2016 NFL Preview: The Giants spent a ton to make a playoff return

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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Free agency works in the NFL.

The Denver Broncos wouldn’t have won Super Bowl 50 without being aggressive in free agency. Every champion this century acquired at least one of its key players through free agency. Contrary to popular belief, most NFL free agents are not failures. If a team lands an average starter, even overpaying him, and he gives that franchise a few good years and allows the front office to allocate its resources elsewhere, that’s fine. The bargain-basement free agent who helps special teams is a win. A free agent doesn’t need to be Drew Brees to be a good signing.

But when people give a side-eye at free agency, it’s usually because they remember the big-money debacles, like free agency started and ended with Albert Haynesworth. And the New York Giants set themselves up to either win big or be ridiculed endlessly after their shopping spree.

The Giants threw around money like no other NFL team ever has in one offseason. Four major deals — acquiring defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, nose tackle Damon Harrison and re-signing defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul — cost $203.8 million, $113.8 million of which was guaranteed, according to Spotrac.

The Giants’ splurge will always be judged by whether those players were “worth” their contracts, as if that can accurately be quantified. But this is undeniable: The Giants are a better team with those four players (and other cheaper additions like linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Keenan Robinson) than they would have been by being more fiscally responsible. Tom Coughlin, who was pushed out as coach after last season, must wonder why the Giants never spent like that when he was on the job.

The Giants added some serious blue-chip talent, but does that mean they’ll be back in the playoffs?

Odell Beckham is coming off a 1,450-yard season (AP)
Odell Beckham is coming off a 1,450-yard season (AP)

New York had an unusual run with Coughlin. A really, really unusual run. Usually, if a good team qualifies for the playoffs enough times, it will catch some breaks once or twice over a long run and win a title or two. Statistical probability and all. The Giants basically figured that if they got in, they might as well win it all. The Giants have made the playoffs just three times in nine seasons, but won two Super Bowls. They have one playoff appearance the past seven years but — you guessed it — that appearance resulted in a Super Bowl. It’s amazing that a team could miss the playoffs six of seven times but still have a championship in that span.

The Giants are rarely awful, but usually not very good lately either. Even if Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, the Giants still haven’t made the playoffs four straight seasons. They’re just a big-market team that spent a lot of money to get out of the 6-10 rut they’ve been in the last two years.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

I’m buying the additions leading to a nice improvement. The defense needed playmakers, and the Giants paid for them. The offense hasn’t been great lately, but it has been decent and it was smart to hire offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to be head coach rather than start over with Manning in his age-35 season (wait, when did Eli get so old?). Manning has had two good seasons under McAdoo, and two good seasons since the Giants drafted superstar receiver Odell Beckham. The offense might not have a bigger ceiling, but it can be good enough if the defense plays better.

The Giants also might be the unluckiest team in football history when it comes to injuries, target the most brittle players possible in the draft and free agency, or have a horrendous athletic training staff. For three straight years the Giants have had the most injuries in football, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. That’s unbelievable.

Injuries are mostly luck. Some years you get hit hard, others you skate by without much damage. Unless you’re the Giants, in which case you end up being the most injured team in football every year. They had the most injuries last season by a mile too, racking up 138.7 adjusted games lost. The Washington Redskins were second with 119.1 and were the only other team with more than 100. If you cut the Giants’ injuries in half they still would have had the 12th most in the NFL. If the Giants’ injury luck finally turns around, even a little bit and they finish close to the middle of the NFL in games lost, that will be an enormous boost.

The Giants have had way too many seasons lately that didn’t end in a playoff spot. They made their team better by spending a fortune this offseason. Combine that, a little injury luck, maybe another step forward for Beckham and we’ll see if that leads to a postseason return.

Defensive end Olivier Vernon plays the run well, rushes the quarterback and is only 25 years old. Janoris Jenkins is a gambling corner capable of being a much-needed playmaker in the secondary. Damon Harrison is a massive, run-stopping nose tackle. Add in some linebacker help and cornerback Eli Apple coming aboard with the 10th overall pick of the draft, and the defense has a lot of new talent.

That doesn’t mean the Giants addressed every issue. The safety position is still a potential problem. So is the right side of the offensive line. The run game might not help much either, again. You have to like the top-end talent the Giants added, however. Grade: A-

The Giants were held back by a bad defense. It ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. They were particularly awful against the pass, but couldn’t stop the run either. When more than $200 million is spent to fix the defense, improvement is expected. And it might be a big jump if all the new faces pay off.

The back seven of the defense still might not be good enough. At safety, Landon Collins was a liability in coverage as a rookie and I’m not sure the Giants know who will start at the other safety spot. Janoris Jenkins might not be a huge upgrade over Prince Amukamara, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while Keenan Robinson, Kelvin Sheppard and fourth-round pick B.J. Goodson could all help at linebacker, the bar at that position was set very low last season. A much better line will help the entire defense, but the Giants couldn’t fix every issue.

Seriously, Eli Manning is really 35 years old? Maybe it’s because he still looks so young, but he doesn’t seem like a quarterback who Is relatively close to the end. He has played very well the past two seasons, arguably the best two-year run in his career. He seems comfortable in Ben McAdoo’s offense, which stresses getting the ball out and moving the chains more than throwing deep. Manning’s contract runs through 2019, and he can probably be a solid starter until then. Behind him there’s Ryan Nassib, though we can’t be sure after 10 NFL passes if he’s Manning’s heir apparent (Nassib has completed nine of those passes though, for what it’s worth).

Last season there was a curiosity factor with Jason Pierre-Paul. Nobody knew how he’d play after a terrible fireworks accident that caused severe injuries to his hand. Pierre-Paul was disruptive but had just one sack. Was that due to the unpredictable nature of sacks, or could Pierre-Paul not finish plays with basically one hand? The Giants gambled and brought Pierre-Paul back on a one-year $10 million deal. He’s incredibly important for the Giants this season, and going forward. We’ve seen Pierre-Paul be a top defensive end. If he plays like that again with another year to figure out how to play despite his injuries, he can elevate the entire defense.

Cosell: “I thought [Jason Pierre-Paul] looked really explosive, he just didn’t get sacks. When you’re rushing the quarterback a lot of times it becomes hands-hips-feet. When your hands, as part of that trifecta, are not really effective then you’re missing one-third of what’s important. I don’t know how this year will be. But he looked really quick and explosive, he just couldn’t finish. If he still can’t use that hand effectively, then it’s going to be hard.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Giants and the rest of the NFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “You don’t need me to tell you Odell Beckham is good, but there’s a strong argument he should be the No. 1 overall fantasy pick. He’s scored 25 touchdowns over the first 27 games of his career, and his 102 yards per game would easily be the highest in NFL history if he qualified. Still just 23 years old, Beckham got 9.2 yards per target last season and just imagine if he were targeted properly (Julio Jones saw 45 more). There’s a good chance ODB puts up a truly historic season sooner rather than later.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

There weren’t many backs better than Rashad Jennings over the final four weeks of last season. Once the Giants committed to giving Jennings the ball, he had 81, 107, 74 and 170 yards in New York’s last four games.

Jennings never had more than 13 carries or 63 yards in the Giants’ first 12 games. Then he averaged about 20 per game down the stretch. Did the Giants stumble upon a solution to their mediocre running game? You have to figure the Giants will try feeding Jennings again, given how last season ended. Jennings has always been a fairly effective back, with a 4.2-yard average in his career, but age isn’t in his favor. He’ll be 31 this season.

WHAT IS ODELL BECKHAM’S CEILING?

Beckham’s consistency was the most amazing thing about his 2015. His worst game was a 4-35-0 line against Dallas. He caught at least five passes in 13 of his other 14 games and had at least 50 yards in 12 of them (he was suspended for one after the shenanigans with Josh Norman). He also had a stretch of six straight 100-yard games in which he had eight touchdowns. And it’s not like teams didn’t know who Beckham was coming into last season.

Is there much growth left for Beckham? We all expect a player to get better from his second to third season, but at some point they max out. A 96-1,450-13 season is as good as it will ever get for just about every player who has come through the NFL. But it seems like there could be a higher level for Beckham. His 158 targets were a lot, but just seventh in the NFL. Beckham’s 22 red-zone targets were tied for ninth most, behind Gary Barnidge and Randall Cobb, among others. More targets doesn’t always add up to a corresponding rise in production, because efficiency can wane, but the Giants could decide to get Beckham the ball at Julio Jones or Antonio Brown levels in 2016. Beckham is entering his third season and is still just 23 years old, and most players are still rapidly improving at those stages.

The NFC East isn’t great, and the Giants should be bummed if those millions they spent don’t at least result in a division title. It’s realistic, even though we’re talking about a team coming off consecutive 6-10 seasons. The defensive line should be much better, and the Eli Manning-Odell Beckham combination will do some damage. And the injury situation can’t be so bad again … right?

This is a team coming off consecutive 6-10 seasons. The signings made the roster better but there are still flaws. Something else worth noting is the Giants have a first-time head coach. It seems like a seamless transition because Ben McAdoo has been New York’s offensive coordinator for two years, but being a coordinator and being a head coach are two different jobs. And again, the Giants have missed the playoffs six of the past seven seasons. It might seem surprising if they miss the postseason again after spending about $200 million in free agency, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

I’m right on the fence with the Giants. They have a lot of talent. The NFC isn’t deep, so there shouldn’t be some seven-team battle royal for wild-card spots. But I like another NFC East team a little better. And I like a couple of projected second-place teams in the NFC better for the wild-card spots. The Giants will be better, but they’re outside of the playoff picture.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders

14. New York Jets

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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