NFL News & Analysis

NFL Sources Buy or Sell: Giants' hot start with Brian Daboll, Bailey Zappe's future, Justin Fields' struggles

New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll on the sideline in the first half at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. Nfl Ny Giants Vs Ravens

• Reason for Giants’ 5-1 start: “Daboll. He’s a genius.”

• Bailey Zappe’s future: One source believes the Patriots will eventually trade Zappe for draft capital.

• Justin Fields’ struggles: Accuracy has been an issue for the Bears quarterback this season.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins

BRIAN DABOLL FOR COACH OF THE YEAR

AFC scout: Buying

There was a sentiment around the NFL before the 2022 season began that the New York Giants would likely be entering a rebuild under new head coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen. After all, New York went 4-13 last season with head coach Joe Judge at the helm, the roster was a bit of a mess, quarterback Daniel Jones was entering a lame-duck year, and typically, a new regime likes to bring in its own players who fit its own schemes. Some growing pains are to be expected.

Well, the Giants are 5-1 now after upsetting the Baltimore Ravens, 24-20, in Week 6.

“It’s incredible,” an AFC scout said. “They shouldn’t have the record they do with that roster.”

So, what’s causing New York’s hot start, which was somewhat understandably undersold early when the Giants started the season with wins over the Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears and a loss to the Dallas Cowboys?

“Daboll,” the AFC scout said. “He’s a genius.”

The Giants barely added to their roster this summer. 

And they made savvy coaching hires, snagging offensive coordinator Mike Kafka from the Kansas City Chiefs and ex-Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale.

Talent-wise, three of the Giants’ biggest keys for success this season have been:  

  1. Running back Saquon Barkley’s health. Barkley is having his highest-graded season since his rookie year, and he currently leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
  2. Improved play out of left tackle Andrew Thomas, currently the NFL’s highest-graded offensive lineman.
  3. Improved play out of defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, currently the NFL’s fourth-highest-graded interior defender.

Quarterback Daniel Jones’ PFF grade hasn’t changed substantially. He earned a 71.1 PFF grade last season compared to his 67.7 mark this year, but he has been more efficient. His adjusted completion percentage has improved from 74.5% last season to 82.3% through six games this year. He ranks 15th in expected points added (EPA) per play after finishing 30th last season.

Put it all together, and the Giants have improved their EPA per play from 32nd last year to 11th in 2022. Their EPA per play against has improved from 22nd in 2021 to 20th this season.

Daboll has made effective use out of play fakes with the second-highest play-action rate in the NFL. Jones is tied as PFF’s highest-graded play-action passer this season, with a 91.3 mark, and the Giants rank fourth in EPA per play when using play action. They also rank 10th in RPO rate this season.

There’s hope for the future, as well, this season.

Daboll and the Giants have the fifth-toughest remaining strength of schedule, based on opponent winning percentage, but already at 5-1, they have a path to double-digit wins with games against the 1-4 Detroit Lions, 1-3-1 Houston Texans, 2-4 Jacksonville Jaguars and two contests against the 2-4 Washington Commanders. Their most difficult matchups are two games against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles and one apiece against the 5-1 Minnesota Vikings, 4-2 Dallas Cowboys, 3-2-1 Indianapolis Colts and 3-3 Seattle Seahawks.

Daboll currently has the second-shortest odds to win Coach of the Year, at +425 — behind Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni at +140. The turnaround in New York has already been incredible, and it will be fascinating to see just how much better they can get when more talent is added to the roster.


BAILEY ZAPPE’S FUTURE AS A STARTER

AFC personnel exec: Selling

The New England Patriots are 2-0 with rookie Bailey Zappe as their starting quarterback, and head coach Bill Belichick isn’t guaranteeing, at least publicly, that Mac Jones will get his job back when healthy.

That seems to be a message for Jones to not get complacent in his recovery from a high ankle sprain. Even if there’s not an actual quarterback competition in New England, it’s best if Jones believes there is, since competition is always a good thing at any position. 

The Patriots were 1-2 with Jones at the helm this season. They also lost a game against the Green Bay Packers in overtime that Brian Hoyer started but left in the first quarter with a concussion, giving way to Zappe.

The rookie currently leads the NFL in passer rating (111.4). He’s 12th among qualified quarterbacks with a 72.7 offensive grade and eighth with a 77.0 passing grade. His 81.8% adjusted completion percentage ranks second, and he’s tied with Daniel Jones as PFF’s highest-graded passer using play action, with a 91.9 mark. He has the second-lowest turnover-worthy play rate in the NFL, behind only the Tampa Bay BuccaneersTom Brady.

Overall, he’s been one of the most surprising stories in the NFL. It came as a shock that he was selected as high as he was in the 2022 NFL Draft, one round before the Washington Commanders picked Sam Howell.

But the Patriots have also played it safe with Zappe. 

    • His 18.4% screen rate is second-highest among quarterbacks. 
    • He hasn’t been charted with a single big-time throw. 
    • His 6.7-yard average depth of target is fourth-lowest in the league, and his 8.6% deep-ball percentage ranks sixth-lowest in the NFL. 
    • The Patriots have used play-action on 31.6% of his dropbacks.

Meanwhile, Mac Jones ranks 32nd in screen rate at the position. He has the second-highest big-time throw rate and the fourth-highest turnover-worthy play rate in the NFL. His 10.4% ADOT ranks second behind Jameis Winston, and he’s attempted the highest percentage of deep balls in the NFL, at a 20.6% clip. New England used play action on only 10.8% of his dropbacks.

Jones came out swinging this season, proving he wasn’t going to dink and dunk like he did as a rookie, and the results were mixed. Zappe has played the safe approach and won.

New England is tailoring its offense to make it palatable for Zappe, and the team has been pleased with his progress. They believe he’s settled in over the last 2.5 games and is starting to let his talent show.

But they could also make things a little easier on Jones once he returns by leaning more heavily on play action and screens. And he could take fewer risks. New England is 28th in RPO rate so far this season, as well.

A high-ranking AFC personnel executive believes New England’s fourth-round investment in Zappe will eventually pay off.

“I think they trick someone into a draft pick for him,” he said. “I think he’s smart, consistent and runs the offense well. He’s not a real guy, in my opinion.”

Zappe is in the first year of a four-year rookie contract, and he’s cheap and valuable depth. So, a trade is likely years away anyway.

Another source actually compared Zappe to former Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, who played well in reserve for Aaron Rodgers back in 2011 and signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. It would not be shocking to see Zappe get other starting opportunities, even if that doesn’t come with New England.

Jones was close enough to play this week to at least make the trip to Cleveland. It’s tough to turn away from Zappe after he’s led New England to a 2-0 record, but the Patriots also invested a top-15 pick in Jones a year ago, and he was far and away the NFL’s best rookie quarterback in 2021 while playing a similar style as Zappe with a higher play-action rate, lower big-time throw and turnover-worthy play rates, a more shallow ADOT, limited deep-ball attempts and more screens.

The biggest lesson here is that more NFL teams should take the Patriots’ approach to drafting quarterbacks even when they’re not needed. They’ve traded Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett and Jarrett Stidham over the past five years, and Zappe could be the next quarterback dealt as long as he doesn’t permanently take Jones’ job.


JUSTIN FIELDS’ STRUGGLES

AFC pro scout: Buying

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields currently ranks 34th out of 37 qualified signal-callers with a 57.1 overall PFF grade and last with a 46.3 passing grade. While he’s shown improvement over the past three games, there’s still some level of concern over his play, as Chicago has started the season 2-4.

An AFC pro scout noted during the Bears' Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders that Fields was getting the ball out late and struggling with accuracy.

Fields has improved as a runner this season, but “that’s just a hard way to sustain an offense in the league,” the scout noted.

You can’t discuss Fields’ struggles early in his NFL career without also noting the talent deficiencies around him. His offensive line came in 29th in Sam Monson’s most recent unit rankings. His wide receivers and tight ends have combined for a 61.5 PFF grade this season, tied for second-worst in the NFL. He’s dealt with the seventh-highest drop rate among quarterbacks, and he’s been under pressure on over 50% of his dropbacks, second-highest among qualified players.

But, to the scout’s point, Fields has the longest time to throw among qualified quarterbacks, at 3.42 seconds, and he currently ranks 36th in PFF’s accuracy percentage metric. He’s attempted the highest percentage of uncatchable inaccurate passes in the NFL, at 29.0%. PFF has charted Fields with 16 own pressures allowed, including five sacks and three quarterback hits.

The Bears might not truly know what they have in Fields until they improve their team around him. But he also must play better to ensure that he can get that shot under a regime that didn’t draft him.

Chicago takes on the Patriots on Monday night.

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