Ranking New York Giants' 10 Most Important Contributors in 2017
The NFL Network recently concluded counting down its Top 100 Players for 2017, as voted for by the players themselves.
But have you ever wondered what might happen if the voting focused on a specific team's top 10 players?
That's a question that has crossed my mind, and one I have tried to answer in the following slides.
Although I couldn't take a poll of New York Giants players to find out what they really thought, I tried to deploy logic as well as other factors such as performance, stats and depth at the position in arriving at the team's 10 most important players for the coming season.
10: TE Rhett Ellison
If you followed closely this offseason, you probably spotted one of the two common threads that went into the Giants' free-agency strategy.
One was to keep last year's defense together. The other? To improve a running game that has not had a sniff of the top-10 leaguewide since the 2010 season, when they finished sixth.
To that end, a key under-the-radar move to accomplish this was the signing of tight end Rhett Ellison, who comes to the Giants with a reputation as a solid blocking tight end.
During his five-year career in Minnesota, Ellison—one of the men leading the way for future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson—helped the Vikings' rushing offense land in the top-10 leaguewide in three of the five seasons, with two of those seasons seeing Minnesota's rushing offense finish in the top five.
In signing Ellison, the Giants also gave themselves some extra breathing room in the event the offensive line, which has struggled to consistently run block the last couple of seasons, doesn't show the improvement the coaching staff believes is there.
Ellison's presence gives them a sixth offensive lineman they can move around as necessary should either side of the offensive line need help with run blocking.
As an extra bonus, Ellison can also pass block. Last year as a member of the Vikings, he had to pass block on 35.7 percent of his snaps in which he allowed zero sacks and only four total pressures.
In his first offseason with the Giants, Ellison spent most of the spring on the side while resting a calf injury that he said was not related to the torn patellar tendon he suffered in the 2015 regular-season finale.
While the hope is he will be ready to go for the start of training camp, if Ellison should continue to be sidelined, the Giants will continue to have question marks regarding the tight ends' blocking, an area of the game from which they really need more consistency.
9: TE Evan Engram
Making his debut on the top 10 most important contributors for the 2017 New York Giants is a rookie who has yet to take an NFL snap, but on whom the team hopes to get a huge return on its investment.
That would be tight end Evan Engram, the team's 2017 first-round draft pick. The 6'3" player is being counted on to give the Giants something they haven't had in some time: a tall receiving threat capable of exploiting the middle of the field.
Things were so bad in that regard that last year the Giants seemed to just give up trying to throw to the middle of the field. Per NFL Savant, the Giants attempted 22 deep passes (20 or more yards) over the middle part of the field, completing seven for 204 yards.
By not being able to take advantage of the middle of the field, the offense gave the defense a key advantage in that balls thrown outside the numbers offer defenses a better chance of taking advantage of the sideline as a 12th defender.
Pro Football Focus' 2017 NFL Draft Pass notes that on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air over the last two seasons Engram is 10-for-17 for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
While he figures to be a big contributor in the passing game, he can also be a functional blocker.
Giants tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride said the rookie is a "willing" participant if asked to block, even though, at 234 pounds, he is probably going to be outweighed by a good 40 or so pounds by his competition.
8: S Landon Collins
The Giants defense, which regularly was gouged by opponents in the middle of the field, quietly improved last year.
Per NFLSavant.com, the Giants defense allowed just 38.3 percent of passes thrown over the deep middle to be complete. That's way down from 2015, when it allowed 51.7 percent of the deep passes over the middle to be complete.
Let's also talk about the run defense. In 2015, opponents ran 191 times between the tackles for 952 yards, an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Last year, opponents ran 172 times between the tackles for 565 yards, an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
You can point to the play of defensive tackle Damon Harrison as a reason, but you also must single out the huge leap forward taken by second-year safety Landon Collins, who delivered a Pro Bowl performance against both the run and the pass.
With some instability in the middle of the Giants defense this season—defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is gone, his position up for grabs by guys with limited experience; and the likely decision to start second-year man B.J. Goodson at middle linebacker—Collins’ continued improvement will be more important than ever if the defense wants to maintain its place among the top-10 units leaguewide.
7: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
For anyone who doubts how devastating it would be for the Giants not to have cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the lineup, please refer to the Wild Card game against Green Bay in January.
During that game, Rodgers-Cromartie, the team's slot cornerback, suffered an upper leg injury that put him on the shelf.
Fast forward to this year. Coty Sensabaugh left via free agency to Pittsburgh while Wade and Hall weren't re-signed.
The Giants did sign veteran Valentino Blake, who's far from being a lock to make the roster, and they have some youth—Donte Deayon and Michael Hunter—set to compete for one of the depth spots.
While one or more of those players might prove reliable as a backup, the Giants are no doubt going to hold their breath that nothing happens to Rodgers-Cromartie for several reasons.
Not only do they lack an established veteran slot cornerback behind the veteran, but should either Eli Apple or Janoris Jenkins not be able to go, Rodgers-Cromartie would likely move to the outside, a role the coaches probably would prefer he didn't play a lot of snaps given the more physical nature of the position.
If that's not enough to convince you of just how valuable Rodgers-Cromartie is to this Giants defense, then perhaps this nugget from Pro Football Focus will.
Since 2012, Rodgers-Cromartie is the third-best play-making cornerback, earning a 16.5 percent playmaking index—defined as "the number of pass targets in coverage in which a player earns either an interception or pass defensed."
6: DE Olivier Vernon
As the Giants right defensive end, Olivier Vernon probably has the toughest job of the front four in that he must go against the offensive line's left tackle every week.
To his credit, Vernon, who last year signed a five-year deal worth $85 million, has brought the goods.
Although he hasn't recorded double-digit sacks since 2013 when he posted 11.5 for the Dolphins, Pro Football Focus notes that no other defensive end has had more pressures from the right side over the last two years than Vernon, whose 142 tops Minnesota's Everson Griffen.
Vernon's production is rather impressive, especially if you consider he played for most of last season with an injured left hand, his dominant hand, yet still managed to be a disruptive force in going through some of the league's top left tackles to disrupt the opposing quarterbacks.
The best thing, at least as far as the Giants are concerned, is that Vernon isn't resting on his laurels. He attended Von Miller's first-ever pass rushing summit held at Stanford University to pick up additional tricks of the trade from fellow pass-rushers such as Miller and Khalid Mack, and retired pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware.
In case anyone thinks Vernon is a one-trick pony, he was also solid against the run, finishing with a 7.3 run-stop percentage, per Pro Football Focus, ranking him 16th among 4-3 defensive ends against the run.
5: DE Jason Pierre-Paul
The Giants have finally found themselves a pair of defensive ends who can make noise.
Yet, what happens if Olivier Vernon and/or Jason Pierre-Paul has to miss time? We had the answer last year after the latter was lost for the final month of the regular season.
His absence, combined with the fact the Giants didn't have a solid third option to step in, meant Vernon ended up receiving double teams he hadn't really seen all season.
The reason why Pierre-Paul gets the nod ahead of his bookend, though, is because of his pass break-up abilities. While Vernon has never deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage, Pierre-Paul has 42 passes defensed over his career, some coming at the defensive tackle spot and some at defensive end.
4: CB Janoris Jenkins
In 2016, the then-St. Louis Rams had to choose between their two young cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, both of whom hit free agency at the same time.
It's probably safe to say they made the wrong decision given how well Jenkins performed in his first season with the Giants.
But the thing that makes Jenkins even more valuable to the Giants defense is that in the last two seasons, his yards allowed per coverage snap average has been below the league average of 1.26 yards—with last year's average by Jenkins coming in at 0.84.
Per Pro Football Focus, Jenkins also allowed just 50 percent of the pass targets thrown against him to be completed for 484 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, putting him as the third-best cornerback in NFL rating among those who took at least 75 percent of their team's coverage snaps, behind Casey Hayward of the Chargers and Sherman.
3: DT Damon Harrison
Ask any defensive coordinator what the key is to win the unit's battle, and chances are they will tell you the No. 1 objective is to stop the run.
Well, the Giants just happen to be lucky in that regard after signing defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who is one of, if not the best, interior run defenders in all of football.
Per Pro Football Focus, no interior lineman has come close to matching his percentage of run stops (for zero or negative yardage) over the last five seasons, with Harrison logging 7.6 percent of his tackles as stops, followed by Houston's J.J. Watt’s 6.2 percent.
Voted Pro Football Focus' Best Run Defender of 2016, Harrison's presence is going to be even more important this year inside given that Johnathan Hankins has moved on, leaving the possibility of one of Dalvin Tomlinson, Jay Bromley and Robert Thomas getting the starting job inside despite having limited experience.
The Giants will likely be able to survive Hankins' loss, but they probably don't want to think about having to go through any games without their big man in the middle.
2: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
When you have a player who, over the last three seasons, has accounted for nearly 25 percent of the team's yards on offense and 38 percent of the team's passing game touchdowns, it's a hard talent to replace.
That's precisely what the Giants have in receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has been setting all kinds of records in his first three seasons in the league and who has become the master of the one-handed catch.
What's also amazing is that last year was Beckham's first full 16-game season after missing four games in his rookie year because of a hamstring ailment and one game in 2015 due to a suspension.
The Giants might have added some new firepower to their passing game in the form of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram, but there's only one Odell. He is a player whom the coaches believe hasn't even scratched the surface of what he’s capable of doing on offense—and one who is irreplaceable.
1: QB Eli Manning
Regardless of whether you think starting quarterback Eli Manning has begun to decline, he's still the best option the Giants have at the position.
That's not meant to throw shade at the other QBs on the roster; rather, facts are facts, and the fact here is no one on the roster comes close to having the experience or skill set of Manning.
Davis Webb is a rookie who needs at least a year to sit and learn the pro game, especially after playing in the Air Raid system.
Johnson has little regular-season experience as an NFL starter, appearing in just 29 games with five starts, his last regular-season action coming in 2013.
Smith might, at this point, be the closest, but even he's a distant second. He needs to shake the bust label that landed on his back after a failed tenure with the Jets that came about due to a career-completion percentage of 57.9 percent, with 36 interceptions to 28 touchdowns.
Although Smith has also been sacked 77 times over his career, he's been hard-pressed to replicate his rookie-season totals when in his only 16-game season (16 games as a starter), he threw for a career-high 3,046 yards on 247 pass completions.
But perhaps more important is Smith's leadership. He never did appear to earn the complete support of his teammates. Per Manish Meta of the New York Daily News, some of the Jets on that year's team believed Smith deserved to be punched, a blow that was delivered by linebacker IK Enemkpali.
Smith has been trying to turn over a new leaf since signing with the Giants, where he joins one-time Jets teammate Brandon Marshall. However, when the two were with the Jets, Marshall was, per ESPN's Rich Cimini, a vocal supporter of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Smith's competition at quarterback.
Put it all together and the backup quarterback position at this stage isn't as rosy as you would like. Manning might be at the back end of his career, but the Giants no doubt hope he has a lot of good football—and games—left to be played.
Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.