NFL News & Analysis

New York Giants 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Nov 15, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) huddles with the team during warmups before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

A second-place finish in the 2020 NFC East sounds more impressive than the New York Giants’ season actually was. The group showed some feistiness under first-year coach Joe Judge, particularly on defense, but the Giants' roster still isn't ready to truly compete for a playoff berth.

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The offensive line has a long way to go from what it put on tape in 2020 to even average play, and New York’s strength up front on the defensive line will be susceptible to several losses in free agency. It’s what the Giants do around the margins over the coming weeks to continue improving this roster that will help determine their outlook moving forward. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $7,373,514 (18th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 11, 42, 76, 117, 198, 203

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Daniel Jones 17 / 32 $7.2 million
RB Saquon Barkley N/A $10.0 million
WR ?
WR Darius Slayton 75 / 127 $0.9 million
WR Sterling Shepard 22 / 127 $9.0 million
TE Evan Engram 51 / 71 $6.0 million
LT Andrew Thomas 32 / 38 $7.4 million
LG ?
C Nick Gates 27 / 37 $3.3 million
RG Kevin Zeitler 18 / 40 $14.5 million
RT ?

The key for New York’s offense in 2021 will be to put enough pieces in place to confidently evaluate where things stand with Jones as the franchise’s quarterback moving forward. The last thing a team wants is to not surround its young quarterback with enough talent at receiver or along the offensive line to know whether he can be successful in an even average offensive environment.

At wide receiver, the Giants should prioritize adding a dynamic receiving threat to lead a solid complementary group, one that includes Slayton, Shepard and Engram heading into next season following the expected release of Golden Tate.

The offensive line remains the biggest liability with this current group, though. Thomas and Shane Lemieux had their fair share of “downs” as rookies. Thomas is all but guaranteed to keep his job at left tackle after some stronger play down the stretch, but the other spots are less certain. Will Hernandez and Lemieux will likely battle it out for the left guard job — potentially the weakest position on the offensive line. At center, it seems Gates is the favorite to maintain his starting job.    

Zeitler and Nate Solder will likely need to restructure their current deals, but both would provide some veteran stability on the right side of the offensive line should they be the starting right guard and right tackle, respectively, in 2021. If the team doesn’t bring back Solder, 2020 draft selection Matt Peart could get a shot at that starting job.  

Why was Daniel Jones' 2020 season better than the stats might suggest?

Jones’ passing stats suggest he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL this past season. His 80.4 passer rating ranked 29th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks through the 2020 regular season, beating out only Drew Lock, Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold. Jones’ PFF grade paints a bit of a better picture. His 17th-place finish in overall grade among that same group of quarterbacks sits much closer to the middle of the pack. 

So, where is the disconnect? 

One data point to highlight is that Jones’ best throws on the season weren’t turning into touchdowns. He ranked tied for 29th with 11 touchdown passes, but his 24 big-time throws on the year were 16th-most in the NFL. Jones was also one of just four quarterbacks to have multiple dropped passes turn into interceptions. His 29 dropped passes in total ranked seventh in the league — part of a larger pattern of him not getting much help from his receivers and offensive line. 

The other aspect of Jones’ 2020 performance that won’t show up in his passing numbers is the value he added with his legs. The play that sticks out is the breakaway touchdown where the turf monster got him, but Jones was effective throughout the year when taking off and running.

The hope is that the Giants get more out of the players around their young quarterback in 2021 and the offense’s efficiency creeps back toward the average play that Jones provided in 2020.     

Should the Giants target a receiving threat with their first-round pick?

There is a strong case for “yes.” While you can argue that edge defender, cornerback or offensive line could potentially offer value with the 11th overall pick, there is a good chance that one of the top four receiving threats in the draft class is available at that spot. Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle or Kyle Pitts could all be legitimate No. 1 options in the passing game on a team that needs just that. 

The Giants have several solid complementary pieces in place between Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley out of the backfield, but they’re in a similar spot to the one they were in last season. They’re missing that guy who can win at all levels of the field and command extra attention from a defense.

Finding that kind of player should be the top priority for New York in this year’s draft to give Daniel Jones more to work with as he enters his third season in the NFL. 

How do the young players on New York’s offensive line progress in 2021?

Having said all that about adding a true No. 1 option in the passing game, this offense isn’t going anywhere without improved offensive line play next season. The Giants will hope that that improvement comes from the younger players who underwent trial by fire in 2020 rather than the team throwing resources at the offensive over the next few months. 

Thomas did show some signs of growth down the stretch for New York at left tackle after a shaky start to the season. After allowing at least three quarterback pressures in each of his first eight games, Thomas surrendered three or more pressures in only three of his final eight contests. Gates at center and Lemieux at left guard will also need to step up in 2021. 

If that development comes to fruition and the Giants get solid play from both Zeitler and Solder on restructured deals, then this group will be in much better shape than it was a season ago.

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith

If the Giants are in the market for a receiver with the 11th overall pick, it will likely be one of these two Alabama prospects. Smith is the more traditional X receiver who consistently creates separation with his routes and comes up big at the catch point. Waddle has some more juice to his game, capable of taking every touch the distance with his combination of speed and twitch. The two are separated by one spot on the PFF Big Board, and either selection would boost the Giants’ receiving corps.  

Interior offensive line: Landon Dickerson, Lane Taylor 

Dickerson has played primarily center over the past two seasons, but he spent time at all five positions along the offensive line during his Alabama career. He likely could play any of the interior positions in the NFL. Dickerson is one of the top interior offensive linemen available in this year’s draft following a 91.3 overall grade this past year, and the Giants should consider him in the second round.

Taylor is a discount free agent target for either depth purposes or starter competition, potentially at left guard, where no Giants player has a strong grasp of the starting job. Taylor started as the Packers' right guard in 2020 before going down with a knee injury in the season opener. It was the second straight year that his season was cut short by injury, but prior to that he had three consecutive years with PFF grades between 66.0 and 68.2 as Green Bay’s starting left guard.  

Tackle: Kelvin Beachum, Ty Nsekhe

The Giants aren’t exactly in a position to be chasing a high-end right tackle in either free agency or this year’s draft. If Solder doesn’t end up on the roster in 2021, then the team will likely want to give 2020 third-round pick Matt Peart every opportunity to win the starting job. That limited my options here to cost-effective free agents who could start if needed. 

Beachum is a better starting option than Nsekhe following four straight seasons with PFF pass-blocking grades of at least 72.0 as a starter for both the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. His time with the Jets was spent at left tackle, but Beachum did play right tackle this past season with the Cardinals. 

Nsekhe still profiles as a quality depth piece, though. The 35-year-old earned PFF grades of 67.8 and 65.2 across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, respectively, on roughly 400 snaps each year before playing just 55 snaps this past season for the Bills.

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI ?
DI ?
DI Dexter Lawrence 17 / 125 $3.6 million
EDGE ?
EDGE Lorenzo Carter N/A $2.4 million
LB Blake Martinez 6 / 83 $10.2 million
LB Tae Crowder 78 / 83 $0.8 million
CB James Bradberry 7 / 121 $17.3 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Jabrill Peppers 46 / 94 $6.8 million
S Logan Ryan 49 / 94 $7.0 million

A stout defensive line over the past few years now has question marks, with both Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson entering free agency. The Giants are still in desperate need of adding additional talent on the edge, as well. Few teams got less from their edge rushers in 2020 than the Giants. 

At linebacker, Martinez started out his Giants career strong, but the second off-ball linebacker spot could still use an upgrade. Crowder is penciled in there as things stand right now. 

In the secondary, the Giants are more than set at safety with Peppers, Ryan, Julian Love and Xavier McKinney all returning. Their biggest issue there will be deciding how to get each of those players enough playing time. I expect New York will employ plenty of formations where three of those players see the field at the same time given the group's versatility.

Love could get a shot at the outside cornerback opposite Bradberry. That position has no clear starter as of now. I opted to leave the nickel cornerback position blank, as well. It will likely be shared at times between Darnay Holmes and one of the aforementioned safeties, depending on what personnel is on the field.

Is New York willing to franchise tag Leonard Williams for a second consecutive year?

According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Williams is fighting to be labeled a defensive end rather than a defensive tackle, which would increase his 2020 franchise tag number from $16.1 million to $17.8 million. In turn, a potential second franchise tag in 2021 would jump from $19.4 million to $21.4 million. In either case, that is a large, guaranteed 2021 cap hit for a team that doesn’t have massive amounts of salary cap space to work with this offseason.

Williams is coming off an impressive 2020 season on the franchise tag, earning a 79.8 overall grade with over 60 quarterback pressures. He played all over the formation for a Giants squad that really lacked a consistent edge-rushing presence. Ideally, Williams is a player who New York would like to bring back, but a multi-year extension with a 2021 cap hit that is easier to stomach than something in the $20 million range may be the franchise's best bet to do so.

Why should finding a pass-rushing threat off the edge be a top priority for the Giants this offseason?

I touched on it briefly above with Williams, but the Giants simply didn’t get any kind of consistent pressure from their edge defenders last season. If you look at their top four pressure leaders — Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson and B.J. Hill — each is listed as an interior defender. You have to go all the way down to Kyler Fackrell (19 pressures) to get to the first edge rusher on the list. 

Clearly, the strength of New York’s defense was through the middle with those big guys up front and Martinez coming off a strong season at linebacker, but the Giants need to add someone who can create pressure off the edge this offseason. It’s a necessary element to a defense that already has some quality pieces in place.  

How do the Giants make the most of four safeties who all could see the field as starters?

The versatility from these four guys and the lack of depth at cornerback and linebacker will likely lead to plenty of personnel packages where three or more of Peppers, Ryan, Love and McKinney are sharing the field at the same time. 

Peppers played at least 250 snaps in both the box and the slot in 2020. Ryan played 200-plus snaps in the box and the slot along with 512 snaps in a deeper, free safety alignment. Meanwhile, McKinney was also used across the formation, and Love could potentially be the team’s first option at outside cornerback opposite Bradberry — a position he played while at Notre Dame.

There does appear to be a logjam at the safety position, but that kind of depth certainly isn’t a bad thing. It should help minimize the effect of potential weak spots both at cornerback and linebacker.   

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, Alim McNeill 

I’m not going to venture too far out of the box here. Williams and Tomlinson both elevate the Giants' defense. It may not be feasible to keep both given the salary cap constraints and needs elsewhere on New York’s roster, but the Giants should first try to bring them back.

With Tomlinson being the more likely of the two to move on, McNeil could be a draft addition to maintain the interior defensive line strength for the Giants. He played primarily nose tackle at N.C. State, but his explosiveness and quickness give him some legitimate pass-rushing upside that you typically don’t see at the position.  

Edge defender: Joseph Ossai, Haason Reddick

Reddick has already been connected to the Giants by PFF's Sam Monson, and it’s a fit that only makes more sense now that Arizona has signed J.J. Watt. 2020 was Reddick’s first season as a true edge defender in the NFL, and it resulted in an 82.6 pass-rushing grade and 56 quarterback pressures on the year — nearly matching his total from the prior three years combined (57). The “one-year wonder” nature of his season could open the door for the Giants to bring him in on a reasonable one-year deal. 

Ossai may not possess the kind of freakish athleticism of several other edge defenders in this class, but he operates smoothly in space. His biggest strength in the PFF Draft Guide is listed as his motor, and that helped him earn a 79.9 overall grade at Texas this past season in his first year as a full-time edge player.  

Cornerback: Rasul Douglas, Benjamin St-Juste 

The Giants ran a heavy dose of zone coverage during the 2020 season, and they’ll likely be looking for players who can have success in similar schemes moving forward. Both Douglas and St-Juste have the kind of length at cornerback that would be welcomed in New York’s defense.  

Douglas is coming off a serviceable year starting outside for the Carolina Panthers in 2020 — a campaign that netted him a 60.3 grade in coverage. Douglas had two solid seasons prior to that in Philadelphia before a down 2019 year, and he could serve as the Giants' CB2 on a relatively cheap deal in free agency. 

Meanwhile, St-Juste produced coverage grades north of 70.0 in each of the past two years for Minnesota, racking up 11 pass breakups on just 62 targets. His tackling ability is an added plus at the position, and he could provide nice depth toward the middle of the 2021 NFL Draft.  

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