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State of the Franchise: Reasons for optimism as Giants begin new era

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Giants organization, Big Blue fans around the world and those who demand that they get paid in dimes only:

There is a new hero in Gotham. Gone is Eli Manning. He's the most decorated quarterback in the history of the New York Giants, a man who took on Tom Brady in the Super Bowl twice and won both times. While you celebrate the past, you can't help but look to the future. And that future starts with a young quarterback who has a goal of getting the G-Men back to the Super Bowl.

How the Giants got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Daniel Jones' first career start in Week 3. It was a somewhat-controversial decision to bench Manning for the rookie so early in the season. Jones threw for two scores and also ran for a pair, including the game winner with 1:16 remaining, to lead the Giants to a 32-31 win over the Bucs. The legend of Danny Dimes was born!
  • Sweeping the rival Washington Redskins. The Giants blew them out in Week 4 to improve to 2-2 on the season, and then won in overtime in Week 16 on a five-TD day from Jones.

The lows:

  • Going on a nine-game losing skid after leveling up in Week 4. The last game in that stretch was an overtime loss to the Eagles on Monday Night Football in which the Giants blew a 17-3 second-half lead.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Joe Judge. There was a moment in January when the Giants, still searching for a head coach at the time, requested permission to interview Jason Garrett, which sent fans into a panic. I mean, you spent a decade making fun of the guy and posting memes of him clapping on the Cowboys' sideline. Now he might be coaching your team? But fans were relieved when the Giants hired Judge, only to be bummed again when they found out it wasn't Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees.

Instead, they got the Patriots' special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach, a man whose resume included stops with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban but no experience as a head coach of a football team. The truth is, there weren't that many people who knew much about Judge before his introductory press conference, which was, uh, something. In a good way. I was fired up about him after listening to him, but I still wondered if the only reason he got the job was because he won the interview. (I think it was.) But look: I kind of really like this move. Who were the hot names out there after the Redskins moved quickly to hire Ron Rivera? Did you want to go with a tired retread like John Fox or Rex Ryan? Or take a chance on this charismatic young guy? And before you knock special teams coaches, remember that John Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator before the Ravens hired him, and he's done a great job in Baltimore. Give Judge a chance.

And, as you know, Garrett was hired to be his offensive coordinator, which is perfect. You want to have somebody on the sideline who has called a timeout during an NFL game and knows what to expect. He's also probably going to be extra petty and vengeful against the Cowboys. So this was a huge win for the Giants, as well.

Quarterback: Daniel Jones. Giants fans lost their minds when the team selected Danny with the sixth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. There was a revolt on social media. I remember seeing one fan even claim that the Giants were the new Browns. Which is kind of ironic, because the current Browns quarterback, Baker Mayfield, was talking stuff about the pick last summer, as well (although he later said his comments were taken out of context). And as a Bears fan who remembers the night Mitch Trubisky was picked in 2017, I understand what that must have been like for Giants fans. It's never fun when all of Football Twitter is dunking on your team.

The thing is, Daniel Jones became Daniel freaking Dimes in 2019. He's one of three rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to throw four or more touchdown passes in three games since 1950. Jones had his share of miscues as a rookie, too. And believe me, we will talk about that in a moment. But I did want to take this opportunity to say the Giants have found their quarterback of the future. I'm really excited about the pairing of Dimes with Garrett. Now, if I can have your permission, Giants fans, I would like to take a moment and compare Daniel to Tony Romo. I know that could be a little unsettling for you, like if I were to compare a White Castle burger to a Whataburger burger. You just don't do that. But Garrett took Romo, an undrafted quarterback who had just 10 career starts prior to Garrett's arrival in 2007, and helped lead him to a pretty good NFL career. Romo had arguably the best season of his career the year Garrett was hired as offensive coordinator, throwing for 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns.

Fantasy tip: If you're waiting on a quarterback in your fantasy draft this year, you won't be disappointed by Danny Dimes.

Projected 2020 MVP: Saquon Barkley, running back. I know it's weird in this day and age to consider a running back an MVP. But here we are. I'm well aware that none of the cool Gen Z kids give much love to running backs and my pick seems like a throwback, but a lot of this comes down to the impact Saquon clearly had on the Giants' young QB. Jones averaged 271.3 passing yards per game with Barkley in the lineup. He posted a 21:6 TD-to-INT ratio with a passer rating of 95.5 in those games, per NFL Research. Without Barkley, who missed Weeks 4-6? Not so good. Jones averaged 189.3 passing yards per game with a TD-to-INT ratio of 3:6 and a 59.9 passer rating. Danny Dimes without Saquon is like Road Dogg without Billy Gunn. It's not going to be the same and don't try to push that on me. Go ahead, talk about how running backs don't matter anymore. Show me the advanced analytics all you want. The numbers show Danny needs him.

2020 breakout star: Oshane Ximines, edge rusher. The Giants are going to need to improve defensively (they ranked 30th in points allowed last season) and it's going to be incumbent on them to get to the quarterback more, as they ranked 22nd in sacks. The Giants could have been super frisky in the draft and picked Isaiah Simmons fourth overall, which would have been my choice. (I know he's not an edge rusher but he did have eight sacks for Clemson last season.) Or they could have paid big money for an edge rusher in free agency. Instead, they drafted an offensive tackle with their top pick and paid a highly affordable price in free agency for Kyler Fackrell, a former Packer who will be reunited with new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham (an assistant on the Green Bay staff in 2018, when Fackrell had 10.5 sacks). That leads me to believe the Giants saw enough from Ximines last season to trust him as one of their top pass rushers. Ximines posted 4.5 sacks despite playing less than half the defensive snaps as a rookie. He's poised to make a huge jump in Year 2.

New face to know: James Bradberry, cornerback. The Giants were aggressive in trying to upgrade the secondary last offseason, and they continued that work this year, dropping a lot of money ($45 million over three years) for Bradberry in free agency. He might not be widely viewed as one of the top players at his position. But he really is. Bradberry has flourished in the NFC South, meaning he's had to face off against some of the best receivers in the business -- Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and Mike Evans. And he's done pretty darn well. While you might think that having a potential shutdown corner in the NFC East is a bit of overkill (like having AC in your beach-side condo), I will let you know that there are times when it comes in handy. Like maybe just a handful of a times a year, but trust me: When you need it, you need it.

2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. The Giants have the luxury of lowered expectations in 2020. No longer are they burdened by having to try to give it one more go with a declining Manning. The Giants can take a little bit of time and develop with a rookie head coach and second-year quarterback. That said, fans still are going to expect signs of progress.

Three key dates:

  • Week 6 vs. Redskins. The Giants have a brutal stretch to start the season with teams that figure to be in the playoff mix -- the Steelers, Bears and 49ers. And they visit the Cowboys in Week 5. But the game against the Redskins will be a true barometer to see where this team is heading.
  • Week 8 vs. Buccaneers. Danny Dimes had a breakout game against the Bucs last season. And I'm sure Tom Brady still doesn't like seeing the Giants all that much. But at least Eli, his tormentor, has retired now.
  • Week 17 vs. Cowboys. I don't want to be pessimistic and say the Giants won't be in the playoff race when this game is played. I mean, stranger things have happened. But this date could also be huge if the Cowboys are either battling for a playoff spot or a first-round bye, with the Giants having a chance to play spoiler.

Will the Giants be able to ...

Bring Andrew Thomas up to speed enough to make him the Day 1 starter at left tackle? The Giants invested a lot of draft capital (a phrase I feel I'm using way too much in this series) in the offensive line this year. Three of their top five picks were spent on the position group, including Thomas at No. 4 overall. Was this an overcorrection because they could have drafted Quenton Nelson in 2018 instead of Barkley, and you have, like, nine wins in the past two seasons to show for it? It just seems like the Giants are overcompensating. It's like when you missed out on a couple of TV series during their original runs, and now you're spending every free minute watching Parks and Recreation (which is basically my life right now).

As for that Giants O-line, guard Kevin Zeitler was amazing last year. He was everything they needed. Nate Solder, not so much. So that leads to a pretty interesting question on what to do with Thomas. If this was a normal offseason, he'd get the work in OTAs and minicamp, you would see what he has and you would just throw him in at left tackle because he couldn't do any worse. And in all honesty, that's probably what they should do, even with prep limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. Another huge issue for this team could be the center position. Spencer Pulley, who has made 10 starts in the past two seasons, is currently the only true center on the roster, which is a bit alarming for a team with a young quarterback. The Giants need to get that position figured out as soon as possible.

Get the most out of tight end Evan Engram? There is a lot of buzz about Giants TE Kaden Smith entering Year 2. But I'm still high on Engram, who is one of the best in the business when he's healthy. He's missed 14 games in his three NFL seasons, but there are few at his position with more talent.

And tight end is an important position for the Giants. We talked about the team's new offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, earlier. He had a huge hand in guiding Jason Witten during his career. (On the field only. Garrett deserves no scorn for Witten's TV venture.) Witten had 141 targets when Garrett took over as Dallas' play-caller in 2007, and he averaged 112 targets per year during their 12 seasons together, so it looks like Engram could get a lot of work. This could end up like the situation in San Francisco, where the most important pass catcher on the field is the tight end.

Fantasy tip: If you miss out on one of the big three tight ends, roll with Engram this season. If you can get an Engram/Tyler Higbee combo, even better.

Establish a No. 1 wide receiver? Is it Darius Slayton? Listen, A.J. Brown gets all the love as the rookie receiver of note last year (at least among us fantasy dorks). But Slayton had eight receiving touchdowns, tied with Brown for the most among rookie receivers. He also led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, which is impressive given that the Giants had two bigger names like Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard on the roster. His 740 receiving yards were the most by a Giants rookie since OBJ hit the scene in 2014. And Slayton didn't even play in the first two games of last season. Darius was among the league leaders in touchdown rate last season (16.7), and he had three games with two TD catches. TD regression seems almost inevitable for him, but he should improve in targets, receptions and yards this season as a central piece of the offense.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The turnovers. One of the knocks on our guy Danny Dimes is that he turns the ball over a lot. He lost 11 of his league-high 18 fumbles last year. LOST 11. The Giants ranked third in the league with 33 giveaways. You almost wish Tom Coughlin was around to drive home the importance of ball security like he did with Tiki Barber back in the day. One thing that could help would be some improvement on the offensive line, as we noted above. You might read this and be like, Hey, Rank. We all know about that. Tell us something we might be overlooking. Fine. Here is the thing: The Giants were equally as bad at forcing turnovers. The Giants had 16 takeaways last year. That's the franchise's fewest in a single season during the Super Bowl era.

... people are overthinking: Establishing the Patriot Way. I'm obligated to write something about this any time a coach from the Bill Belichick tree is hired. When a former Belichick assistant gets his shot, the headlines always scream something like, Is [coach] going to bring the Patriot Way to [city]? It's a Mad Lib at this point. But do we really want the Patriot Way in New York? The Giants beat the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. Taking on the Patriot Way now would be like director Jon Favreau saying, "I want my Iron Man movies to be more like Man of Steel," or something. You already have knowledge of what a winning formula looks like. (And does Favreau still do Iron Man movies?) Anyway, based on what I've seen from Judge, there is no doubt he is going to draw from his experience with both Belichick and Saban and his teams are going to be super fun. Just kidding about that last part. But regardless of what method is used, Judge needs to figure out a way to get the Giants back to the playoffs considering the team has been there once in the last eight seasons.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Giants MUST:

  • Get to the .500 mark. Or at least be near it. I know getting to .500 would be a four-game leap from their 4-12 record of last year. And the team has lost 11 or more games in three consecutive seasons. So, maybe just get that loss column to single digits.
  • Have Daniel Jones cut down on the fumbles, as mentioned above. They have to hope it's just a one-year talking point, something they will mention years from now in a Hey, remember when we were worried about Daniel's fumbling problem? way.

In closing

Giants fans should be feeling pretty good. Eli was a beloved member of the organization and there is nothing but respect for the two-time Super Bowl winner. But his presence had started to hang over the franchise like the Sword of Damocles. I'm not saying everything was his fault. Not at all. However, you couldn't have a fresh start with him there. It would be like doing a total remodel of your home but you still keep that futon you slept on at the Lambda house because it meant so much to you. It was time to move on.

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