Where These 4 New York Giants Stars Must Improve in 2014-15
When a team has a 7-9 record and a point differential of minus-89—like the New York Giants did in 2013—everyone needs to make improvements the following season, star players included.
Some of the top players on Big Blue performed well last season, so only a modest amount of digging is needed to determine where they can get better. However, some others—Eli Manning, most notably—did not fare well, making the areas of improvement more apparent.
In either case, the success these key performers have fixing their weaknesses in 2014 will go a long way toward New York making it back to the playoffs.
The following slides will detail where four star players on the Giants must improve next season. Before we get started, one important item needs to be addressed: Only players who are under contract with the team in 2014 are included in this article. The reason is to ensure that the player will definitely be a Giant next season.
Eli Manning: Fewer Interceptions
A quick look at the numbers makes it very clear just how bad Manning was in 2013. His 3,818 yards passing and 6.93 yards per pass attempt were his lowest marks in each of these categories since 2008. The last time he had a completion rate worse than 57.5 percent was 2007, and his 18 touchdown tosses were the lowest since his rookie year.
The 27 interceptions, though, are what put his season on another level of dreadful.
Manning led the NFL in this category by a staggering five picks, even though 11 other quarterbacks had more pass attempts than his 551. He threw three interceptions or more in five games, which, not surprisingly, were all Giants losses.
Some of Manning’s picks were either not his fault or not costly to Big Blue. He also played behind the 31st-ranked pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Another disturbing trend for Manning was throwing off his back foot when under pressure. This habit was an issue earlier in his career, but it largely disappeared following the 2007 season. It was prevalent again in 2013, though, even against a modest pass rush.
For example, Manning quickly shifts his weight to his back foot on this interception against the San Diego Chargers in Week 14 when he sees a cornerback blitz off the snap. The cornerback, however, is adequately blocked by Peyton Hillis, making Manning’s preoccupation with the pass-rusher premature.
Manning must try to cut his interceptions in half next season. A better offensive line and more luck will go a long way toward achieving this goal, but it has no shot of happening if the 10-year veteran doesn’t improve his mechanics and put more thought into his throws.
Victor Cruz: More Big Plays
Victor Cruz was arguably the Giants' best offensive player last season despite missing the last two games due to a knee injury and concussion. The fourth-year wide receiver led the team in receptions with 73 and in yards with 998.
Despite these solid numbers, Cruz has quietly morphed into a possession receiver after being a consistent big-play threat in his breakout 2011 season. That year, the “Salsa King” had a whopping 25 catches for over 20 yards and nine over 40 yards. This ability to get downfield as well as turn short passes into long gains was a major reason he had 1,536 yards receiving.
In 2012, Cruz’s big plays suddenly dwindled, as he had only 12 plays over 20 yards and a measly three north of 40 yards. Not coincidentally, his receiving yards dropped to 1,092.
Last season, this trend continued, with two fewer 20-plus-yard receptions than the year before and the same amount of 40-plus-yard grabs.
Why the 27-year-old is suddenly a move-the-chains receiver is somewhat baffling. The decline in Hakeem Nicks’ play may certainly be a reason, as defenses can focus more of their attention on Cruz when Nicks is less of a threat. Also, Cruz, who was signed by the Giants in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, may have caught teams by surprise in 2011.
Still, Cruz is in his prime and is as quick and elusive as he was a few years ago. A modest drop in his big-play production would be understandable, but the free fall we’ve seen in each of the last two seasons simply isn’t.
Whatever the reasons, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo must make it a priority this offseason and in training camp to figure out how to get the ball to Cruz down the field and in space.
More big plays from Cruz in 2014 would be a big step in the right direction for the Giants' downtrodden offense.
Prince Amukamara: More Interceptions
Like Cruz, Prince Amukamara was a bright spot in Big Blue’s dismal 2013 season. In fact, the three-year veteran put up the best season of his short NFL career.
He played in all 16 games for the first time after missing 12 regular-season games combined in his first two seasons. He also recorded a stellar 4.0 Pro Football Focus rating, which is another personal best for the 24-year-old.
Amukamara, though, failed once again to be a playmaker, an important job requirement of any quality cornerback.
For the third year in a row, he only had one interception despite being targeted by opposing quarterbacks a healthy 94 times. As a point of comparison, of the 26 cornerbacks who were targeted between 85 and 94 times in 2013, 11 of them had at least three interceptions.
Also, Amukamara doesn’t do anything with the picks he does get. The 2011 first-round draft pick has lost four yards combined on his three career interceptions. That’s a difficult accomplishment even if you are trying to lose yardage on an interception.
The bad news is that Amukamara’s track record, which dates back to his time at Nebraska, doesn’t suggest he is suddenly going to turn into a ball hawk. He did have five interceptions in his junior season but none in any of his other three college campaigns.
Amukamara may simply be a cornerback who doesn’t give much but takes less away.
Jason Pierre-Paul: Stay Healthy
The decline in Jason Pierre-Paul’s performance has almost solely focused on the sharp decrease in sacks since his breakout 2011 season. While it is alarming that the four-year veteran had only 8.5 sacks combined in 2012 and 2013 after a robust 16.5 sacks in 2011, it does not tell the whole story.
Pierre-Paul has also seen his overall effectiveness decrease over the last two seasons, as indicated by the slide in his Pro Football Focus ratings. In 2011, he carried a 22.4 PFF rating, followed by a 23.2 rating in 2012. However, his PFF rating last year plummeted to 2.7.
He’s also become less reliable. He had 971 regular-season snaps in 2011 and 900 in 2012. Last season, he logged only 583 snaps due to the fact he missed the Giants' final five games with a shoulder injury.
And therein lies the problem—Pierre-Paul hasn’t been healthy since 2011. His 2012 season was hindered by a back injury that eventually required surgery in June 2013. The surgery prevented him from getting off to a strong start last season, and then he injured his shoulder in Week 10 against the Oakland Raiders.
Pierre-Paul now may need shoulder surgery, but he is planning on undergoing this procedure a lot sooner than June if that is the route he is forced to take.
JPP at 100 percent and healthy in 2014 is a vital component for the Giants defense to go from solid, like it was in 2013, to exceptional. It is certainly possible considering he just turned 25 years old on New Year’s Day and appears focused on getting healthy sooner this offseason.
For what it’s worth, Pierre-Paul is more than confident he’ll be an All-Pro-caliber defensive end again next season. If you think his confidence is just words, keep in mind that this is the same guy who called an interception against the Green Bay Packers last season.