Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Jones was a preseason demigod, but it’s in the team’s best long-term interest to be patient while the rookie quarterback sits behind Eli Manning.
This preseason, Daniel Jones made Giants general manager Dave Gettleman look smart.
The former Duke quarterback was the 2019 NFL Draft’s most-derided pick after the Giants selected him sixth overall. The three-year collegiate starter with an Osweiler-ian 6.4 yards per pass career average became the biggest target for fan scorn in New York’s extended rebuild, but his first NFL preseason created a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
In his pro debut, the rookie quarterback completed all five of his passes for 67 yards, one touchdown, and a perfect passer rating. He went 11 of 14 for 161 yards and a score against the Bears one week later. Jones finished his exhibition schedule as the league’s top-rated QB, completing more than 85 percent of his passes for an astounding 12.2 yards per attempt.
It came against backups and practice squad hopefuls, but it still showed off the promise that made Gettleman stick his neck out and select Jones with his team’s first pick. A solid preseason has made Jones look like the kind of player who can take over for entrenched starter Eli Manning when his contract expires this offseason — or maybe even earlier.
And it might not matter. With a stark lack of receiving talent on the roster, 2019 could be a no-win situation for whomever is under center this year.
The Giants have few reliable receivers thanks to bad decisions and bad luck
In the span of just a few seasons, New York has gone from having a rich vein of targets for Manning to an uncertain or unproven cast. Here’s how the team’s projected depth chart has changed since 2017.
That’s a lot of turnover heading into Week 1!
Sterling Shepard has recovered nicely from a broken thumb suffered this summer, but missed the entire preseason. Golden Tate, signed to help ease the pain of trading away Odell Beckham Jr., will miss the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension. Corey Coleman, the former first-round pick signed last fall as a possible reclamation project, tore his ACL and will miss the season. 2019 fifth-round pick Darius Slayton will likely miss the start of the season with a hamstring injury and currently sits toward the back of the team’s depth chart.
The team’s wideouts aren’t concerned. Like Jones, they outperformed expectations in the preseason. Russell Shepard and Latimer, who showed flashes of talent last season in north Jersey, each looked like viable big-play options after averaging 18.6 and 21.0 yards per catch, respectively.
That’s great for building optimism, but it’s not exactly evidence this group can overcome its losses early in a turbulent season. Sterling Shepard leads a depth chart whose next three men up combined for 37 receptions in 2018. Things will get better once Tate returns, but there isn’t a wellspring of depth in New York. This isn’t a top 25 unit in the NFL, even with both those starters ready to go.
And the injury problems that haunted New York’s preseason haven’t let up. The Giants could head into Week 2 without Sterling Shepard, Slayton, or Latimer:
#NYGiants injury report (9/12):
Did not practice: WR Cody Latimer (calf), WR Sterling Shepard (concussion), WR Darius Slayton (hamstring), TE Garrett Dickerson (quad)
Limited: DL Dexter Lawrence (shoulder)
Full participation: G Kevin Zeitler (shoulder), LB Markus Golden (hip) pic.twitter.com/2qWrje85Iy
— Dan Salomone (@NYGsalomone) September 12, 2019
Shurmur already proved he’s fine with getting Jones reps in garbage time after inserting him into the waning moments of a season-opening 35-17 loss to the Cowboys. He could see more time if Manning struggles to connect with a depleted group of wideouts — but any time he gets won’t tell us much about his ceiling as a pro.
There’s high-impact help for Manning and Jones elsewhere
The good news is there are two very useful pieces of the aerial puzzle who should be contribute from Week 1. Engram isn’t much of a blocking tight end — though he’s working on it and has, by his own estimate, improved by leaps and bound. Despite that, he is a deadly weapon through the air when healthy.
He missed five games last season but still posted significant improvements over a very good 2017 rookie campaign. His catch rate rose from 55.7 percent to 70.3 percent, leading to a yards-per-target bump from 6.3 to 9.0 — good enough for sixth-best in the NFL among tight ends. Maintaining that jump would make him an upper-tier target at his position. Continued growth, which is entirely possible in his third season in the league, would give him All-Pro credibility.
Then there’s the workout monster who does pretty much everything out of the backfield. Saquon Barkley proved worthy of the second overall pick last spring by exploding for a league-high 2,028 yards from scrimmage. Of those yards, 721 came through the air, where he recorded a 75 percent catch rate. His 121 targets were third-most among tailbacks in 2018, trailing only Christian McCaffrey and James White.
Barkley is also well equipped to avoid a sophomore slump even as opponents get accustomed to his running style. His three 2018 games against teams he’d already faced earlier in the year — the three NFC East teams that show up twice on the Giants’ schedule — resulted in 100+ yard rushing performances in each.
But even the team’s bright spots on offense will have to fight off steep downsides to help this fall. Engram’s rise in 2018 was partly attributable to getting full seasons out of Beckham and Shepard, both of whom took defensive focus off his shoulders.
While Engram will see more double teams, no player on the roster will draw more attention than Barkley, who will star in opponents’ film sessions each week. He thrived as a rookie in part by attacking the soft middle created by Beckham’s ability to punish defensive backs downfield. That will be more difficult in 2019, when he’ll have to fight his way through eight-man boxes to gain yards until New York’s quarterbacks can prove this team can still demand the respect of a deep safety.
And that could jumble the Giants’ changing of the guard at quarterback
No team would be happy with the attrition New York is dealing with at wideout to begin the season. The Giants, however, aren’t just dealing with a lack of receivers. They’re also preparing for a major transition at quarterback.
Jones may look like a franchise quarterback thanks to his build, strong arm, and preseason showcase. His Duke career suggests he’ll need time to adjust to the pro game. His aforementioned 6.4 yards per pass in college would have ranked 33rd of 34 qualified starting NFL QBs in 2018.
Jones arguably has the tools to be great, but the early-career breakouts of passers like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have shown the best way to coax growth from a high-potential QB is to surround him with receiving talent. The Giants don’t have that right now. It will be up to Manning to shield his young ward from game experience that could ultimately be detrimental to his career.
This is a task Manning could handle … with his typical supporting cast. The 38-year-old had one of his best statistical seasons in 2018 despite New York’s 5-11 campaign. He completed a career-high 66 percent of his passes and his 7.5 yards per attempt were the third-best mark of a 15-year career. Even at an advanced age he can provide a league-average presence, especially on a team with few playoff aspirations.
That late-career revival came with a potent core of targets, however. If Manning struggles early — and without Beckham or Tate in the lineup, he very well may — calls for Jones to play will intensify. The rookie’s outstanding preseason would only add more evidence behind the “make a switch” argument.
This would probably be a bad idea for New York, but that may not stop it from happening. This has not been a club that sticks to logical goals in the past. Manning found himself benched thanks to former coach Ben McAdoo’s whims back in 2017, ending a 210-game start streak so the team could see what it had in Jets washout Geno Smith.
McAdoo’s replacement Pat Shurmur is a more stable presence. He’s also under pressure to keep his job; oddsmakers have named him the second-most likely coach to be fired or resign this season.
Thus, the Giants have a swirling confluence of crappy influences that could lead to the too-soon insertion and resulting breakdown of a promising rookie quarterback. All of this points to a rough go for whomever is taking snaps for the Giants this season.
The benefit for New York is there aren’t many expectations to fulfill this season. 2019 was always going to be about reloading a roster clearly in transition and working out an escape plan for Manning that’s failed to pan out in the past (see Smith, Kyle Lauletta, Davis Webb, Ryan Nassib, etc).
Getting Jones to a place where he can compete as an NFL passer is this year’s most important goal for the Giants — and one that may not involve much game action while he has a depleted receiving corps.
While there’s help on the horizon with Tate’s impending return, it likely won’t be enough to lift the offense to the point of contention.
And that’s OK, so long as a lackluster wideout corps doesn’t bring the future of the franchise down with it.
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