“This is the week.”
That was the phrase used by everyone from the quarterback to the receivers to the head coach when predicting the breakout by the offense last season, but it never came. The Giants played 17 games last year and never once put up 30 or more points. Coming into this season, that is the priority. Hold on to the ball, play well in the red zone, and score touchdowns instead of field goals.
Can they do it? Will this finally be the week, almost one full year later?
They should. Eli Manning has never had as talented or as diverse an assortment of targets to throw to, from superstar Odell Beckham Jr. to new receiver Brandon Marshall to first-round pick Evan Engram. The Giants also have Sterling Shepard back for his second year and have added Rhett Ellison as a tight end. Ellison should help both as a receiver and in the blocking.
The offensive line will be the determining factor on how well the unit can function. Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg are in contract years, so much will be expected from them. Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart are young but experienced, and the Giants are hoping to see a big jump from them.
One of the most glaring ways this Giants offense will differ from last year’s is in its personnel diversity. Instead of lining up with three receivers as they did 90 percent of the time in 2016, this year they have the ability to change their looks. Having a true fullback on the roster will help that. Expect a more balanced scheme, even if the Giants still tilt more towards the pass than the run.
As for that running game, Paul Perkins was given the starting nod during the offseason but if he struggles early look for Orleans Darkwa to step in. Shave Vereen also gives the Giants an option, though he’ll be used mostly as a third-down back.
The Giants should be among the best defenses in the NFL. Their front four are as dominant a group as you can find in the league, with Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon on the ends and Damon Harrison in the middle controlling the line of scrimmage. Second-round pick Dalvin Tomlinson figures to fit in smoothly at tackle next to Harrison.
On the back end the Giants are equally impressive. Safety Landon Collins is looking to build off a breakout Pro Bowl season, cornerbacks Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins are physical, crafty players, and they have wily veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who can play outside, in the slot, or even safety in a pinch.
The big question marks will be middle linebacker where B.J. Goodson takes over without much regular-season experience, and the sub-packages where the linebacker group is thin. We’ll find out quickly if Goodson is an every-down linebacker if he has to cover Jason Witten in the opener.
It took a few games last year for the defense to come together after adding so many new faces. They allowed an average of 21.8 points per game in the first six weeks. After that they allowed 15.3 over the final 10 games. That shouldn’t be an issue this year with so much continuity in personnel and coaching. This is Steve Spagnuolo’s third year as defensive coordinator with the Giants, his longest stint anywhere since he was head coach of the Rams from 2009-11. All that familiarity should allow them to expand their repertoire and be even better than last year.
What’s missing? The ability to score points directly (they showed glimpses of that in the preseason with an NFL-leading three defensive touchdowns) and eliminating the long plays (they allowed 59 passes of 20 or more yards last year, 19 of 40 or more). If the Giants can accomplish that this year, they could be not only one of the top units in the league but one of the best in the franchise’s storied history.
Aldrick Rosas answered every challenge the Giants have put in front of him since they signed him way back in January and the first-year kicker won the right to go into the regular season as the team’s kicker. While he has a very strong leg and is capable of kicking 60-yard field goals, no one can be sure what kind of consistency he will bring. The last time the Giants had a rookie specialist who could kick the ball a mile was rookie punter Matt Dodge. That name still sends ripples of dread through the organization.
Punter Brad Wing will play an important role for the Giants. Given their defensive prowess, his ability to pin opposing teams deep in their own territory should be a weapon that will lead indirectly to points scored. Wing’s net average of 40.9 net yards per punt was 10th best in the NFL with 28 downed inside the 20. Those numbers could use a bit of a nudge.
Dwayne Harris made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer last year, which is ironic because the more noticeable part of his job – returning kickoffs and punts – never quite emerged. Instead he reached his honor for his work as a gunner covering punts, something he has been among the best in the league at in recent years. As for the return game, the Giants would like to jumpstart that aspect of their game. Their 6.1 yards per punt return ranked 29th in the NFL and they were one of four teams in the league without a return of 20 or more yards. If Dwayne Harris can’t bring improvement in that area, look for him to be replaced by more dynamic play-makers like Odell Beckham Jr. or Sterling Shepard.