.
The Giants have the same personnel on defense that they had last season and better weapons on offense, so there’s no reason to believe they won’t be in the thick of the NFC East race again. But they don’t want to just make the playoffs — they want to win games and make a Super Bowl run.
That ultimate goal, however, might not be realistic. Their offensive line remains a mess, which will keep Manning under pressure, cause problems for their running game and limit what they can do in key situations. They have downfield weapons, but there might not be time for them to get the ball. They have running backs with burst, but they may not have the holes to run through.
This team is good enough to win 10 games and keep pace with the Cowboys in the division race. Don’t count on anything more than that barring significant improvement from the offensive line.