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State of the NFC East: A look at the 2021 New York Giants

Are the Giants ready to take the next step?

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

A year ago the New York Giants were getting ready to begin their first training camp under new head coach Joe Judge, a hire which received plenty of criticism at the time and received more scrutiny the more Judge spoke to the media. After starting 0-5, it looked like many of those criticisms were dead on.

Yet the Giants hit their stride, sweeping the eventual division champion Football Team and winning four straight games to vault themselves into contention in a very, very bad NFC East. Three straight losses to quality teams sunk their season, but the Giants’ 6-10 finish was still good enough to put them in second place in the division and head into the offseason with a lot of positivity.

Now the Giants are looking to build off of that and take a big step forward in the second year of the Judge era. With the NFC East very much open for the taking, New York is hoping the things they did in the offseason will help secure their first playoff appearance since 2016, the first season under now-Cowboys consultant Ben McAdoo. Perhaps the biggest story to come out of the Giants’ offseason was the changes they didn’t make. Embattled general manager Dave Gettleman was not fired, as some expected or hoped, and returned to the team for his fourth year in the role; meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham each garnered head coaching interest from vacancies across the league, but both returned to the team for the 2021 season.

In order to better understand where this Giants team is at right now, we got some input from Emily Iannaconi over at Big Blue View, who was kind enough to offer her insight on the team and their progress this past year. When thinking of the offseason, Iannaconi had this to say:

The single most positive development for this team over the offseason was the receiving class. Last season, the Giants’ receiving corps, for better or worse, was known mostly for Evan Engram’s drops. They lacked explosive and consistent playmakers. This offseason though, New York made a conscious effort to improve its receiving room. The Giants signed Kenny Golladay in free agency and added veterans Kyle Rudolph and John Ross before selecting wideout Kadarius Toney in the 2021 NFL Draft. After finishing dead last in the league last year in average yards after the catch per reception, New York is well-positioned for improvement next season.

The Golladay signing was indeed a big moment for the Giants in the offseason, as he’ll join Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard to provide a much better receiving corps for Daniel Jones. Ross is also an undervalued presence, while Rudolph can be a very effective second tight end in Garrett’s offense.

But Toney is perhaps the most intriguing addition, and for a few reasons. First off, Toney was billed throughout the draft process as an extremely dynamic receiver who would thrive in the NFL if paired with a play-caller able to use him in a variety of ways. That’s not exactly how Cowboys fans, and some Giants fans, would describe Garrett, so it’ll be interesting to see how the coordinator integrates his new weapon.

Also intriguing is how the Giants ended up with Toney. Initially slated to select 11th overall, one pick after the Cowboys, it was reported that Gettleman was infatuated with Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith. But Dallas traded down two spots with fellow division rival Philadelphia, who took Smith. That prompted New York to trade all the way back to 20, where they eventually took Toney. It certainly wasn’t their plan A, but the Giants played the hand they were dealt and came away from the draft pretty satisfied with the guy they did get.

But the offseason wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, according to Iannaconi:

I think the lack of development at one position group is cause for significant concern: offensive line. Over the past two years, New York’s offensive line combined to produce the fifth-worst overall grade in the league. This trend looks like it will continue as the Giants have many question marks on the offensive line. Former first-round pick Andrew Thomas was just ok in his rookie season, Nick Gates is inexperienced at center and guard remains a toss up between Will Hernandez, Shane Lemieux and Zach Fulton. Daniel Jones may have more weapons to throw to but it remains to be seen how much that will help if there is little protection up front.

The Giants’ struggles in the trenches have been well-documented, and it even culminated in the firing of offensive line coach Marc Colombo during the season last year. They now have a new offensive line coach in Rob Sale, a college football lifer who is working in the pro game for the first time in his career. He’ll have little in the way of new players to work with, instead being tasked with simply making last year’s underwhelming group play better.

Of course, much of the Giants’ successes in 2020 came courtesy of a swarming defense that limited even some of the best offenses to very few points. They return a majority of their key players on that side of the ball this year, but Iannaconi thinks one defender could be poised for a really big year as well:

The first player that comes to mind as a potential sleeper in the upcoming season is safety Xavier McKinney. McKinney had a slow rookie campaign due to a foot injury but he showed lots of promise in his second season with the team. In four games last year, McKinney recorded 25 tackles, including one tackle for loss, one pass breakup and one interception. When fully healthy, he has the potential to become a breakout player in what is becoming an increasingly strong Giants secondary.

McKinney was once a draft darling for the Cowboys as well, but it was honestly our fault for thinking the team would actually invest draft capital into the position. His one interception came against the Cowboys in their regular-season finale, and with a full offseason under his belt, the former Alabama product could be ready to snare even more interceptions this year.

It wasn’t a perfect offseason by any means, but the Giants did do a few important things: they kept together their decision-making nucleus, upgraded Jones’ weapons, and worked on further supplementing their stout defense. The next step is winning the division, or at least making the playoffs, a goal that Iannaconi thinks is very much doable:

The expectations for this Giants team are to finish above .500 which means they should conclude the 2021 season with at least a 9-8 record. According to NFL.com, New York has the eighth-easiest schedule based on the 2020 records of the Giants’ opponents which is 128-142-2. The Giants have not finished with a record above .500 since 2016 but a combination of opponents and an improved roster should result in a winning record. Pushing for a wild card berth is the ultimate goal (and it is plausible), but getting back on the winning path is the No.1 priority.

[But] the biggest challenge for this team in an abstract sense is identity. It’s the second year under Joe Judge and while he set the tone for expectations in New York, the impact has not yet been felt in his rookie coaching campaign. The Giants are a young team being led by a young coach and they are still figuring out how to embrace their unique strengths. Then, in a tangible sense, the biggest challenge is Daniel Jones. Can he establish himself, not as a breakout star, by a consistent leader under center? Judge’s guidance and Jones’ progression will determine the Giants’ success next season.