As this section of the rankings came together, it started to become clear that teams in this range follow a few different templates. There are those with stellar units on one side of the ball and not much on the other (Rams and Saints), those banking on better luck bringing a return to relevance (Cowboys and Ravens), and those that spent big on defense as they count on continued development on offense (Giants and Jaguars).
I felt odd lumping the Jaguars and the Giants together, but the rankings came out this way given the factors that go into ordering teams in this tier of the NFL. Franchises like the Giants, Saints, and Ravens have been perennial playoff fixtures, but it’s possible that their downturns last year — with Baltimore finishing 5–11 and the Saints posting the league’s worst defense — are signs of what’s to come rather than bumps in the road. All of these teams are capable of making a 2016 playoff push; it would just be a lot more fun to see some (Jaguars!) do it than others.
This is the second entry in a four-part preview series. Part I, on the eight teams I expect to toil near the bottom of the league, can be found here.
24. Los Angeles Rams
2015 record: 7–9
2015 DVOA finish: 29th on offense; 7th on defense
For a team that moved 1,800 miles across the country and traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks for a package that included the no. 1 overall selection in this spring’s draft, it’s amazing how little has changed about the Rams’ on-field product. As of now, head coach Jeff Fisher plans to start Case Keenum, the quarterback equivalent of a gas station sandwich, instead of rookie Jared Goff. That means the 2016 Rams will look a lot like, well, the 2015 Rams.
With Goff on the bench, the Rams offense will feature largely the same collection of players as it did a season ago, when it finished 29th in offensive DVOA and 24th in yards per play. The only route to better results, then, is hoping (read: praying) that the running game can be even more devastating than it was last year.
Todd Gurley is already one of the best parts of every NFL Sunday, but the Rams placed way too much of their offensive burden on him as a rookie. Gurley finished the 2015 campaign averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but a huge chunk of that production came on his 16 rushes of 15 yards or more. No back in the league had a higher percentage of his total yardage (45.9 percent) come on big runs, according to Pro Football Focus. Gurley gained two or fewer yards on 44.5 percent of his carries, which is crazy considering that only Doug Martin averaged more yards after contact than Gurley’s 2.9. He may already be the best running back in the league, but even superhumans need a little help.
The Rams’ starting offensive line last year featured two rookies and 23-year-old Greg Robinson, and it was equal parts injured and ineffective. Health is already a concern for the unit this fall, with right tackle Rob Havenstein still recovering from a foot injury and in question for the season opener. This was supposed to be a season of change in Los Angeles, but so far everything feels pretty familiar.
What They Should Do Well: The defensive line is still the stuff of QB nightmares. Aaron Donald is the best defender in the league (non-J.J. Watt category), and he’ll once again lead a group that finished fourth in pressure rate in 2015. Getting Robert Quinn healthy, after he missed half of last season with a back injury, should make an impact, and bringing in Dominique Easley, the former Patriots first-round pick who wore out his welcome in New England, is simply an instance of the filthy rich getting even richer. The L.A. secondary is without two starters from a year ago — cornerback Janoris Jenkins and free safety Rodney McLeod, both of whom signed deals with NFC East teams this offseason — but with that pass rush and the return of cornerback E.J. Gaines (a pleasant surprise as a rookie), it might not matter.
Where They Will Struggle: The Rams had only 35 passing plays of 20 yards or more last season, and "upgrading" from Nick Foles to Keenum likely won’t do much to help. Keenum had seven 20-plus-yard passing plays in six games last year. Jimmy Clausen, by comparison, had 11 in five combined outings with the Bears and Ravens. There’s little to no explosiveness in this passing game, and the addition of a pair of fourth-round targets (tight end Tyler Higbee and receiver Pharoh Cooper) won’t be enough to fix that.
Potential Breakout Star: Alec Ogletree. This is a pivotal year for Ogletree, who’s moving to a new position (middle linebacker) after missing the final 12 games of last season with a broken ankle. The former first-round pick has always had a tantalizing skill set, but to this point he hasn’t been able to piece it all together.
Stat of Note: 39. That’s how many combined sacks and QB hits Donald had a year ago. No other defensive tackle finished with more than 21.
23. New Orleans Saints
2015 record: 7–9
2015 DVOA finish: 7th on offense; 32nd on defense
It’s tough to pinpoint a single stat that can explain just how bad the Saints defense was in 2015. New Orleans allowed a league-high 29.8 points per game, finished dead last in pressure rate, and recorded the worst defensive DVOA since Football Outsiders started measuring the stat in 1989.
Rather than look elsewhere for help fixing their defensive issues, the Saints decided to keep coordinator Dennis Allen, who replaced the fired Rob Ryan last November. That might make sense if the Saints had improved after Allen took over following their Week 11 bye, but their results over last season’s final six weeks were just as gruesome.
The last time Allen entered a fall working as a defensive coordinator was in 2011, when the Broncos rode a string of magic Tim Tebow performances to a playoff win. Denver ranked 18th in defensive DVOA that season, which was enough to land Allen the Raiders’ head-coaching job. Presumably, that line on his résumé has allowed Allen to keep his current gig with the Saints — something that doesn’t inspire much confidence. If New Orleans is going to take major strides on defense, it’ll be a product of the new pieces the front office brought in. Well, that and the idea that teams usually can’t be this bad two seasons in a row.
The Saints did manage to find low-cost ways to improve in several areas of need. Browns cap casualty Paul Kruger costs the organization only $1.6 million this year, which is a bargain for a pass rusher, no matter what you think of the 30-year-old. The same goes for Nick Fairley, who signed what amounts to a one-year contract with New Orleans this offseason. The Saints didn’t break the bank for any big names on defense — which is out of character for them — but the small steps they took could lift this unit from laughable to passable. With Drew Brees helping New Orleans trot out top offenses every year, that might be enough for the team to sneak back over .500. Major questions remain, though: The defense still has glaring holes on the interior (especially after losing first-round pick Sheldon Rankins to a broken leg) and at the cornerback spot opposite Delvin Breaux.
What They Should Do Well: New Orleans’s offensive production is a portrait of consistency. The Saints haven’t finished outside the top 10 in offensive DVOA since 2010 — when they finished 11th. The beat should go on this year, with the unit returning a very good line led by budding star left tackle Terron Armstead. New Orleans’s group of pass catchers now includes tight end Coby Fleener, who should have every opportunity to succeed in this system.
Where They Will Struggle: The secondary should be better than it was a year ago, even with the unproven P.J. Williams lining up opposite Breaux at corner. Where the Saints could have a hard time in pass defense is covering running backs and tight ends. This unit finished 31st and 32nd, respectively, in pass defense DVOA against those positions last year, and signing soon-to-be 30-year-old James Laurinaitis won’t help matters.
Potential Breakout Star: Breaux. He is one of the league’s most fascinating stories, but his long road to the NFL isn’t just some moral victory. Breaux looked excellent in stretches as a rookie in 2015, and if he can clean up some of his penalty issues (only Brandon Browner, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Xavier Rhodes were flagged more among cornerbacks), he has a chance to emerge as a top-tier cover man.
Stat of Note: 80. That’s how many passing plays of 20 yards or more the Saints had last year, tied for the most in the NFL.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 record: 5–11
2015 DVOA finish: 21st on offense; 26th on defense
After the offseason the Jags had, it’s so tempting to put them higher on this list. The version of this team that could compete for a playoff spot would be a lot of fun, but it’s worth remembering that quick fixes are rarely that quick.
The numbers Jacksonville’s offense put up in 2015 are impressive without context: Quarterback Blake Bortles passed for 4,428 yards with 35 touchdowns, receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both posted 1,000-yard, double-digit-touchdown campaigns, and the offense averaged 23.5 points per game, 14th in the league. Especially in Bortles’s case, though, those figures are somewhat inflated by all the throwing that Jacksonville did when trailing big. The QB led the league in interceptions with 18, and his completion percentage actually dipped from his rookie to his sophomore season; the Jags finished last fall ranked 20th in passing DVOA. This offense was far better than it was during its 2014 train wreck, but it still has plenty of flaws.
Even if the offense has a ways to go in 2016, no one would say that faith in the group is unfounded. The progress has been evident, which at this point is more than can be said about the defense. Jacksonville’s unit got worse in head coach Gus Bradley’s third year at the helm, going from 20th to 26th in defensive DVOA. Apparently, general manager David Caldwell had seen enough. After two years of finding offensive toys and protection for Bortles, Caldwell broke out the checkbook in hopes of refurbishing his defense.
With top-five pick Jalen Ramsey, former Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara, and big-ticket free-agent safety Tashaun Gipson, the Jaguars have three new starters in their defensive backfield. Add those moves to the return of 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler, the selection of linebacker Myles Jack, and the signing of interior pass-rushing menace Malik Jackson, and it’s easy to understand why the Jags are this year’s trendy team.
What They Should Do Well: Robinson and Hurns are already among the best receiving duos in the NFL. Robinson leveled up last year, to the point that he’s a real threat to break into that tier of wideouts that includes Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, and A.J. Green, just below the plane between gods and men where Julio Jones and Antonio Brown reside. There was nothing cheap about his 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown season, and he just turned 23. That guy is the truth.
Where They Will Struggle: Some hiccups in the secondary are to be expected with all of the moving parts, but Jacksonville’s bigger question might be what happens on the offensive line. After three disappointing seasons, former no. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel is making the move from left tackle to left guard. He’ll be replaced by former Steelers stalwart Kelvin Beachum, who signed a one-year contract with the Jaguars in March after tearing his ACL last season. There’s a chance that with Beachum taking over for Joeckel and 2014 third-round pick (and rookie standout) Brandon Linder returning after missing 13 games to a torn labrum, this line actually turns into one of the Jags’ strengths. Like so much of this roster, though, that’s merely projection at this point.
Potential Breakout Star: There are plenty of options here, but Ramsey stands out. It remains to be seen where he’ll play in Jacksonville’s defense when Aaron Colvin returns from his four-game suspension and the Jags have their full stable of cornerbacks. No matter where Ramsey lines up, though, he should make an immediate impact.
Stat of Note: Eight. This one comes from some guy named Bill Barnwell, who found that among the 37 quarterbacks since 1990 who had at least 500 pass attempts in their first two seasons, only eight have an ANY/A+ (a stat that calculates adjusted net yards per pass attempt and then normalizes it for era) equal to or lesser than Bortles. The players tied with or behind him: Jeff George, Christian Ponder, Kyle Boller, Joey Harrington, Alex Smith, David Carr, Blaine Gabbert, and Ryan Leaf.
21. Dallas Cowboys
2015 record: 4–12
2015 DVOA finish: 31st on offense; 19th on defense
Barring further injury, no team has a range of possibilities quite like Dallas in 2016. If rookie Dak Prescott plays relatively well during the first six weeks of the season and the Cowboys come within shouting distance of their offensive peak, they could have a real shot to steal the NFC East when Tony Romo returns. Then again, there’s also a chance that Prescott’s preseason performance was a mirage, and Dallas takes a similar offensive plunge to last year’s — if not as severe — in Romo’s absence.
It might have felt like everything that could have gone wrong for the Cowboys last year did, but while Romo and Dez Bryant spent much of the fall on the sideline, the offensive line managed to stay largely intact. For the third consecutive season, the Cowboys got 16 games out of their three stars along the line: center Travis Frederick, left tackle Tyron Smith, and right guard Zack Martin. As it now stands, Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott are walking into a perfect situation for any pair of young backfield mates. That situation would deteriorate quickly if Dallas were to lose Frederick or Smith.
On defense, the Cowboys are already shorthanded and will be for the first month of the season. Defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are both suspended four games, so Dallas has to dig deep for pass-rushing options. Right now, its starters are Bunsen Waldorf and David Irving. And if you didn’t know that, it’s OK: The actual name of one Cowboys starting defensive end is Benson Mayowa; Bunsen Waldorf is a combination of characters from The Muppets.
A lack of pressure from the front four is more of an issue for Dallas than it is for most teams because of how defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to play. The Cowboys rushed four on 69.1 percent of snaps in 2015, the ninth-highest rate in the NFL. Under ideal circumstances, Marinelli prefers not to blitz, but he might lack a choice with this group. Although Marinelli is a freaking wizard, getting Dallas to play at a league-average level without Lawrence and Gregory is a lot to ask, even of him.
What They Should Do Well: As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly wrote last month, the Cowboys’ ground game is a thing of beauty. Dallas somehow managed to finish ninth in rushing DVOA last year without a functioning passing game. Now, it has Ezekiel Elliott.
Where They Will Struggle: The Cowboys finished 22nd in pressure rate last season and will be without three of their top four finishers in quarterback hurries. The team’s lone free-agent addition on defense was former Eagles tackle Cedric Thornton, but he’s primarily suited for a run-stopping, interior role. Things are likely going to be rough, at least until Lawrence gets back.
Potential Breakout Star: Don’t overthink this. It’s Elliott, and the reasons why are about as subtle as La’el Collins launching dudes into orbit.
Stat of Note: 2.5. That’s the number of combined career sacks for starting defensive ends Mayowa and Irving.
20. Buffalo Bills
2015 record: 8–8
2015 DVOA finish: 9th on offense; 24th on defense
I wrote about the disappointing start for Rex Ryan’s Buffalo defense earlier this summer, and I’m no less worried now that the Bills’ post-roster-cut lineup has been unveiled. The team had planned to lean heavily on rookies Shaq Lawson (as an edge rusher) and Reggie Ragland (as an inside linebacker) to patch up two of its weakest spots, but with Lawson starting the season on the PUP list and Ragland out with a torn ACL, those spots will be filled by Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown.
Alexander, 33, is a consummate journeyman who has tallied three more career sacks (nine) than teams he was at least signed to the practice squad for (six). Brown never lived up to his second-round billing in Tennessee, where he was eventually phased out of the starting lineup on a unit that finished 30th in weighted DVOA last season. Two rookies, no matter how talented, weren’t going to solve the Bills’ defensive woes, but their injuries are representative of what has happened to this group since it finished fourth and second, respectively, in DVOA in 2013 and 2014. It wasn’t long ago that Buffalo’s defense was loaded with Pro Bowl talent and had an edge from the moment it stepped off the bus. Now, two years after leading the league in sacks, the Bills are scrambling for answers in the front seven.
Losing nose tackle Marcell Dareus, who chose to enter rehab after incurring another drug-related suspension, is the toughest blow for Buffalo. It finished a dismal 30th in DVOA against the run last year, and now its best run defender is gone. At their peak, the Bills relied on Dareus to fuel their interior pass rush; in 2016 they’ll lean on 33-year-old Kyle Williams (fresh off of knee surgery), rookie Adolphus Washington, and edge rusher Jerry Hughes. Hughes’s status in that group is all anyone needs to know about Buffalo’s drop-off. He’s gone from a complementary pass-rushing piece to the Bills’ best hope.
Last year, Ryan chose to continue his brand of blitz-heavy defense seemingly out of habit (the Bills rushed four on only 41.7 percent of third downs, compared to 62.3 percent in 2014), but this season he’ll have to do it out of necessity. The Bills have a secondary that can sustain that type of stress thanks to 2015 second-round gem Ronald Darby and former first-round pick Stephon Gilmore (who’s excellent when healthy), but it’s difficult to build a case for why they’ll be better defensively than they were a year ago.
What They Should Do Well: The Bills should be able to cover on defense (and will be even better if nickelback Nickell Robey — a top-five name/position combination in the league — can regain the form that he showed early in his career), but for the second straight year, Buffalo’s best hopes at snatching a wild-card berth lie with its offense. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was the league’s most pleasant surprise in 2015, and the Bills did a great job of constructing a scheme suited to fit Taylor’s strengths. Guard Richie Incognito helped Buffalo put together a standout left side of the line and finish second in rushing DVOA, and the offense mostly thrived behind a combination of LeSean McCoy and Taylor toting the rock and Taylor chucking downfield shots to Sammy Watkins, who led the league in yards per target. The Bills can’t afford an injury to any of their key offensive pieces, but this group can be potent at full strength.
Where They Will Struggle: Teams should love running the ball against the Bills. Ryan will deal with his unit’s pass-rush issues by simply throwing more bodies into the mix, but scheming a way to slow down running plays (especially when opposing offenses line up in non-running formations) is tougher. The Bills struggled with Dareus last year. Now we might find out just how valuable he really is.
Potential Breakout Star: Watkins. The Bills run the ball too often (a league-leading 50.1 percent of plays in 2015) for Watkins to ever gobble up the statistics of other star receivers, but even with relatively limited opportunities, he provided a glimpse of what’s possible in the second half of last season. Watkins made 35 catches for 679 yards with six touchdowns over his final six games. Throw this man the ball.
Stat of Note: 21.8 percent. The Bills’ pressure rate from last year. Only the Jaguars, Falcons, and Saints were worse.
19. Detroit Lions
2015 record: 7–9
2015 DVOA finish: 13th on offense; 16th on defense
In Jim Bob we trust. Head coach Jim Caldwell’s decision to fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and replace him with Jim Bob Cooter on the heels of a 1–6 start in which the Lions led the league in turnovers (18) might not have been enough to save Detroit’s 2015 season, but it was enough to save his job. New Lions GM Bob Quinn didn’t have to retain Caldwell and his staff, but the offense’s performance down the stretch must have intrigued him enough to roll the dice with this group.
During Cooter’s nine games calling the plays, the Lions ranked ninth in offensive DVOA (up from 25th before he took over). The offense was built on short, efficient throws that succeeded in protecting Matthew Stafford from himself. After tossing nine interceptions during the first seven games of last season, Stafford threw four the rest of the way.
Losing receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement is undoubtedly a massive blow to this offense, but the receiving options that Detroit has fit well with its new, quick passing approach. Golden Tate is a yards-after-the-catch monster, Theo Riddick is one of the league’s top pass-catching backs (his 80 receptions in 2015 tied for the most among running backs), and ageless wonder Anquan Boldin is taking over in the slot. Even without Johnson, it’s not out of the question that the Lions offense can look more like it did toward the end of last season than it did early in the year, especially given that its offensive line should be better than it was last fall. By drafting left tackle Taylor Decker in the first round and moving Riley Reiff to the other side, this unit will be improved at both tackle spots. Although it struggled at times on the interior, a full season of Cooter’s more power-centric scheme should help.
Cooter isn’t the only hotshot coordinator on this version of the Lions, though. Teryl Austin has deservedly earned recognition for the job he’s done in Detroit. This team finished 16th in defensive DVOA last season with a banged-up unit. Now, the Lions get back linebacker DeAndre Levy — a 2014 second-team All-Pro whose hip injury limited him to just 17 snaps in 2015 — and return the combination of cornerback Darius Slay and defensive end Ziggy Ansah, Detroit’s ridiculous haul from the 2013 draft. There are worse ways to build a defense than around a stellar cover corner, a burgeoning pass-rush star, and a do-it-all linebacker.
What They Should Do Well: Beyond Tate, Riddick, and Boldin, the Lions also have tight end Eric Ebron and the newly signed Marvin Jones as receiving options. Ebron may never live up to his massive draft hype (10th overall in 2014), but this group has diverse skill sets and should give Detroit different types of threats in every area of the field.
Where They Will Struggle: Detroit’s run game was better under Cooter, but that’s all relative. The Lions finished 27th in rushing DVOA last year, and they will require better play out of their young guards, no matter how much help Cooter gives them schematically. After a stellar rookie season, right guard Larry Warford has been slowed by injuries for the past few seasons, and 2015 first-rounder Laken Tomlinson had a rough time as a rookie.
Potential Breakout Star: Decker. Most of the other highly drafted talent on Detroit’s roster has either already emerged (Slay and Ansah) or is not a sure bet to (Ebron and Tomlinson). Decker has been the starter at left tackle from the jump; being able to stick him in that role for the next decade would be a big win early in Quinn’s tenure running the front office.
Stat of Note: 4.63. That’s running back Ameer Abdullah’s average yards per carry under Cooter, after managing 3.58 in the first seven weeks of last fall.
18. Baltimore Ravens
2015 record: 5–11
2015 DVOA finish: 20th on offense; 20th on defense
All the typical indicators that point to a bounce-back season are there for the Ravens. They went 5–9 in one-score games, and no offense in the league dealt with more injuries when measured by adjusted games lost. Still, statistical signposts aren’t enough to put Baltimore back in the elite company to which it’s accustomed.
After years of pumping out superstars for its roster and eventual overpriced free agents for others, the Ravens’ pipeline of young talent is no longer the sure bet that it has been in seasons past. Two years ago, this team deployed Pernell McPhee as a pass-rushing luxury to complement some aging-but-great veterans on the edge. That level of depth has vanished from the front seven, where Baltimore is banking on undrafted free agent Zach Orr to start next to C.J. Mosley and has few options beyond its starters on the interior of the defensive line.
Injuries have played a role in that decline (Carl Davis and Bronson Kaufusi are both already on IR), but overall the Ravens haven’t seen the returns on recent drafts that they have for most of GM Ozzie Newsome’s tenure. The Arthur Brown–Matt Elam debacle of 2013 has been a disaster (although nose tackle Brandon Williams, a third-round pick from that year’s draft, has turned into one of the best run defenders in the NFL). We still haven’t seen receiver Breshad Perriman, and the Ravens must be so happy with 2015 second-round selection Maxx Williams: They signed 35-year-old tight end Ben Watson to a two-year, $7 million deal this offseason.
Baltimore remains one of the best-coached teams in the league, potentially has a top-five offensive line with the addition of first-round pick Ronnie Stanley, and could be worse off at QB, even if Joe Flacco’s salary is a cap burden. The Ravens could easily finish above .500 and contend for a playoff spot, but that’s not the type of outlook we’re used to for this franchise. It no longer frightens opponents; for this team, that’s a new reality.
What They Should Do Well: The pieces are in place for the offensive line to leap into consideration for the best in the AFC. Stanley looked great in preseason action at left tackle, and even though right tackle Ricky Wagner fell off a bit in his third season, he showed in 2014 that he’s capable of playing at a high level. Flacco completed just 48.7 percent of his passes when pressured last year, per Pro Football Focus, so keeping him clean may be the difference for this passing game.
Where They Will Struggle: Baltimore finished 26th in pressure rate last year, according to Football Outsiders data. The return of Terrell Suggs may help in that regard, but he’s now 33 and coming off an Achilles injury. Elvis Dumervil, 32, was recently activated from the PUP list and isn’t getting any younger, either. We’ll see how the Ravens use second-round pick Kamalei Correa, who was an edge player at Boise State, but they’ll need to find some answers if the pass rush is going to be better than it was last year.
Potential Breakout Star: Timmy Jernigan may be one of those answers, as the 6-foot-2, 295-pound defensive lineman had four sacks and 12 hurries in 15 games last season. The former Florida State star is exactly the type of player the Ravens need to take a step forward, and even though he plateaued a bit in his second NFL campaign, I think his ceiling is higher than what we’ve seen so far.
Stat of Note: 31. That’s the age both Ravens starting safeties will be by the middle of October this season. Eric Weddle came over as a free agent following a bitter divorce from the Chargers, and Baltimore is hoping that it can extend Lardarius Webb’s career by moving him to the back end after he spent the first seven years of his career as a corner. Injuries have ravaged the Ravens’ secondary in recent years, and they’ll start this fall as one of the older groups in the NFL.
17. New York Giants
2015 record: 6–10
2015 DVOA finish: 19th on offense; 30th on defense
It’s hard not to be impressed with how brazen general manager Jerry Reese was with his spending this offseason. With holes lining the Giants defense (and defensive end Robert Ayers and cornerback Prince Amukamara set to leave in free agency), Reese doled out an absurd amount of money to three new defenders.
Defensive end Olivier Vernon turned a half season’s worth of hurries into a five-year deal with a whopping $52.5 million in guarantees, run stuffer Damon Harrison landed $24 million guaranteed to bring his limited-but-glorious skill set to the Giants, and corner Janoris Jenkins rounded out the spree with a five-year, $62.5 million contract. Man, seeing it in one place, that really does seem kind of excessive.
Retaining Ayers and Amukamara would have saved the Giants a ton of cash, but tracing Reese’s thought process is simple. The franchise drafted so miserably from 2010 to 2012 that handing guys like Vernon a top-of-the-market deal was the only avenue left for it to acquire young players hitting their second contract. Ideally, overpaying someone else’s draft picks as they hit their prime and combining them with some nice finds in recent drafts would give New York a shot to compete in a wide-open NFC East. That isn’t the worst plan, but it’s certainly short-sighted, and an approach that’s left the Giants packing on a handful of prominent players while glaring holes exist elsewhere on the roster.
What They Should Do Well: The Giants finished just 18th in passing DVOA last year, but a step forward in 2016 would make sense. Eli Manning has settled into new head coach Ben McAdoo’s offense nicely, and this season he may finally have the second option he’s lacked since Odell Beckham Jr.’s emergence two years ago. I loved Sterling Shepard during the draft process, and by all accounts, he’s looked great so far. The Giants are also likely to get better play out of their tackles since, well, it’d be hard for them to be worse. We know what 27-year-old right tackle Marshall Newhouse is at this point, but 2015 first-rounder Ereck Flowers could build on a tough rookie year.
Where They Will Struggle: Harrison is a good starting point in retooling any run defense, but the Giants’ real issue on that side of the ball in 2015 came at linebacker. They haven’t done anything to fix it, as familiar and uninspiring options like Kelvin Sheppard, Jonathan Casillas, Keenan Robinson, and J.T. Thomas make up the majority of this crew. With a pair of young safeties, this team’s middle-of-the-field pass defense could be a problem, too.
Potential Breakout Star: Yes, I’m smitten, but I’m going to say Shepard. The targets will be there for him (Rueben Randle had 90 last year), and even if the Giants can’t rely on Victor Cruz, the rookie gives this offense a threat to pair with Beckham.
Stat of Note: 67.5. That’s the combined number of hurries from Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul last season, which is even more impressive considering Pierre-Paul missed the first half of the season and Vernon did much of his damage down the stretch. If the final eight weeks are an indication of what’s to come for both guys, the pairing of those two with Harrison and underrated tackle Johnathan Hankins (who also missed seven games in 2015) could give the Giants one of the league’s best front fours.