The Giants need to get better.
A whole lot better.
It has to start happening when free agency opens up in mid-March and it must continue in late April during the 2021 NFL Draft. The Giants, in Joe Judge’s first year as head coach, took steps toward improvement. Steps, not strides. They are getting closer, but they are really only moving into the vicinity of where they need to be to regain their footing as a franchise.
Where do they need to be? Well, why bother to field a team unless all movement is geared toward winning a Super Bowl? The final four teams in the playoffs this past season — the Packers, Bills, Buccaneers and Chiefs — finished Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6 in the NFL in scoring, averaging between 31.8 points and 29.6 points a game. The Giants? They were 31st, at 17.5 points a game. End of presentation.
Their defense is imperfect, but fully functional, in need of more pass rush help. Their offense at times was barely functional. Plenty, but not all, of the ineptitude can be traced back to Saquon Barkley’s knee injury, which ended his season in Week 2.
On offense, the Giants need more speed, more talent, more explosive plays, more creativity, more power, more moxie. More everything. They are committed to Daniel Jones at quarterback heading into the upcoming season. So they need to provide for him what the organization could not give to Eli Manning down the stretch of his career.
A speedy wide receiver. A quality starting right tackle. Barkley’s return to full health. Inject that into the offense and it will be a productive offseason. Continue to fortify the defense and the Giants could have something cooking.
Here is an offseason playbook for the Giants to follow:
In-House Free Agents
Of the 15 unrestricted free agents, not all are created equal. The critical decision comes at the interior of the defensive line — where Leonard Williams had a breakthrough, career-best season and Dalvin Tomlinson once again was his durable and steady self.
The Giants have to keep one eye open as far as re-signing Dexter Lawrence down the road, but he has two years remaining on his rookie deal and then there is the fifth-year option, so he is not an immediate concern. But the integrity of the defensive line must be kept intact. Williams (career-high 11.5 sacks) blossomed and must return. Period. End of story.
It takes no insight to say “re-sign Tomlinson,’’ but doing so is easier said than done. He does the dirty work and is the epitome of what Judge wants in his program, as far as comportment and selflessness go. In 2014, the Giants did not pursue their own second-round pick, massive defensive tackle Linval Joseph, and he defected to the Vikings. It was a mistake. The same decision is here now with Tomlinson, but with the salary cap dropping by as much as $18 million this year, the timing could very much work against Tomlinson.
None of the Giants’ other free agents is someone they must re-sign. Kyler Fackrell was a nice addition (four sacks, one interception returned for a touchdown in 12 games), but an upgrade is needed at edge rusher. Special teams stalwart Nate Ebner and running back Dion Lewis, both former Patriots, seem like one-year program builders for Judge, and that one year is done. Wayne Gallman is an NFL-caliber runner, but not a star and not a full-time starter. With Saquon Barkley returning, Gallman would again be a spare part fill-in and he likely wants more than that.
Outside Free Agents
Last year’s haul was overwhelmingly productive, as the signings of James Bradberry and Blake Martinez — and later, Logan Ryan — transformed the defense into a credible unit. There will not be such a seismic impact in this cycle, as the Giants will not be able to add much high-priced talent, especially if they shell out $20 million a year to retain Williams.
The major thrust was stated quite honestly after the season by general manager Dave Gettleman: Get more help for Daniel Jones.
“At the end of the day, we need to find playmakers,’’ he said. “That’s all there is to it. I’m not sugar-coating it. We’re going to find the right guys to help Daniel get us over that hump.’’
The need for a No. 1 wide receiver is glaring. Sterling Shepard is a solid starter, but remains more of a complementary piece. Darius Slayton is talented, but he did not build much off his promising rookie year and would benefit from having someone lined up on the other side capable of commanding special attention from the opposing defense. Golden Tate (if he is not a cap cut) is on the downside of his career.
The big-name receivers — Allen Robinson, Chris Goodwin, Kenny Golladay — might not make it to free agency and will be too costly even if they do. The best option here is to bring in a useful piece without breaking the bank. Answer: Curtis Samuel.
The 24-year-old is coming off a career-best 77 receptions for 851 yards for the Panthers. Plus, he is a dual threat — he was used for 41 designed runs, offering versatility to any offense. Plus-plus, Gettleman knows him well. When he was Carolina GM, he selected Samuel out of Ohio State in the second round of the 2017 draft. Plus-plus-plus, Samuel is a product of Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, meaning this would be a homecoming for him.
Samuel, at 5-foot-11, would not address the need for a taller target. Corey Davis (6-foot-3) would. Davis has underachieved since the Titans made him the No. 5-overall pick in 2017, with 202 receptions for 2,812 yards and 11 touchdowns in 54 games. The Titans did not pick up his fifth-year option. Perhaps the Giants believe they can unlock his ability.
Improving the offensive line (where have you heard this before?) remains an ongoing project, but it is unlikely big bucks will be allocated to fill the greatest need: a solid starting right tackle. Cam Fleming started all 16 games in 2020, but the Giants will not re-sign him to again be the starting right tackle.
Signing the best one out there, Taylor Moton from the Panthers, will be cost-prohibitive. What about taking a shot at Cam Robinson, who started 47 games at left tackle the past four years for the Jaguars? A move to right tackle makes sense with Robinson, a disappointment as a 2017 second-round pick out of Alabama.
Acquiring pass rushers in free agency usually leads to overpaying. This year’s group is top-heavy and fairly uninspiring. The loss of Bud Dupree (eight sacks in 11 games) greatly hurt the Steelers in 2020. He is coming off knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, making him a medical risk at 28 years old.
Matt Judon of the Ravens has 34.5 sacks in five years and is a more viable option. Carl Lawson is just 25, and though he has never duplicated the 8.5 sacks he got for the Bengals as a rookie in 2017, he could be someone defensive coordinator Patrick Graham views as worth tapping into.
Maybe they will make a run at Tyus Bowser, who never cracked the starting lineup with the Ravens. More likely, the Giants will count on the return from injuries of Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines and look for pass rushers in the draft.
Where the Giants really could use veteran help is at cornerback. They have Bradberry, coming off a sensational first year with the team, and intriguing young options, Darnay Holmes and Julian Love (also a safety). Xavier McKinney after missing the first 10 games with a broken foot showed in addition to his natural free safety spot he can also play slot corner. An upgrade is needed for Isaac Yiadom at outside cornerback. Sam Beal is under contract after opting out in 2020, but he is more of a myth at this point.
William Jackson of the Bengals is a quality outside corner. The best options out there (Troy Hill, Desmond King, Mike Hilton) are more suited to slot corner roles.
The upcoming NFL draft is teeming with wide receivers, and the Giants could find a player with the No. 11-overall pick (think Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith), or in the second round, capable of making an immediate contribution.
There is a bunch of early mock-draft noise about Florida’s Kyle Pitts, who could be the next great NFL tight end pass-catching weapon. The Giants selected a player on offense with eight of their past nine first-round picks (Eli Apple in 2016 is the exception), and this has the feel of another offensive player in the first round. Sometimes it is about building the lines or fortifying the defensive backfield. This is about bringing in a player who scares opposing defenses.
With a total of just six picks, the Giants cannot be wasteful. Size-speed cornerbacks are always useful, as is adding as much depth as possible on the offensive line — they used three picks in 2020 on offensive linemen.
Joe Judge did not change any of his coordinators and made just minor alterations to his staff. Heading into the second year of his system, the heat is on offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Losing Barkley so early was a blow, to be sure, and perhaps Garrett never fully trusted his rebuilding offensive line in critical situations.
The lack of pre-snap motion in his weekly plan was glaring and not in keeping with the trends in the league. The evidence Garrett can scheme his targets open was not impressive. Maybe most of this is on the players. But the Giants have to answer this: Does Garrett give them an advantage on Sundays? If the plan works and Garrett has more talent at his disposal, the answer needs to be in the affirmative for this to work.