Is Justin Tuck Really Declining or Was He Actually Overrated?

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Is Justin Tuck Really Declining or Was He Actually Overrated?

New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck was one of the most feared players at his position in the NFL as recently as a few years ago.

Now, however, after back-to-back disappointing seasons, entering a contract year and with rookie Damontre Moore now nipping at his heels, the 30-year-old is heading into a 2013 campaign that could conceivably be his last in New York.

So what happened? Have age and injuries sapped the two-time Pro Bowler's effectiveness? Or was Tuck a product of his system, a player who benefited more from the defensive scheme in New York and playing opposite another great end than his own skill as a pass-rusher?

Most importantly, can Tuck recapture past glories, or have we already seen the best there is to see?

Well, as it usually is, it's best to start at the beginning.

Tuck exploded into prominence during the Giants' 2007 run to the Super Bowl, racking up 65 tackles, 10 sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles while coming off the bench.

That third NFL season also ended on the highest of high notes, as Tuck tallied a pair of sacks and a forced fumble in New York's upset of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Um, who is JASON Tuck?

The next season, Tuck became a full-time starter, and 2007 kicked off a four-year stretch in which Tuck was as good as any defensive end in the NFL.

 

Games

Tackles

Assists

Sacks

FF

2007

16

48

17

10

2

2008

16

52

15

12

3

2009

16

44

15

6

5

2010

16

48

28

11.5

6

That breakout performance in 2007 was also enough to merit a five-year, $30 million contract extension. Outside of a dip in sacks brought on by a shoulder injury in 2009, Tuck appeared to be well on his way to earning every penny of that deal.

Then, the bottom dropped out.

 

Games

Tackles

Assists

Sacks

FF

2011

12

26

11

5

1

2012

15

27

18

4

0

Tuck battled neck and groin injuries throughout the 2011 season, admitting to Mike Garafalo of The Newark Star-Ledger in November of that year that "I'm not a very good player right now."

However, in 2012 the reason for Tuck's lackluster play was much harder to pin down. Not that it was just Tuck who struggled. Batterymate Jason Pierre-Paul racked up 10 fewer sacks in 2012 than the year before. The Giants ranked 31st in total defense and 22nd in sacks.

A look at where Tuck ranked in some of Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) metrics from the past five seasons demonstrates just how badly his play has fallen off of late.

 

QB Hits

QB Hurries

Overall

Pass Rush

Run Defense

2008

16th

10th

4th

33rd

3rd

2009

29th

33rd

7th

19th

7th

2010

19th

17th

10th

25th

11th

2011

24th

31st

49th

46th

53rd

2012

22nd

37th

30th

37th

33rd

Granted, Tuck deserves something of a mulligan for 2011 given the injuries. Anyone with eyes could see that he wasn't "right" that season, especially early in the year.

That's borne out by the fact that in the four playoff games that culminated in New York's win in Super Bowl XLVI, a healthy Tuck racked up 3.5 sacks.

Tuck turned it on in the 2011 Postseason

With that said, outside of the precipitous drop-off in production, there's one other number that raises eyebrows.

In the past five seasons, Tuck has cracked PFF's top 20 pass-rushers only once, and that was just barely. That would appear to indicate that in the eyes of the rankers at Pro Football Focus (a group that watches every play, from every game, every year), Tuck just isn't that great at generating pressure on the quarterback on his own.

In other words, the success of Justin Tuck, at least where sacks are concerned, has more to do with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul than it does with Justin Tuck. He's at least partly a product of playing across from great pass-rushers for his entire career.

There's another potential reason for Tuck's drop-off the past two seasons, especially last year. Tuck offered it himself while telling Kimberly Jones of NFL.com that this season will be different:

For me, this year is going to be all or nothing, I mean that in the sense that I'm going to do all that's in my power to be in the right place mentally and try to convey that to my teammates. I might not have done the best job I could do in that situation in past years.

Tuck's newfound motivation may be refreshing, but his admission that it may have been lacking over the past few years is unsettling.

Simply put, there's no way you're going to be great, or even very good, in the NFL if you don't want to be. When everyone else is in fourth gear, you're not going to get very far if you're in second.

This year, he has plenty of reasons to kick things up a notch. Millions, in fact. Contract years have a tendency to do that.

At the end of the day, Justin Tuck is capable of being a very good player who's great at times. When he's on top of his game, he's strong against both the run and the pass, and that quality can be hard to find in an age when many ends are "one-trick ponies" who only care about chasing the quarterback.

He's also capable of kicking inside to tackle in passing situations, which adds to the flexibility the Giants have defensively and allows them to insert players like Mathias Kiwanuka (who will reportedly be switching back to end in 2013) or even Damontre Moore in certain sub packages.

With that said though, he needs to stay healthy. And he needs to stay motivated. And he needs an end playing opposite him who can keep the double-teams to a minimum.

That's just too many qualifiers for that "great" moniker to stick full-time.

None of this is meant as a knock on Justin Tuck. He may well get one more contract with a nice little chunk of guaranteed cash. Tuck can still be a significant contributor as the Giants try to shake off the disappointment of 2012 and get back to the playoffs.

However, at this point in his career, it's likely that the player Giants fans will be cheering on Sundays will be "Justin Tuck 2: The Return"

And the sequel is rarely as good as the original.

 

 

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