When you venture away from the building and into the rank and file of the NFL, the expectations about the Giants are low. Really low. Like, really, really low.
There are widespread guesstimates that the Giants are a bad team. Young, yes. Improving, perhaps. On the right path, maybe. But at the moment, bad.
Looking in from the outside, the reasons for this dim view are understandable. There is one difference-maker on offense, Saquon Barkley. There is a still-suspect offensive line and a second-year quarterback. There is no feared pass rusher on defense and, more broadly, no feared anyone on defense.
And there is a rookie head coach, Joe Judge, all of 38 years old, taking over a franchise with more losses (36) than any team in the league since 2017. Judge is details-driven and uber-organized, but there are far more reasons to believe this season will be a struggle than it could be something more.
It all starts with Daniel Jones, of course, and what happens next should be fascinating. Remember the abuse the Giants took for selecting Jones with the No. 6-overall pick? He quieted some of that noise with a strong rookie year — any time a first-year starter has twice as many touchdown passes (24) as interceptions (12) he is doing something right. Any time a guy loses 11 fumbles, though, he is doing something wrong, and Jones needs to correct that, pronto. He is nearly 10 pounds heavier and, from a physical standpoint, everything you want in a quarterback.
Now comes the hard part: Protecting Jones. The plan to introduce first-round pick Andrew Thomas to the NFL at right tackle went awry when Nate Solder opted out. So, Thomas starts at left tackle, his most natural spot, and everyone hopes what was said about him — that he is the most NFL-ready tackle in the draft — rings true. Cam Fleming, promoted to starting right tackle duties, is a veteran who knows the tricks of the trade and needs to hold up, as rookie Matt Peart is probably not ready. The guards — Kevin Zeitler and Will Hernandez — are solid. Hernandez needs to improve on a so-so second season. Center could be problematic, unless Nick Gates, converted to the position, is the real deal.
If the line holds up, there is enough firepower, especially if tight end Evan Engram finally stays healthy. He needs to be a force. Everything should flow out of Saquon Barkley’s great gifts. He can do everything needed on the field and some of the things he does defy explanation. If he is cooking and the play-action game is triggered, the receiver group of Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate and Darius Slayton is a workingman’s trio, certainly more than capable, especially if Slayton builds off an impressive debut season.
Here is where the heavy lifting must take place. The Giants gave up 28.1 points a game in 2019, and if that does not improve dramatically, there is no chance for a successful season. Thus it comes as no surprise that half of the starting lineup is new. Blake Martinez was signed to lead at inside linebacker. He was a volume tackler with the Packers and will make the defensive calls. James Bradberry, a workmanlike veteran with little of the typical corner swagger, was brought in for big money to move in as the No. 1 cornerback. He needs to be really good. The late signing of Logan Ryan was crucial, as it adds a proven and capable player at slot corner, although Ryan will also get plenty of snaps at safety. Corner was a position of depletion, with DeAndre Baker waived and Sam Beal opting out. Look for rookie Darnay Holmes to get on the field immediately, in the slot.
Losing rookie Xavier McKinney (broken foot) for more than half the season really hurts and magnifies the Ryan signing. It also puts the onus on Julian Love to complement Jabrill Peppers at safety.
For all the change, the line will be familiar, with Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson and Dexter Lawrence up front. Williams is playing on the $16.1 million franchise tag. He can stop the run; the Giants could use a few actual sacks from him, in addition to the pressures he provides. Lawrence is a mountain of a man.
Where will the pass rush come from? Good question. Getting Markus Golden back on the rarely used unrestricted free-agent tender was a smart move. The need for Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines to develop into legitimate threats is immense. Without them, there is not enough. Newcomer Kyler Fackrell had 10.5 sacks for the Packers in 2018.
It’s not a whole new ballgame, but it’s close. The only holdover among the specialists is punter Riley Dixon, who is coming off an outstanding season, which is why he was re-signed to a three-year contract. Dixon can be excused for wondering what happened around him. Kicker Aldrick Rosas was released following a hit-and-run car accident in California. Zak DeOssie, the longtime long snapper, retired. The replacement at kicker is a strong-legged veteran, Graham Gano. The 33-year-old beat the Giants in 2018 with a 63-yard field goal at the buzzer. He missed the entire 2019 season with a fractured femur and thus must prove he can stay healthy for the duration. The new long snapper, 30-year-old Casey Kreiter, made the Pro Bowl with the Broncos two years ago and should make a seamless transition with his new team.
The coverage units were weakened when Cody Core was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. He will be difficult to replace. The signing of veteran Nate Ebner imports a former Patriots special-teams ace with great knowledge of all things Joe Judge.
There is little doubt the Giants will be organized, prepared and detail-driven with Joe Judge in control. It may take a while for all this to kick in, especially with such a young roster. Judge exudes confidence, but let us never forget he is 38 years old and has never been a head coach, at any level. There are sure to be growing pains and it will be fascinating to see how he handles pressure-packed, in-game situations. Do not listen to the outside noise ripping Judge for imposing Learning Laps for mistakes and for a few live-hitting drills in camp. And to those who warn, “His players will revolt if they start out 0-4,’’ well, duh. Can any first-time head coach feel good about player reaction if he loses early and often?
The hiring of Jason Garrett to run the offense was fortuitous. This is a guy with 10 years of head coaching experience in the Cowboys’ cauldron, and he will be of great benefit to Judge on many levels. If Garrett can get Barkley cooking the way he did with the running backs in Dallas, the Giants will be thrilled. Patrick Graham, the defensive coordinator, also has the title of assistant head coach. He was a reserved guy a few years back as the Giants’ defensive line coach, but his personality is coming through with this promotion. He learned from the best — Bill Belichick — and as a Yale grad is as sharp as they come. In Thomas McGaughey, Judge retained a battle-tested special teams coordinator and, along with Judge’s expertise, this area is secure.
Most important offensive player: It almost always is the quarterback, and if Daniel Jones makes a quantum leap forward in Year 2, the Giants will be a big surprise. But we won’t take the easy way out here. Jones needs protection, and this is why Andrew Thomas is the man on the spot. Sure, he’s a rookie and he should be allowed to develop at his own pace. Sorry about that. The need is there for him to be solid right away as the starting left tackle.
Most important defensive player: The Giants signed James Bradberry to a three-year, $15 million contract to be their best cornerback. This was before the departures of DeAndre Baker (waived) and Sam Beal (opted out). Now, Bradberry has to be more than good. He has to be lockdown whenever he is on the field.
Rookie to watch: Well, it was an easy case to make for safety Xavier McKinney, but the second-round pick from Alabama had surgery on a broken foot and will miss at least the first half of the season. So, we’ll go with Darnay Holmes, the fourth-round pick from UCLA. With all the depletions at cornerback, the Giants need Holmes to contribute, most likely in the slot.
Star on the rise: Dexter Lawrence, come on down. There is every reason to believe this 342-pounder will improve in every way off a promising rookie season. He is a bit leaner and should be quicker, certainly better-conditioned. His blend of size and quickness is uncommon and could help him develop into a better-than-average pocket-pusher as he evolves into a dominant run-stopper.
Biggest coaching decision: How much is too much for Saquon Barkley? Joe Judge comes from a system in New England in which the ball is shared in the offensive backfield. Jason Garrett leaned heavily on DeMarco Murray and then Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys. When former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur took Barkley off the field, he heard about it. Barkley must be a workhorse back. He missed time last season with a high ankle sprain and is not indestructible, despite that outrageous body of his.
Don’t be surprised if … Matt Peart makes a move into the starting lineup at some point this season. Yes, we know he was taken in the third round out of Connecticut based on his great frame and down-the-road potential. Cam Fleming at right tackle is the plan, but plans change, and, with tutoring from line coach Marc Colombo, Peart could get an unanticipated promotion as a rookie.
Sure to make fans grumble: Another slow start, which will be difficult to stomach for fans who lived through 0-5, 1-7 and then a nine-game losing streak after last season’s 2-2 start. … Seeing familiar defensive lapses and blatant blown assignments on the back end. … Hearing Giants radio play-by-play maven Bob Papa say, “Daniel Jones back to pass … his pocket is collapsing around him … Jones under pressure … he is hit … the ball comes loose … it’s a Giants turnover.’’
Can’t miss ’em
Oct. 11 at Dallas: There’s a certain Giants offensive coordinator who might have some extra feelings, motivation and emotions for this one. Jason Garrett makes his return after spending the past 13 years with the Cowboys, the last 10 as their head coach.
Nov. 2 vs. Buccaneers: Ordinarily, Giants versus Bucs is not exactly must-see TV but, as you might have heard, these aren’t the ordinary Bucs. There’s a certain older gentleman at quarterback, goes by Tom Brady, who left the Patriots and now works in Tampa. Brady helped Joe Judge get three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots.
Dec. 20 vs. Browns: Odell Beckham Jr. Odell Beckham Jr. Odell Beckham Jr. Olivier Vernon. Odell Beckham Jr. Odell Beckham Jr. Odell Beckham Jr.
Very tough schedule early makes a fast start highly unlikely. Check each week and wonder in which games the Giants will be favored. Hard to find, right? Perhaps Joe Judge can get this young roster to believe and overachieve. It is going to take expert coaching for this team to have a shot at anything close to a winning season.