Daniel Jones and the New York Giants face a win-or-else 2021 season

Welcome to your do-or-die season, Daniel Jones. The New York Giants added wide receiver Kenny Golladay and others in NFL free agency. Their receiver corps is now stacked. If everyone gets healthy and plays to their potential (big “ifs,” of course), Jones may have one of the best arsenals in the NFC in Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, tight ends Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph, and RB Saquon Barkley. The Giants added cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and others on defense as well.

Jones isn’t really expected to lead the Giants to a Super Bowl in 2021. He doesn’t quite have to go full Josh Allen on his skeptics in his third NFL season. But he and the New York Giants need to show considerable progress — a playoff berth, double-digit wins, or at least a huge step up from last season’s 2,943 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. General manager Dave Gettleman’s job — and what’s left of his reputation — are riding on it. Head coach Mike Judge’s program is riding on it.

The future of the New York Giants franchise now rests on Jones’ right arm, as well as Golladay’s hip, Barkley’s knee, and Kyle Rudolph’s foot. If Jones cannot deliver, the whole organization will need to start over.

Meet Daniel Jones’ new (and old) weapons

On paper, the rebuilt Giants offense is loaded at the skill positions, though a few of the injury reports are a little troubling. Here’s a roll call of Jones’ expected supporting cast in 2021:

WR Kenny Golladay

Strengths: Home run threat.
Weaknesses: A #2 receiver coming off an injury and getting paid like a #1.

Golladay was one of the most prolific deep threats in the NFL in 2018 and 2019 before missing much of 2020 with a hip injury. He was targeted 59 times on passes 20-plus yards downfield in those two seasons, with 26 catches for 851 yards and 5 touchdowns. A 44% completion rate on passes deep downfield is remarkable.

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Golladay’s reported four-year, $72-million contract indicates that he expected to be more than just a boundary fly-route threat this season. Especially since Jones already has one of those.

WR Darius Slayton

Strengths: Underappreciated deep threat.
Weaknesses: A little like weak tea Kenny Golladay.

Since we already parsed out the 20-plus yard targets in the Sports Info Solutions database, here are Slayton’s numbers for 2019 and 2020: 41 total targets (tops for the Giants in each year), 14 catches, 488 yards, 6 touchdowns. Those numbers are pretty solid considering that his quarterbacks were the inexperienced Daniel Jones, Colt McCoy, and The Ghost of Eli Manning.

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Slayton and Golladay’s skill sets duplicate each other a bit. And the Giants also added former Bengals receiver and Combine legend John Ross, one of the fastest players in the NFL. But a team cannot have too much speed. Two or three receivers who can stretch the field vertically can vaporize the safeties and create room over the middle for others, including:

WR Sterling Shepard

Strengths: Experienced slot weapon.
Weaknesses: Misses 4-to-6 games per season.

Shepard averaged just 9.9 yards per reception last season and spent much of the season sharing slot duties with Golden Tate. He also missed four games with a rib injury. Golladay’s arrival should give Shepard more space to operate in, easier coverage matchups, and more opportunities to line up in the slot, his most natural position.

TE Evan Engram

Strengths: Travis Kelce-level athletic ability.
Weaknesses: Dude could drop his cell phone into a port authority toilet.

OK, Engram’s hands aren’t that bad. But depending on your source, he dropped 8 (according to Sports Info Solutions), 11 (according to Pro Football Reference), or 13 bazillion (according to angry WFAN callers) passes last season. And every one of them seemed to occur when he was streaking wide open over the middle 25 yards downfield.

Engram was targeted for 109 passes last season. Perhaps he will become more reliable if not forced into a role as the focal point of the passing game.

RB Saquon Barkley

Strengths: A cross between Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey when healthy.
Weaknesses: Was last fully healthy on September 19, 2019.

You know the drill with Barkley. He’s rehabbing a brutal knee injury. If he regains his 2,028 scrimmage-yard, 15-touchdown 2018 form, the New York Giants will have one of the best skill position corps in the NFC. That may be too much to ask. But the 2019 version of Barkley (1,003 rushing yards, 52 receptions) would still be helpful, and the arrival of new backup Devontae Booker should prevent the Giants from being forced to scour the waiver wire for Alfred Morris-types again.

TE Kyle Rudolph

Strengths: Steady safety valve who can still block fairly well.
Weaknesses: No big-play capability. Bad foot.

Rudolph is undergoing offseason foot surgery but should be ready for opening day. He’s strictly a plodder over the middle of the field at this point in his career. But he’ll draw the opponent’s slowest linebacker in coverage when he and Engram are in two-tight end sets with Golladay and Slayton split wide. The result should be easy short completions for Daniel Jones.

The Offensive Line

Strengths: They’re young.
Weaknesses: They’re terrible.

Like Engram’s hands, perhaps the Giants offensive line isn’t really all that bad. Andrew Thomas, the 4th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was a sack of flour early in the year but looked like a whole different player in the second half of the season. Center Nick Gates played fairly well. Right tackle Matt Peart has upside. And veteran Nate Solder is back after a COVID opt-out on a team-friendly contract to provide insurance somewhere along the line.

OK, they really are that bad. But by splurging at the skill positions and on defense, Gettleman put the New York Giants in position to do what Gettleman likes to do best — focus on his beloved Hog Mollies in the draft. Thomas may not have been the best choice last year, but Gettleman generally knows a good offensive lineman when he sees one.

Again, this line isn’t helping the Giants win any Super Bowls. But it should allow fewer than the 50 sacks it allowed last season. And it can keep Jones upright long enough to do what he does best — drive the ball downfield to receivers like Slayton and Golladay.

Daniel Jones: Big-Play Machine?!

Here are the 2020 NFL leaders in passer efficiency rating on passes 20-plus yards down the field (minimum 20 attempts):

Daniel Jones: 126.8
Aaron Rodgers: 126.2
Dak Prescott: 122.6
Matthew Stafford: 118.7
Ryan Fitzpatrick: 116.7
Deshaun Watson: 115.7
Derek Carr: 114.2
Patrick Mahomes: 111.7
Josh Allen: 111.4
Baker Mayfield: 107.1

The statistics don’t lie: Daniel Jones is a better deep passer than Rodgers or Mahomes! YOU CAN QUOTE ME ON THIS.

OK, the statistics do lie, particularly passer rating. Jones threw zero deep interceptions, and interception percentage is weighted heavily in passer rating. Also, Jones threw 39 passes of 20-plus yards, as opposed to 72 for Rodgers and 65 for Mahomes. Sample size matters, as does common sense and a grasp of objective reality.

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But Jones’ “on-target percentage” (per Sports Info Solutions) of 60.5% on 20-plus yard passes ranked a respectable 6th in the NFL. His completion rate of 46.2% on such passes also ranked 6th. Jones throws a pretty deep ball. He just didn’t have much time to throw in 2020 and no one to throw to except Slayton and Engram (who caught three and dropped one).

Adding Golladay won’t turn Jones into Rodgers or Mahomes. But Golladay, some improvement from Jones, some development along the offensive line, and a little bit of better injury luck could turn Jones into a quarterback like Dak Prescott, who can generate big plays with both his arm and his legs.

If that happens, Gettleman will be the first one to sip tea and needle his doubters in the press pool. If it doesn’t, everyone is in big trouble.

What’s next for Daniel Jones and the 2021 New York Giants

A top quarterback prospect’s third NFL season is his decision season. Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield turned their careers around in their third seasons in 2020. Sam Darnold did not. If a quarterback isn’t showing significant progress by the end of his third season, his franchise is more likely to seek a veteran challenger than to start moving money around in preparation for a contract extension. As Mitch Trubisky showed last season, a quarterback who enters his fourth season surrounded by uncertainty is on borrowed time.

Gettleman is in his fourth season as general manager. His seat would be covered with magma right now at most organizations. The New York Giants are more patient and insular than other franchises, but ownership won’t settle for Gettleman’s we almost won the most putrid division on earth rationalizations much longer.

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As the quarterback and general manager go, Judge will also go, either at the same time or limping through a year while Gettleman’s replacement searches for “his guy.” Barkley won’t escape any roster purge, either. Injury-plagued running backs, in fact, are often the first ones overboard.

The New York Giants’ 2021 plan makes sense. They’ve added weapons that play to Daniel Jones’ strengths. There’s a lot of injury concerns in the mix, but there’s enough depth to absorb an injury or two. Judge and Gettleman should get a true evaluation of Jones’ skills and long-term potential.

My eyes and gut tell me that Jones is no Allen, but my eyes and gut told me that Allen was no Allen. Jones is at least getting a fairer shot than Darnold did. The rest is up to him.

Welcome to do-or-die time, Danny Dimes. Hope you survive the experience.

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