Grading New York Giants' 5 Most Improved Positional Units

Patricia Traina@Patricia_TrainaFeatured Columnist IVMay 30, 2017

Grading New York Giants' 5 Most Improved Positional Units

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Last year, the various position units on the New York Giants roster that failed to live up to expectations weren't exactly a secret.

    Not surprisingly, Giants general manager Jerry Reese focused many of his offseason moves on reshaping those units by either adding or subtracting certain personnel.

    In the following slides, we'll look at each area of weakness from last season, exploring why it was a weakness.

    We'll then break down how Reese improved the deficiency with personnel moves, although it's too soon to tell if the year-end statistical production for 2017 will reflect the conclusions drawn in this slideshow.

    We'll then wrap up each slide with a projected outlook.

Running Back

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    Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

    2016 Grade: C- 

    The Giants rushing attack finished 29th in the NFL last year, averaging 88.2 yards per game.

    While the running game woes weren't all on the backs—the inconsistent blocking by the offensive line (ranked 24th in run blocking by Football Outsiders) and tight ends contributed to the low ranking, the backs themselves didn't help.

    Per Pro Football Focus, starter Rashad Jennings ranked  24th out of 25 in the breakaway percentage category among the running backs who took at least 50 percent of their team's snaps.

    Jennings was also near the bottom in average yards after contact (2.0 avg.) and missed tackles forced (11 total).

    It also didn't help that Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen were both knocked out of action with injuries; that Bobby Rainey didn't give them much as a rotational back; and that Paul Perkins got off to a late start thanks to the rule requiring rookies to finish their college studies before joining their pro teamsa rule that might have cost him a chance to see more snaps earlier in the season.

    The Changes

    In a salary cap-related move, Reese cut Jennings, who was unable to replicate his 16-game season in 2015 last year. The GM also passed on re-signing Rainey, an unrestricted free agent.

    Perkins, meanwhile, was named the starter by head coach Ben McAdoo after ripping off some impressive runs that included making something out of nothing toward the end of the 2016 season.

    Journeyman Shaun Draughn was added via free agency, Darkwa was re-signed, Vereen accepted a pay cut to stay, and power back Wayne Gallman was drafted in the fourth round.

           

    2017 Grade: B+

    Perkins showed a better feel for the holes that, combined with better vision, saw him rush for 137 fewer yards than Jennings on 69 fewer carries.

    Had the carry distribution been more even, Perkinswho averaged 4.1 yards per carry and was the only one of the Giants running backs last season to post a 100-yard game (that in Week 17)might have have passed Jennings' totals. 

    The return of Vereen and Darkwa, as well as the addition of Gallman, gives McAdoo a few more options to tinker with. Gallman in particular is intriguing—in the last three years, he has forced 153 missed tackles.

    If he can force just a quarter of that in the NFL per season, the Giants running backs should easily boost their per-game rushing average.

Tight End

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2016 Grade: F

    Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Giants tight ends were that bad last season that the list of all the areas in which the group came up short is so long that it might be too depressing to read.

    The rapid decline of Larry Donnell, who went from being the starter to being banned from the offense, was probably one of the most disappointing developments at this position in 2016.

    Collectively, though, there were plenty of other disappointments, starting with the lack of yards after the catch because the tight ends could not separate or break tackles oras was the case with Donnellstay on their feet.

    The three Giants tight ends—Donnell, Will Tye and rookie Jerell Adams—combined for 609 receiving yards, which was less than the 788 yards receiver Brandon Marshall, playing through injuries, posted for the Jets.

    What about the middle of the field? As the leading Giants' tight end targeted in the passing game, Tye received the most targets, but he wasn't very productive up the seam. 

    Per Pro Football Focus, Tye caught 34 of 48 passes thrown up the gut, for 341 yards and no touchdowns. He also had three dropped passes and was the intended target on three intercepted balls.

    Tye had zero catches on balls of 20-plus yards up the middle.

    Perhaps the biggest takeaway in the sea of disappointments at this position last year is that because no one could work the middle of the field, opposing defenses weren't as hard-pressed to devote resources in covering the Giants tight ends.

    That, of course, meant double-teams for Odell Beckham Jr. and a massive decline in general for the passing game.

           

    The Changes

    The Giants said goodbye to Donnell, an unrestricted free agent who did little and was in fact demoted from the starting lineup.

    They added blocking tight end Rhett Ellison to be their sixth offensive lineman and drafted Evan Engram in the first round, their first tight end drafted in the first round since Jeremy Shockey in 2002.

             

    2017 Grade: B

    While Ellison is a huge addition, his role will more than likely have the greatest effect on the running game, which should help as the Giants try to settle an offensive line that has more promise this year but needs to show it can get it done.

    Engram, on the other hand, should have a positive effect on the passing game that was smothered by Cover-2 last year, finishing 17th in the league.

    Joseph Ferraiola of Inside the Pylon noted that Engram has the ability to make plays in the middle of the field at every level as a receiver.

    That argument is supported by Pro Football Focus; in their breakdown of his 2016 receptions by direction, they had Engram for a rating of 79.2 on passes behind the line of scrimmage, 80.6 on balls 0-9 yards, 106.4 on passes 10-19 yards and 141.4 on deep balls of 20 or more yards thrown in the middle of the field.

    For those wondering if there are going to be enough balls to go around to Engram, Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and whoever is in the offensive backfield, fear not.

    Ferraiola wrote:

    "I think the key flaw is not accounting for how Engram can help his teammates get open more consistently. … Ben McAdoo's vanilla 11 personnel offense can now have Marshall alone as the X on one side of the field with Beckham Jr., Shepard, and Engram in a trips formation to the other.

    "This will force the defense to pick their poison with their game plan. Due to his speed and route running ability, Engram is going to force defenses to cover him with athletic safeties and linebackers. The addition of Engram is going to give New York's receivers more one-on-one matchups, which could lead to more big plays down the field." 

    Isn't it amazing what the addition of one quality tight end can potentially do for an offense?

Wide Receiver

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2016 Grade: C+

    Take away the contributions made by Odell Beckham Jr., who often faced double coverage but still managed to record 1,367 yards in 101 receptions with 10 touchdowns, and the performance last year by the Giants receivers was underwhelming.

    How bad, you ask? Per Pro Football Focus, Sterling Shepard, Tavarres King, Roger Lewis, Victor Cruz and Dwayne Harris combined for 1,429 yards on 114 receptions, 12 touchdowns, 13 dropped balls and 13 forced missed tackles.

    Again, that’s five receivers combining for those less-than-stellar stats that barely top the figures posted by Beckham alone.

    If that wasn't bad enough, if you consider Beckham was drawing the bulk of the double coverage, what does that say about the rest of the Giants receivers who likely saw solo coverage by the defense but couldn't make the most of the opportunities?

    If we're talking about the deep ball (passes over 20 yards), forget about it. Eli Manning went 23 of 78 for 753 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions on deep passes (not all were thrown to the receivers) of more than 20 yardsrather underwhelming stats.

    For what it's worth, other than Beckham, no other Giants receiver last year earned a positive grade for his downfield blockinga very underrated yet important aspect of a receiver's game.

           

    The Changes

    The Giants cut Cruz after giving him an opportunity to resume his career following nearly two years of dealing with injuries and rehab. They also added Brandon Marshall, a 6'4" receiving target with eight career 1,000-yard seasons to his name.

           

    2017 Grade: A

    Barring injury, there's no reason to think Beckham won't be Beckham again, though it will be interesting to see how much his stats will be affected now that the Giants have Marshall and tight end Evan Engram.

    Shepard's situation is interesting. Drafted to be the team's slot receiver, it took opposing NFL defenses three weeks to figure out how to limit his production.

    In his first three games, Shepard caught 84.2 percent of his pass targets for 233 yards (14.6 yards per reception).

    In his last 12 regular-season games, he caught 58.3 percent of his pass targets for 450 yards (9.2 yards per catch).

    Last year, Marshall played most of the season with assorted injuries. Still, if you were to compare his production with any Giants receiver not named Beckham, he easily ran circles around the underwhelming production of the team.

Defensive End

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2016 Grade: B

    The Giants got more than their money's worth out of starting defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, who played 90.9 percent and 94.1 percent of the 2016 defensive snaps, respectively.

    When Pierre-Paul ended up missing the last five games (including the postseason) with an injury, there was a significant drop in the production, underscoring a potential issue with the backup depth.

    Romeo Okwara, then a rookie, was named the starter ahead of veterans Kerry Wynn and Owa Odighizuwa. But after an impressive debut against Dallas, Okwara finished his rookie season having played 427 snaps with 16 tackles (12 solo), and 16 quarterback disruptions (sacks, hurries and pressures).

    After the season ended, McAdoo admitted that the coaching staff would like to find a way to lessen some of the workloads on both Pierre-Paul, who re-signed with the team this offseason, and Vernon moving forward to keep them fresh.

    Just as importantly, having a solid third defensive endas the Giants' championship defenses of 2007 and 2011 didis important because if Pierre-Paul or Vernon must miss extended time, whoever is left runs the risk of receiving the bulk of the double-teams opposing offenses.

    Last season, Vernon was the recipient of the added attention. From Week 14 (the first week Pierre-Paul was out of the lineup), Vernonwho had recorded seven sacks coming out of the Giants' Week 8 byefinished the regular season with just a half sack in addition to four quarterback hits and 16 pressures.

               

    The Changes

    The Giants drafted Avery Moss and signed veteran Devin Taylor to add some competition for the defensive end spot.

    Moss will probably challenge Odighizuwa and/or Kerry Wynn for a roster place, while Taylor could become that swing defensive lineman who lines up inside in certain defensive packages.

             

    2017 Outlook: Grade B+

    To quote the hometown meteorologist, "Cloudy with a chance of sunshine breaking through." On paper, the Giants look as though they've added some legitimate competition for that third defensive end spot, but we won't know for sure until the pads go on and contact is allowed.  

Offensive Line

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2016 Grade: D

    Injuries and poor performance dogged the Giants offensive line last season, a group that ranked 24th in run blocking but second in pass protection, per Football Outsiders (this is likely due to the team's heavy reliance on the short, quick passes that didn't necessitate the offensive line holding a block for longer than a couple of seconds).

    There were numerous glaring issues that hurt this unit. From an injury perspective, the loss of left guard Justin Pugh to a knee injury for five games threw the line into a tailspin.

    Pugh is by far their most athletic lineman, a guy they had to pull quite often with success. In their effort not to miss a beat, the coaches often asked other linemen to pullit wasn't pretty.

    Center Weston Richburg also revealed to reporters last month that he too dealt with a season-long hand injury, which could explain why he had some struggles in run blocking.

    The biggest issue was the play of the two young tackles, left tackle Ereck Flowers and right tackle Bobby Hart, who were graded near the bottom of offensive tackles who took at least 75 percent of their team's snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus.

    Hart was probably the better of the two but not by much. He allowed 46 total quarterback disruptions (sacks, hurries and hits) as he struggled with consistency.

    Flowers allowed 59 total quarterback disruptions, the most of any Giants offensive lineman. What made his performance especially frustrating was his inconsistent technique that often led to holding penalties.

    Last season, Flowers was once again the undisputed team leader in penalties, racking up 13 little yellow flags, 12 of which were accepted. 

    That total of 13 flags, by the way, is an increase over his rookie-year total, when he was called for 10 penalties, two of which were declined.

    Nine of his penalties were for holding (one was declined), four were a false start and one for a 15-yard face mask.

              

    The Changes

    The Giants' only free-agent addition was former Chargers offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, the team's failed first-round draft pick, on a one-year "prove it" deal.  

    The Giants also traded up in the sixth round to add the versatile Adam Bisnowaty to the mix, and they signed a couple of undrafted free agents, Chad Wheeler from USC and Jessamen Dunker from Tennessee State.

    The biggest changes to this unit appear to involve Flowers and Hart, both of whom spent the bulk of the offseason working out in East Rutherford to get stronger, leaner and quicker.

              

    2017 Grade: C+

    While no one will know just how far the offensive line has come until the pads go on and contact is allowed, there have been some positive signs.

    First, Flowers is looking a lot leaner and appeared less clunky in his footwork during offensive line drills in the team's third OTA, which was open to the media.

    Again, there was no contact permitted, so the drills weren't being run at full speed, but whereas Flowers sometimes looked heavy-footed in the past, he appeared much lighter on his feet and seemed to do a better job at getting lower against the blocking sled unlike last year when his pad level would rise.

    Hart also looked much improved. On every snap I saw during the third OTA, he sprung out of his stance and into his setup with cat-like quickness.

    When asked to pull, Hart not only showed that same quickness, he also displayed some improved athleticism from a year ago in getting to where he was supposed to be and then into position to make the block the play called for.

    In terms of the bigger picture, the addition of Fluker and Bisnowaty, both of whom can play guard or tackle, gives the coaching staff some options if things get bad enough to warrant a change.

               

    Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics are from Pro Football Focus.

    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.