The Giants are coming off a 3-13 season. They’ve got a new coach and general manager. Their 37-year-old quarterback was benched late last season for the first time in his career. And they flirted with the idea of trading their best player rather than giving him a contract extension. It sure sounds like the Giants are about to begin a total rebuilding project. Just don’t tell that to new GM Dave Gettleman or head coach Pat Shurmur. They’ve made it clear that their intention is to win now.
In fact, everything they did during the offseason was seemingly with an eye on making one last championship run before Manning’s contract expires after the 2019 season. And they believe they’re close, no matter what it looked like last season. After all, just one year earlier, the Giants were 11-5.
How right they are about the status of the franchise and how quickly they can fix what ails them depend on a lot of factors, including the health of their stars. They also have to be right that Manning, despite a couple of sub-par years, really does have “years” left in his right arm.
Two years ago, under the direction of then-coach Ben McAdoo, the Giants’ offense was a one-trick pony -- throw the ball to Odell Beckham Jr. and hope he breaks for a big gain. So it’s no surprise that when Beckham injured his ankle last season, the Giants’ offense completely collapsed.
The hope is that Beckham, fresh off ankle surgery, will quickly become his old self this season. And make no mistake -- he is still the Giants’ offense. He’s impossible to completely contain, and he often lures three defenders to his area, freeing up everyone else.
And this season, the Giants believe they have more weapons than ever to take advantage of that free space. Slot receiver Sterling Shepard came into his own last season and has proved to be slippery, even if he doesn’t have Beckham’s game-breaking ability. And tight end Evan Engram, while inconsistent last year, is a nightmare of a mismatch for defenses -- especially linebackers -- because of his size and speed.
Now they’ve added Saquon Barkley to that mix, perhaps giving them the running game they haven’t had since their championship run during the 2011 playoffs. Barkley, the Penn State running back and No. 2 overall pick in the draft, was the most electric player in college football last season. Shurmur has made it clear that he will feature Barkley in the offense as both a runner and receiver. And they’ve even brought in veteran Jonathan Stewart to get some of the tough yards and to teach Barkley the NFL way.
The key to all of this is Manning. He’s struggled the last two seasons, but much of that has had to do with a terrible offensive line in front of him. He was too often forced to rush his throws -- when he could get them off at all. Gettleman has made it clear he’s going to build this team behind his beloved “Hog Mollies” -- big offensive linemen -- and his first order of business was to bring in left tackle Nate Solder from New England, bumping the disappointing Ereck Flowers to the right side. With his second draft pick, he added big, mean UTEP guard Will Hernandez. And that’s only the start.
With better protection, the Giants are betting that Manning will have a late-career revival. And with time to get the ball to his wide array of weapons, the veteran QB will be the leader of one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.
The word that most accurately describes this defense last year is “dysfunctional.” It quickly went from one of the NFL’s best to one of the worst. Three cornerbacks from a once-vaunted secondary had to be suspended for violating team rules. One player (safety Landon Collins) called another (cornerback Eli Apple) “a cancer.” There were bad vibes everywhere and even worse play.
Though many of those players are still here, the Giants are basically starting over, scrapping their old 4-3 in favor of new defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive 3-4. And that meant some personnel changes too. They traded defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was an odd fit in the scheme and apparently a bad influence in the locker room, and brought in ex-Cardinals edge rusher Kareem Martin. They also traded for linebacker Alec Ogletree to shore up a position that had been neglected for years and to be a much-needed leader in the locker room.
Presumably a new year and new faces will help clean up everyone’s attitude. But the real hope is that the new scheme will bring out the talent that was so evident in 2016. Though running a base 3-4, Bettcher has promised plenty of 4-3 looks too, and with players such as defensive end (and now linebacker) Olivier Vernon, he definitely has flexibility. He also has speed and talent in the secondary -- especially if Apple can get his career back on track -- and now even at linebacker.
It’s no surprise that Bettcher is expected to blitz. A lot. Also it’s no surprise that the players seem to love that idea. They hadn’t been nearly as aggressive as they wanted to be over the last few years, often relying only on JPP and Vernon to supply the pressure. Now they have some help, which should allow the Giants to turn up the heat.
This had been a problem area for years, and the new regime seems intent on a total rebuild here. It started with the jettisoning of inconsistent punter Brad Wing and a trade for former Broncos punter Riley Dixon. Not only does Dixon have a stronger leg, but he’s also much better at pinning his punts inside the 20 -- something the Giants haven’t been so good at in recent years. Expect a similar change at placekicker at some point. The old regime was in love with Aldrick Rosas, even as he struggled with consistency last season. It seemed odd for a team that thought it was a Super Bowl contender to go with a young, untested player at that position, especially since they had veteran Mike Nugent in camp. But they liked Rosas that much. The new regime may not feel the same way. Rosas did stick around and even entered the spring basically unchallenged. But it would be a huge surprise if the Giants didn’t bring another veteran kicker in to compete with him this summer -- perhaps even Nugent again. And during the season, if Rosas makes it that far, he figures to be on a very short leash.
As for the return game, which hasn’t been good in years, it is wide open -- from bottom-of-the-roster guys such as Kalif Raymond, to sure-handed veterans like Shepard, to stars like Beckham and Barkley. The Giants figure to have a summer-long competition.
So, are the Giants really a contender, or is the new regime just fooling itself? The truth is somewhere between their 3-13 mess from last year and their somewhat-lucky 11-5 from 2016. A lot of last year was about health (their offensive line and receiving corps were decimated), so a little better luck there (especially with Beckham) could go a long way. Same for the attitude adjustment that comes with a new coach.
In the end it all comes down to two things: Manning and the men in front of him. The offensive line looks better on paper, though far from dominant and not deep. With better protection, Manning should thrive, but that’s a big question mark. So, too, is Manning. The Giants are convinced that his problems of the last two years were mostly O-line related. They still believe he has good arm strength and all the ability that once made him elite.
They better be right. If they’re not, then last year was just the beginning of an ugly end. But Manning should get a boost from better protection and a deeper array of weapons. The Giants don’t look like a championship contender yet, but a return to mediocrity would at least be a step in the right direction.