2021 NFL Preview: Joe Judge set a Giants foundation, now Daniel Jones and offense needs to improve

·10 min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Joe Judge did some odd things his first New York Giants offseason. 

He wouldn't say players' names for months. He taped tennis balls to defensive backs' hands if they held. We've seen many former Bill Belichick assistants do weird things that turned bad when they didn't win, and Judge was heading down that path. Judge also had a light resume for a head coach, which drew extra attention at a time when Black assistant coaches are struggling to get opportunities. There were questions. 

A year later, Judge seems like the right hire. The Giants played hard despite a roster that was lacking. Players seemed to like and respect him. Maybe things go bad after a promising first season, but after one year the Giants must be optimistic. Judge was happy, despite a 6-10 record. 

"I'm a process guy. I'm a steps along the ladder guy of what you have to accomplish," Judge said after the season, via Giants.com. "My No. 1 goal as a coach this year was the foundation and the culture. The reality in this league is, every team, all 32 teams, have to start over to start the next season. You can't carry anything over. However, you can build a foundation to build on the next season. You can build a culture in the locker room with the players and coaches that you're working with.

"I can absolutely say with certainty we accomplished that. We accomplished that with how we worked on a daily basis, we accomplished that with how we held each other accountable as players and coaches, and we accomplished that with how we came to work every day with team-first in everything we did."

The next step on that ladder is more wins and a playoff berth. That's where there could be a challenge, though the Giants made positive moves. 

The Giants were aggressive in free agency. They added receiver Kenny Golladay, a rare No. 1 receiver who hits the open market, and cornerback Adoree' Jackson. They had a solid draft, led by receiver Kadarius Toney. Their biggest addition will be getting Saquon Barkley back from a torn ACL. A team that seemed to have positive vibes heading into the offseason got a little better. 

Of course, if we assume the three most important members of a football team are the coach, quarterback and general manager, the Giants still have questions with at least two of those spots. GM Dave Gettleman's draft history has not been great, but until last year it was propped up by the promise of quarterback Daniel Jones, a surprise pick at No. 6 overall in 2019. Then Jones regressed in his second season. He threw only 11 touchdowns in 14 games, with 10 interceptions. His infamous trip and fall at the end of a long run was a microcosm of his season. Maybe it was due to an inferior supporting cast or a weird offseason. Perhaps it was just a typical sophomore slump. But Jones' third season seems like a crossroads. It's big for Gettleman, too. 

The Giants were far from great in 2020 and the only thing that kept them in playoff contention (until the Eagles tanked) was a putrid NFC East. But there appeared to be signs of hope. If Judge is to show more his second season, and Gettleman is to find himself on more solid footing, it probably depends on how Jones' third year goes. All Giants fans are nervously waiting for an answer on that one. 

Joe Judge and Daniel Jones look to lead the Giants to bigger things in 2021. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Joe Judge and Daniel Jones look to lead the Giants to bigger things in 2021. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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There had to be some reason the Detroit Lions allowed Kenny Golladay to hit the open market. It made no sense that a receiver that good, at a prime age, would be allowed to leave. The Giants took advantage, landing him with a four-year, $72 million deal. That's a huge get. Cornerback Adoree' Jackson got $39 million over three years and immediately helps the Giants' secondary. They made some lower-key moves, like signing tight end Kyle Rudolph and taking a flyer on receiver John Ross, a former top-10 draft pick. There were departures, most notably guard Kevin Zeitler and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Dave Gettleman finally moved down in a draft, and ended up with playmaking receiver Kadarius Toney with the 20th overall pick while adding a 2021 fifth-round pick, 2022 first-round pick and 2022 fourth-round pick. It was a good offseason. 

Grade: B

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Maybe Daniel Jones deserves a pass. He was good as a rookie. Then in 2020, he had a new head coach and new offensive coordinator in a COVID-19 offseason. He also had no true No. 1 receiver and lost Saquon Barkley to a knee injury. Still, the Giants' offense was bad and Jones bears the most responsibility for that. The 2020 Giants scored more than 23 points in a game just twice. They scored fewer than 10 points four times. Jones simply didn't make enough big plays. Maybe more time with his teammates and coaches in the offseason will help, as will Kenny Golladay and Barkley. There are just more questions now than there were a year ago. 

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The Giants' win total at BetMGM is 7, and I'd lean toward the over. There are reasons to believe the Giants' progress last year was overhyped (they were 6-10 with a -77 point differential after all), but I liked some of the things I saw and Kenny Golladay was a great free-agent addition. I also think we'll see the Daniel Jones from 2019, which should be good enough for at least 7-10 and a push. I also don't hate the Giants at +450 to win the division. That number might speak more to the state of the NFC East than the Giants, but the tickets cash the same. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "If you're the type of fantasy manager who shies away from receivers changing teams, 2020 was not your season. Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, and even Robbie Anderson all excelled from the jump with new teams. That said, Kenny Golladay looks like a trap for 2021.

"Golladay certainly takes a step down at quarterback, trading Matthew Stafford life for Daniel Jones uncertainty. Jason Garrett isn't an offensive coordinator we have a ton of faith in. And New York's receiving room might get crowded; Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and rookie Kadarius Toney are jostling for receiver reps. Even the ancillary pieces get in the way, as Saquon Barkley is a busy pass-catcher, and tight end Evan Engram is another mouth to feed.

"At least the price is reasonable in Yahoo (ADP: 73); Golladay is 13 picks more expensive in NFFC formats. Nonetheless, Golladay was more good than great in his Detroit time, and I'm expecting a slow takeoff for his New York debut. I won't make him a proactive target."

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The Giants defense was good last season. New York finished ninth in points allowed and 12th in yards allowed. The Giants were 11th in the NFL in pass yards allowed per attempt and eighth in rush yards allowed per attempt. The defense wasn't great, but it wasn't the reason the Giants went 6-10. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham had a good season and the Giants held onto him despite some interest in the head-coaching market. The front office added cornerback Adoree' Jackson to help the coverage. Perhaps the Giants can get some help from some rookies; they drafted edge rushers Azeez Ojulari (second round) and Elerson Smith (fourth round) and cornerback Aaron Robinson (third round). It's a defense that has slowly added a lot of high-end talent like cornerback James Bradberry and defensive linemen Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, and there's a chance it's a bonafide top-10 defense this season. 

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What should we expect from Saquon Barkley? 

Giants president John Mara isn't worried about running back Saquon Barkley's return from a torn ACL (as well as an injured MCL and meniscus), saying the Giants "fully expect him to be as good as new."

The challenge is how to bring Barkley along this season. The Giants want Barkley back as soon as possible. The Giants have a lot invested in Barkley, a tremendous talent at running back, and setting him back by rushing him should be out of the question. 

Barkley isn't expected to be a full participant early in training camp, according to ESPN's Jordan Raanan. He rarely came off the field as a rookie, but a full workload right away "was never realistic" Raanan said. 

Even if Barkley makes it back by Week 1, it doesn't mean he'll be the same player, particularly right away. The Giants have to be careful they don't put a short-term desire to win games over Barkley's career. If Barkley isn't playing as much early in the season, don't be surprised, though you'd have to bet on a player of his athleticism and work ethic making it all the way back by at least midseason. Everyone will be hoping so anyway. 

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The Giants offense wasn't good enough last season, but New York is adding Kenny Golladay and Saquon Barkley to it. That's huge. Daniel Jones didn't play well last season, but he didn't have a lot of help. If the Giants' offense looks a lot better with Barkley making plays and Golladay allowing Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton into more comfortable secondary roles, there could be some rapid improvement. The defense might be good enough to keep the team in every game. The Giants almost won the NFC East last season, and they could do it this season without being helped by a horrendous division. It could be a double-digit win team if everything comes together. 

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If your quarterback throws 11 touchdowns and fewer than 3,000 yards in this NFL landscape you're not winning much. We have two seasons of Jones; one was promising and the other was poor. It's worth noting that Jones' rookie season was inconsistent and propped up by a handful of fantastic games. If he's more in line with the player we saw last season, the Giants can't feel great about him going forward. And it's tough to start anew at quarterback. There's also the issue of perhaps being too excited about the Giants' progress. Being in a historically bad NFC East race until the end might have provided more hope than was earned. A 6-10 team that was outscored by 77 points and didn't rank in the top half of the league in most meaningful metrics isn't assured of a step forward. 

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The Giants had some good moments last season, particularly a win at the Seattle Seahawks that capped a four-game winning streak. Maybe being in the NFC East race gave the Giants and their fans false hope going into the offseason, but it did seem like there were improvements late last season. I won't pick the Giants to win the NFC East this season, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did. The defense has a lot of good players. I really liked the Kenny Golladay signing and the return of Saquon Barkley will be big. Wherever the Giants end up, it should be a step forward from last season with a more solid foundation for optimism going into 2022. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders

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