Five Giants with the most to prove over the final five games

This year’s New York Giants bye week was delayed, but fortunately it comes just close enough to the end of the campaign to raise pertinent questions regarding the roster with enough games left to provide some answers. Yes, the Giants are still mathematically eligible for the postseason, and yes, a crazy writer even predicted they would. After one Tyrod Taylor epiphany and one missed field goal by an injured Graham Gano, however, the main focus of the season’s suspense will be on individual players and the Giants’ projected draft pick.

Who will be a Giant in 2024 and who will not? Let’s think about which players have the most to gain or lose in these final five games. It’s a complicated question to answer, because it depends not only on a given player’s performance, but also his potential, his health, and his contract situation.

Tommy DeVito

The biggest unknown going into 2024 will undoubtedly be the Giants’ quarterback situation. Things went south this season for Daniel Jones following his breakout 2022 campaign; the only reason he isn’t on this list is that he won’t be playing in 2023. There’s no doubt that he will be a Giant in 2024 given his contract structure. Unless the Giants don’t choose a quarterback in the upcoming NFL Draft, you have to assume that Tyrod Taylor won’t be coming back due to his age and salary.

Right now the biggest question, against all odds, is Tommy DeVito. DeVito looked every bit the undrafted free agent developmental project when he was forced into action against the Jets, and he wasn’t that much better even with a week to prepare in Las Vegas and Dallas. Then he broke out in Washington and followed it up with a pretty good performance against New England.

The Giants’ next game against Green Bay will feature an unnamed starting lineup by Brian Daboll. By then, Taylor will be off of injured reserve, and I had assumed he would be back in the starting lineup. I’ve changed my mind after watching DeVito play in the last two games. Suddenly, how good can he be? is the question. Asking whether DeVito can be QB2 instead of locked in for QB3 for 2024 is now reasonable. Heck, it’s not even crazy to think that Brock Purdy might eventually establish himself as the starting quarterback given his background.

DeVito is ranked second among the QBs in the 2023 draft class with at least 100 dropbacks in Pro Football Focus’ passing grade:

He’s hung in or moved around in the pocket when Jones would bail, he’s taken shots downfield (and succeeded) when Jones would check down, and he was throwing with better anticipation than Jones. However, neither of them has competed against opponents of the same caliber or behind the same offensive line. Here’s a reminder of the offensive line performance of the Giants thus far this season.

We can track the evolution of the Giants’ line over the season by looking at how badly they have performed for the Giants’ three quarterbacks, since conveniently, their game action only barely overlaps in time. Here is pressure rate vs. time to pressure:

These metrics are not QB-independent, since different quarterbacks read defenses and avoid pressure to different extents. We can say that (1) no one has been pressured more this season than Jones; (2) you can just about draw a straight line through the three Giants’ QBs, so improvement of the OL over the course of the season might be the best explanation. I don’t have a number, but it seems that the free rushers that were rampant in the early games against Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, and Miami have largely disappeared. According to @Doug_Analytics, Jones was pressured within 1.8 seconds on 5.7% of his dropbacks, the most of any quarterback this season. That can’t all be failure to go to a hot read.

A better metric is the Giants’ PFF pass blocking grade for each game:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

PFF analysts try to isolate each player’s performance from the players around them. The average pass block grade for Jones (games 1-5) was 38.9, for Taylor (games 5-8) it was 40.8, and for DeVito (games 8-12) it was 55.3. DeVito’s best two performances coincide with the best pass protection he has seen, and were two of the Giants’ only three games with at least adequate pass blocking (the third, in Week 2, was Jones’ best game). The offensive line has clearly gotten better. Whatever the reason, DeVito is working behind a line that is giving him a chance to succeed. That means he can get a fair evaluation these next five games.

Former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan breaks down DeVito’s game against New England in his series The QB School. O’Sullivan is impressed with DeVito’s pocket presence, his willingness to go deep in a collapsing pocket, and his ability to layer throws into the honey hole against a Cover 2 defense. He also points out times when DeVito left plays on the field, taking a sack when he had both a checkdown to Sterling Shepard and an intermediate crosser to Wan’Dale Robinson open, and when he overthrew Jalin Hyatt just enough to allow Hyatt to catch the ball but too much to keep him in-bounds after the catch so he could turn upfield. If anything, DeVito may be a little too aggressive at times; passing up shorter gains may be one reason he has taken as many sacks as he has.

The next two games are more advanced in difficulty. New Orleans has one of the best coverage units in the NFL, and Green Bay has above-average pass coverage. Next up are the Eagles, whose pass rush is still as potent as ever despite their pass coverage being surprisingly mediocre this season. If DeVito starts these games, will he be able to demonstrate his effectiveness against more formidable defenses?

If so, 2024 has all sorts of possibilities. Will it affect the Giants’ decision to draft a quarterback in Round 1 as opposed to waiting until Round 2? Could DeVito actually start Game 1 in 2024 if Jones is not ready and be QB2 for the season? Three weeks ago it would have seemed ridiculous to even ask. Now it’s not as far-fetched.

Azeez Ojulari

Edge defender Azeez Ojulari has been one of this Giants team’s biggest mysteries and disappointments. In the 2021 draft, Ojulari was thought to be a steal in the second round. In a deep class at the position, he was regarded as a first-round talent whose stock fell prior to the draft. Ojulari suffered an ACL tear in high school, which did not interfere with his college experience. However, a pre-draft medical evaluation revealed that Ojulari had a degenerative lower leg condition. Ojulari was still available to the Giants at No. 51 after they traded down from No. 42.

Ojulari was viewed by Bucky Brooks and Lance Zierlein as a first-round talent, so they were taken aback when he survived to Round 2. Their only concern wasn’t about his health, but rather that, after graduating from college, he was a one-trick pony who primarily wins by speed. Ojulari was rated as an EDGE1 by Dane Brugler of The Athletic, but he pointed out that he was a little undersized and needed to vary his rush and develop his ability to counter blockers’ moves:

Courtesy of The Athletic

Ojulari had a great rookie season, appearing in every game and earning 8 sacks. When the Giants drafted Kayvon Thibodeaux in 2022, it looked like the Giants would be set at edge defender with Oshane Ximines, Quincy Roche, and Elerson Smith backing up Ojulari and Thibodeaux.

In the present, Thibodeaux is the only defender left in the cupboard at Edge. Ximines was recently cut from the practice squad despite never living up to his early potential. Despite doing a good job opposite Ojulari in 2021, Roche was let go in 2022. Smith spent the most of his time with the Giants injured and was later released. Over the last two years, Ojulari has only played in 13 games and, when he has, he has mostly been ineffective. Although he did record 5.5 sacks in seven games in 2022, he hasn’t accomplished much in 2023. Among edge defenders in the 2021 draft class with at least 100 snaps, he comes in dead last in pass rush:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

In 199 snaps, he has zero sacks and only nine total pressures. This year he has missed six games, with a hamstring injury and an ankle sprain. In 2022 he missed 10 games with a calf injury. Before the 2022 season, Ojulari did considerable work to build up his upper body, presumably so that he could add power moves to his arsenal. His relatively small size had been another possible factor in teams passing on him in the draft. The work didn’t seem to help him increase his productivity.

Considering that Ojulari is not especially good at setting the edge against the run, pass rushing is most of what he brings to the table. (That said, here’s a clip from Nick Falato showing a nice play by Ojuari against the Patriots run game last Sunday):

Unless Ojulari is still recovering from his prior injuries, it’s unclear why he hasn’t reverted to his 2021–2022 form. He was selected in the second round and does not have a fifth-year option, so unless he improves his performance, 2024 will be his last season with the Giants. The final five games of this season will determine whether the Giants choose to sign a free agent in the spring of 2019 or try to draft a replacement for him. His $2.2 million 2024 cap hit is low enough to virtually guarantee that he will be back for the 2024 season.

Evan Neal

The stakes don’t get much higher than being a top 10 draft pick at the position of greatest weakness and arguably third-highest importance on the team (after quarterback and left tackle) and being on the verge of failure after two years.

Neal’s weaknesses in college were known. Here e.g. is Lance Zierlein’s assessment of them for

Yet Zierlein had Neal as his OT1 in the 2022 draft, slightly ahead of Ikem Ekwonu and well ahead of Charles Cross. He wasn’t the only one. Dane Brugler of The Athletic rated Neal as his OT2, behind Ekwonu and ahead of Cross, and as the No. 3 overall player in that draft. His summary said:

Courtesy of The Athletic

PFF in its 2022 Draft Guide said, “What Neal has, can’t be coached. He is a special physical talent who is only scratching the surface.” They noted the following strengths and weaknesses:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The bottom line is that everyone highlighted Neal’s leaning and balance issues in college, yet everyone assumed that they would be easy to correct in the pros and that he would be a dominant NFL tackle. It hasn’t happened. The lunging is still there. The athleticism Brugler saw isn’t obvious against NFL edge defenders.

His tirade against the fans after another poor performance aside, Neal has tried to get better, working with Willie Anderson (a Hall of Fame semi-finalist again this year) to improve his stance. We don’t know what is happening behind the scenes, but if there is anything that would indict the effectiveness of Bobby Johnson as offensive line coach, Neal’s failure to correct his college weaknesses and adapt to NFL-caliber edge defenders would be Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Maybe he has improved a little since Year 1:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

He is giving up sacks at about half the rate he did in 2022 (although his hurries surrendered are on track to be higher per snap). We can see slightly better performance in his most recent two games, with higher pass blocking grades and fewer pressures of any kind. And that is a reminder that the Giants faced a horrendous early season schedule, with Neal facing some of the best pass rushers in the league.

Unfortunately, Neal’s two ankle injuries, first to his right ankle, keeping him out for two games, and then to his left, causing him to miss the last three, don’t help. It’s hoped that he will get back on the field this season, but it’s not guaranteed. If he doesn’t, that creates a quandary for Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen. Do the Giants move Neal to guard in 2024 and draft a right tackle in Round 1 or 2? With needs at quarterback, wide receiver, and edge defender, they’d probably like to avoid that.

Xavier McKinney

The 2020 NFL Draft was considered a bonanza for teams needing a safety, with five good ones expected to go on Day 1 and 2. As the end of Round 1 approached, Mel Kiper was (figuratively) salivating on the broadcast pointing out that Xavier McKinney, considered the best of them along with Antoine Winfield Jr., was still on the board. The first round ended with no safeties being chosen, and then in Round 2, the Giants chose McKinney with the No. 36 pick. Kyle Dugger went No. 37, Grant Delpit No. 44, Winfield No. 45, and Jeremy Chinn No. 64. McKinney would always be viewed in comparison to those other four, since the Giants could have had any of them.

McKinney suffered a pedal foot fracture in his first training camp and missed most of the season, but he returned just in time to make an end-zone interception in the final game of the season against Dallas to seal a rare Giants victory over the Cowboys and keep their playoff dreams alive. In 2021, fans started to see McKinney’s potential unfold, as he intercepted 5 passes, tied for second in the league among safeties. His overall PFF grade was 75.4, second only to Winfield, and fans thought that position was settled for the next decade.

Exit Patrick Graham, enter Wink Martindale. Graham used McKinney as his “centerfielder” in mostly zone defenses, while Martindale has used him all over the place and more in man coverage than in his first two seasons:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Under Graham, McKinney rarely lined up on the line and rushed the passer; under Martindale, much more often of both. Under Wink, McKinney has lined up in the box as more of a strong safety much more often (especially this season) than under Graham.

Has it affected his play? It’s hard to say. After his breakout 2021, McKinney didn’t intercept a single ball last season and had none this season until the New England game last Sunday. Of course McKinney had that self-inflicted injury during his ATV ride during the break last season, and perhaps it has taken time for him to fully recover from that.

Whatever the reason, McKinney has seemed more like the problem and less like the solution through much of 2023. It all came to a head after the Las Vegas embarrassment when McKinney called out Martindale for not listening to the team leaders. Given that McKinney has an agent known for seeking big contracts, it seemed that McKinney’s days as a Giant might be numbered.

Things have changed, though. Although Wink gave an extended answer to the question of how he felt about McKinney’s remarks (which may have been a source of friction with Daboll), the two seem to have kissed and made up. McKinney has played his best ball of the season in the past two weeks:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

For the season, his overall PFF grade of 81.3 (which is not simply an average of each game, because PFF takes into account that even the best players have bad and mediocre games sometimes) is fourth among 20 safeties from the 2020 class.

It’s not because Wink is letting him play free safety more and in the box less. In the first 10 games he was at free safety anywhere from 17 to 43 plays, in the past two he’s been there 32 and 34 plays. He was in the box 13-27 times the first 10 games, 28 and 19 the past two.

Is it because of how much man vs. zone defense he is playing? Here are the Giants’ coverage schemes for weeks 1-11:

The Giants played a lot less Cover 0 and Cover 1 against Washington than in any previous game, and a lot more Cover 3. Coincidentally or not, McKinney had his first elite game of the season that week. McKinney’s PFF grade in man coverage was 63.2, vs. 82.6 in zone. In week 12, though, PFF reports that the Giants played 52.8% man, more like what they had been doing in recent weeks and that McKinney graded excellent in both man (91.0) and zone (86.7). So the mystery of why he is suddenly playing better remains. McKinney’s first interception of the season came in the Patriots game on a play in which the Giants were in Cover 3 with McKinney in centerfield.

McKinney needs to continue his play of the past two games if he wants to have any hope of a contract extension. Getting him near the top of Round 2 means that he has no fifth-year option. That’s too bad; a fifth-year option would probably have been worth something like $10M given that he did not reach the 75% playtime threshold in his first three seasons and that the basic fifth year option for the 2021 cornerback class (there were no Round 1 safeties) is projected by Over The Cap to be around $12M.

Instead, McKinney will probably seek an extension close to what Winfield is projected to get. Pewter Report guesstimates that Winfield will sign for something like three years, $19 million per year, which is about what the highest-paid safety (Derwin James) is making. McKinney’s play over the first 10 games, and over a decent part of his first four years, would make a number like that untenable. Build upon the past two weeks with five more strong games, though, and the Giants would be in a difficult situation. Over The Cap projects the 2024 franchise tag for safeties at $18.2M, and in any case Schoen probably wants to reserve the tag for Saquon Barkley once again as a basis for negotiations (the RB tag for 2024 is projected to be $13.1M). If McKinney establishes himself as a game-changer, it’s worth making a large commitment.

Adoree’ Jackson

Jackson is another difficult decision for the Giants. He was signed as a free agent by Dave Gettleman to probably a bigger contract than he deserved ($13.3M average annual value, tied for 13th among cornerbacks). Jackson has been a good cover corner for the Giants for two seasons, but he has been below average this year:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

More importantly, Jackson has “taken one for the team” twice. First, he agreed to be the punt returner in 2022 when the Giants thought they had no one else to turn to, was promptly injured returning a punt against Detroit, and missed the rest of the regular season. This season the Giants asked him to move to slot corner so the Giants could try rookie Tre Hawkins at boundary corner. That didn’t work well enough so Jackson reclaimed his position at boundary corner after four weeks.

Jackson is generally a reliable cover corner, although he had as much responsibility as anyone for the loss to the Jets when he ran into a rookie practice squad elevation on a deep pass and was flagged for pass interference, setting up the Jets’ winning field goal. Jackson’s problem is that he does not intercept passes on a team filled with defensive players who do not make many interceptions (until the past two weeks).

Jackson is still only 28, so he (and his agent) probably figure that they have one more big contract in them to negotiate. Joe Schoen may not see Jackson as enough of a playmaker to devote a substantial amount of money to. Do the Giants feel that Hawkins can be the guy next year? If not, then the Giants may have to draft a replacement. That’s all well and good, but given needs at quarterback, offensive line, edge defender, wide receiver, and defensive line, there are only so many draft picks to go around. Something around $10-11M per year would put Jackson in the Stephon Gilmore-D.J. Reed neighborhood. Strong play by Jackson over the final five games may determine whether he can even get that much of an offer to remain a Giant.

Honorable mentions

Isaiah Hodgins: Hodgins was a huge surprise for the Giants last season, catching 46 passes for 500 yards and 5 TDs and graded 76.9 by PFF. This season he has been an afterthought in the offense, with only 15 receptions for 154 yards and 2 TDs with a 52.7 PFF grade. Those 2 TDs, though, lead Giants wide receivers. Partly, Hodgins’ disappearance reflects the struggles of the anemic offense as a whole. Will he be back next season? There is probably room for him at the bottom of the depth chart, and his $870K cap hit makes him easy to fit into the budget. Some production these final five weeks would help his chances.

Isaiah Simmons: Simmons was an exciting acquisition, a former high first round pick who fell out of favor in Arizona and was traded to the Giants for a seventh-round pick. Simmons is in his fifth year but his option was not picked up by Arizona, so the Giants have him this season at the bargain price of $1.01M. He replaces Micah McFadden on passing downs, and most weeks he plays fewer than half the snaps. Simmons has been good on pass coverage (78.2 PFF grade, plus a game-sealing pick-six against Washington). He is often out of position on running plays and has a 16.7% missed tackle rate, though. Simmons has enough upside for the Giants to want to retain him. More consistency in his play over the final five games will help him make his case for a new contract, but at what salary?

Rakeem Nunez-Roches: “Nacho” was signed by the Giants to a three-year contract in the off-season to bolster the middle against the run when Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams were off the field. It hasn’t happened. Nacho has been dipped in salsa and eaten by opposing offensive linemen and running backs all season, posting the worst PFF grade of his career (43.1, including 39.4 on run defense, with 4 hurries). He is making $2.6M this year, but that increases to $4.3M and $5.0M the next two years. It will take a big turnaround in the final five games for the Giants to retain him in 2024, since those final two years are not guaranteed.

A’Shawn Robinson: Robinson was the other IDL signed by Joe Schoen in the off-season to provide depth for when Lawrence and Williams were off the field. He signed a one-year contract for $4.6M that was structured to have a $2.5M cap hit this year with $2.1M dead money in a 2024 void year. Robinson has been better than Nunez-Roches, posting a 55.1 PFF grade with 7 hurries, and with Williams gone, he is starting next to Lawrence. Is that level of production worth $4.6M? Do the Giants want him back? Are they willing to roll with D.J. Davidson and Jordon Riley next year? Will they draft an IDL? Robinson’s play over the next five games may have something to say about that, especially those two games against the Eagles.

Aaron Robinson: Remember ARob? He used to be a Giant. He was supposed to take over either the CB2 or slot corner role, and when he’s played he has generally looked promising. The problem is that he’s been hurt most of his Giants’ career, appearing in only 11 games in 3 seasons so far. The latest injury, last season, was a torn MCL and partially torn ACL. There’s been no word on his return. It’s possible he will miss almost two seasons. ARob will have a $1.6M cap hit next season in the final year of his rookie contract. That’s cheap for a possible quality corner, but at this point it doesn’t seem like we will see him in the final five games. He can be released with only $275K in dead money. Is the $1.36M cap savings worth it, or is it better to take one more chance on a player who had promise?

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