They traded away their most explosive weapon and their only consistent pass rusher. They let an outstanding young safety and locker room leader sign with a division rival. They stuck with a 38-year-old quarterback who most believe is in decline, and they used their first-round pick on a player who might not play until 2020. So how exactly has all that made the Giants a better team?
It may be hard to see, but Giants GM Dave Gettleman believes his unconventional formula really will be enough to turn his team from a 5–11 mess to a playoff contender. Laugh if you want, but he's an old-school GM who has been on a two-year mission to rid the organization of bad guys, underachieving players and over-inflated conflicts.
Sure, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (traded to Cleveland), linebacker Olivier Vernon (traded to Cleveland), and safety Landon Collins (signed with Washington) were three of his better players. But Gettleman sees a better locker room now and a better team — and he redistributed some of those financial assets to areas of greater need.
Will it work? Gettleman believes it will. It would seem to largely depend on the aging Eli Manning. But Gettleman believes in him, too.
Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur still believe Manning has "years" remaining, even though he's in the last year of his contract and now has his eventual replacement (rookie Daniel Jones) standing behind him. They also believe that he's still elite, especially if he can get protection.
Are they right? Well, Manning is far from "done" — a familiar refrain from his critics. He certainly can make a lot of throws and is coming off one of his best statistical years. And considering he got no protection last year and lost Beckham for the final four games, that's pretty good.
Now he's got a line in front of him that improved late last season and should get a huge boost from the acquisition of guard Kevin Zeitler (traded from Cleveland). That should give him more time to get the ball to his new-look receiving corps. Yes, he'll miss Beckham, but 31-year-old Golden Tate has been one of the most consistent receivers over the last few years and is a dynamo after the catch. He and Sterling Shepard, though somewhat similar, could be a pretty good team, especially now that Manning doesn't have to worry about keeping Beckham happy — something he rarely was able to do.
The absence of Beckham should also help tight end Evan Engram, who usually benefited the most when Beckham wasn't on the field. He's a terrific receiving threat and a matchup nightmare, as long as he can stay healthy.
Of course, this is no longer Manning's offense. The Giants will go as far as superstar Saquon Barkley can carry them. The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year thrived when he was the focal point of the offense, though he slowed a bit towards the end of the season. With better blockers in front of him, the sky is the limit for him as a rusher. But it's his ability as a receiver that really makes him dangerous. Last season he got too many of his catches as an emergency dump-off from a panicked Manning as the offensive line disintegrated. But if Shurmur can use Barkley as more than that, and if Manning has time to pick and choose between Barkley, Tate, Shepard and Engram? Well, maybe then the Giants won't miss Beckham very much at all.
The Giants actually believe their defense was their biggest problem last year, that they blew too many leads. That's a bit of a stretch, and ignores a bit of the big picture, but the larger point is accurate: Their defense was bad, and they rarely put pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Seems crazy, then, that they'd trade away their best pass rusher in Vernon and not really replace him. But they believe there's a method to their madness. Lorenzo Carter, a situational pass rusher last year as a rookie, does appear ready to step into a larger role and has shown promise. And Markus Golden, the former Cardinal, was actually a terrific pass rusher before he hurt his knee. He's apparently healthy now, and his old defensive coordinator James Bettcher — now with the Giants — believes he can recapture his old form. If he can, then maybe this defense could be pretty good.
Even though they let Collins walk, the secondary could actually be better. Adding Jabrill Peppers (in the Beckham trade) gives them a suitable replacement, and the signing of Antoine Bethea gives them a much-needed veteran presence at safety.
At cornerback, they brought back veteran Janoris Jenkins, who is coming off a pretty solid, trouble-free season. Jenkins is also surrounded by a lot of promising young players. The Giants are really high on Sam Beal, a former supplemental draft pick who missed his rookie season with a shoulder injury. And they drafted corners in the first and fourth rounds this year — Deandre Baker and Julian Love — who could make an immediate impact.
But it does all come down to that pass rush, which might not be better, but really couldn't be worse. The addition of 342-pound rookie Dexter Lawrence in the middle of the line should shore up their run defense. If they don't get after the quarterback, though, they're going to have the same late-game breakdowns that plagued them last year.
They do have the pieces to get after the quarterback — Carter, Golden, maybe rookie Oshane Ximines, some speedy blitzers out of the secondary and Bettcher's aggressive scheme. It remains to be seen if their plan actually can work, though.
The Giants have become surprisingly good in the kicking game, with the addition of strong-legged punter Riley Dixon and the improvement of Aldrick Rosas, who became a reliable placekicker and a Pro Bowler last season. They always believed in Rosas, who was a bit shaky as a rookie, which is why they didn't bring in a veteran to compete with him last year.
Where the Giants are lacking, though, is in the return game. They were so non-explosive there that they seemed to be constantly spinning through a rolodex of returners, including Beckham. They are now counting on some mostly unproven talent — such as receiver Corey Coleman or maybe rookies Darius Slayton or Corey Ballentine. They could give Cody Latimer or Russell Shepard a shot. Maybe Sterling Shepard, too. They have more depth than they used to, which should mean better blocking and better coverage. But the missing piece remains the dynamic returner who can tilt the field.
Despite all the doom and gloom in New York, it's not like Gettleman completely stripped the roster or left them without any playmakers. Sure, the loss of Beckham could hurt, but Tate is capable of catching 90 passes for 1,000 yards, and now there'll be room for others in the passing game, too. They haven't really replaced Vernon, but the pass rush was pretty bad with him. And Peppers isn't a bad fill-in for Collins.
They also still have Barkley, Shepard and Engram operating behind what looks to be a much-improved offensive line, and there are some promising players on defense.
But then there's Manning, and he's the key to everything. If he plays like he did at the beginning of last year, he'll likely be replaced by Jones by midseason. If he plays like he did at the end, the Giants will be OK. If he finds away to thrive and the protection is good and his remaining weapons stay healthy, they could be a factor in the NFC East.
That's a lot to hope for, of course. Just like it's a lot to hope that Manning, at 38, will reverse what looks like a decline. If he can, then this team won't be bad. If he can't, then the Jones era will soon begin.