Hours after Odell Beckham Jr. lamented in an ESPN interview how the Giants no longer throw the ball downfield, New York unleashed its longest touchdown pass by air yards traveled in a year—and Beckham was the one who threw it. The 57-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back Saquon Barkley in Sunday’s 33-31 loss to the Panthers had an unmistakable layer to it: With this team, Beckham and Barkley have to do seemingly everything themselves, and that’s been particularly difficult for the second overall pick through five games.
The holes in the Giants offense have (predictably) proved too much to overcome despite Barkley’s immense talent, and New York’s 1-4 start has the Giants on the outside looking in at the playoffs in a weak NFC East. Quarterback Eli Manning is visibly worse than he was in his disastrous 2017 season, and the offensive line—supposedly bolstered by free-agent left tackle Nate Solder and second-round pick Will Hernandez—ranks 31st in run blocking by Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and 26th by adjusted sack rate. (On Tuesday, the Giants waived former first-round pick and human turnstile Ereck Flowers, who started 46 of 48 games from 2015 to 2017 but lost his job to undrafted second-year tackle Chad Wheeler.)
Barkley ranks 15th in the league in rushing yards per game (61.6), just behind the undrafted Phillip Lindsay of Denver. But that figure hides how inefficient Barkley is on a per-game basis: As Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders wrote this week, Barkley’s rushing yardage overwhelmingly comes from breakaway runs for long gains, but he barely gets any yardage on the majority of his carries. That dichotomy was exemplified Sunday, when Barkley earned 50 yards on two carries and negative-2 yards on his other 13.
.@giants @saquon had 10/15 runs go for 1Yard or less. Here is the fundamental reason why! It is a game of “real estate” and the #giants don’t gain any ground. Until they fix this issue we will never see the greatness that is #Saquon. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/3MVNo3O8FJ— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) October 9, 2018
The Giants’ start and the relatively modest early returns on Barkley have reignited the offseason debate over whether drafting the running back instead of Manning’s replacement with the second pick was a mistake. Drafting Saquon was a win-now move that doubled down on the hope for one more magical Manning postseason run. But there was another simple option that could’ve have improved the Giants’ 2018 fortunes while also jump-starting their rebuild: trading the pick away.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Gang Green gave away a lot of gold. In pursuit of the first great quarterback in franchise history, the New York Jets traded the no. 6 overall pick, two 2018 second-rounders (nos. 37 and 49 overall), and another second-round pick in 2019 to the Indianapolis Colts for the no. 3 overall pick. The deal was a massive haul for the Colts, who got three second-round draft picks to move down three spots and ended up with Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson, the consensus best offensive-line prospect in years. Based on the draft value chart created by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, the Jets paid 198 cents on the dollar for the pick.
Apparently, the Giants were either unaware of or uninterested in the Jets’ desire to move up. In his post-draft press conference, new Giants general manager Dave Gettleman was asked whether the team received any significant trade offers before the draft.
“The short answer is no,” Gettleman said. “People call you and they want the second pick in the draft for a bag of donuts, a hot pretzel, and a hot dog. It’s like, ‘Get away. Leave me alone. I ain’t got time to screw around.’”
Stunningly, Gettleman also said the Giants didn’t consider offers during the draft, even after the Browns chose Baker Mayfield over Sam Darnold.
“We were taking Saquon,” he said. “End of discussion.”
A package like the one that the Jets sent to the Colts could’ve put the Giants in a far superior situation, both for 2018 and beyond. Barkley would likely have been gone by the time they picked at no. 6, but All-Pro-caliber talents like pass rusher Bradley Chubb, Nelson, linebacker Roquan Smith, and defensive back Derwin James would have still been on the board—not to mention the trio of quarterbacks Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. Whether the Giants went with a position player or Manning’s successor, extra second-rounders would have gone a long way toward establishing a young core. Additional 2018 picks could have been used on a host of players with first-round grades, including Texas guard Connor Williams, Iowa center James Daniels, Boston College linebacker Harold Landry, Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, LSU running back Derrius Guice, or Georgia running back Nick Chubb. It’s too early to know which draft picks will pan out, but the odds increase when a front office can throw three darts between no. 33 and no. 49 overall instead of one. The Giants’ mistake wasn’t choosing a running back over a quarterback. It was choosing one player when they could have had four (and when one of those four could have been a quarterback).
Perhaps Gettleman didn’t explore a deal because he doesn’t subscribe to the “more picks is better than fewer picks because the draft is a crapshoot” approach that has dominated team-building in football (and now basketball) this century. In Gettleman’s five years as the GM in Carolina, he never traded down.
“There was nothing ever meaningful enough that would keep me from a player that we had that was there for us to take,” Gettleman said in his predraft press conference. “You can outsmart yourself and you can have a player there that you like, but someone wants to trade and you go, ‘All right, I can get extra draft picks.’ Woo, and you get into that. Nobody ever offered us—you know what, in Carolina I never got a meaningful enough offer to trade back.”
Even without a trade, choosing Barkley over a quarterback still seems to be a mistake. Running backs are easily hurt, easily replaced, have a questionable impact on wins and losses, and are the cheapest position player in the sport when acquired by any other means than a pick at the top of the first round, where they earn top-of-the-market contracts. Meanwhile, quarterbacks on rookie contracts are such a cap-friendly bargain that they have become the dominant building block for NFL contenders, exemplified by Jared Goff and the Rams, Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs, and Carson Wentz and the defending champion Eagles, who will visit the Giants on Thursday night. All three of those teams traded up for the chance to draft their future signal-caller, and they have spent the money they saved at quarterback elsewhere on their roster. The Giants had the chance to replace Manning without giving up any future assets and while saving significant cap space, but they squandered it. (Manning’s 2018 cap hit is $22.2 million, the 10th largest in the league, according to Spotrac, while Darnold’s 2018 hit is $5.5 million, the 286th largest.)
Considering both the potential gains from trading down and the value of landing a quarterback on a rookie contract, the Giants failing to make a deal and to land a quarterback like Rosen looks particularly painful in retrospect.
Five weeks into the season, the Giants have dug themselves into a 1-4 hole that soon will have fans, the front office, and even players thinking about 2019. Next year is the final season of Manning’s deal, and it’s hard to imagine the team extending him beyond 2019, especially considering how close to done the Manning era seemed last season. Manning’s per-attempt and per-game numbers have improved from 2017’s nightmare, but he isn’t throwing the ball deep anymore based on the numbers or the interviews with disgruntled receivers, and he’s struggling to make plays in head coach Pat Shurmur’s system.
Just finished watching the All-22 of the first half from Sunday. Eli Manning wasn't touched once. Took ZERO QB hits. I counted 1 pressure. Using the O-line excuse this week is lazy. This is his pocket on the second missed throw of the first half to Odell Beckham Jr. pic.twitter.com/C5bftrAPMl— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) October 2, 2018
The team needs to plan for a post-Manning future, and after cutting 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb in the preseason, the only internal option is Kyle Lauletta, the 2018 fourth-round pick out of the University of Richmond. Unless the Giants feel Lauletta can handle the starting gig, they’ll likely turn to the draft, and they will discover that they are in a world of trouble.
Headlined by Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield, Allen, and Jackson, the 2018 quarterback class was compared to the 2004 and 1983 classes. The 2020 class is slated to include Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Washington’s Jacob Eason, and a demigod out of Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa. But scouts are not nearly as bullish on the 2019 class, which is headlined by Oregon’s Justin Herbert, West Virginia’s Will Grier, and prospects already falling down boards like Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Mizzou’s Drew Lock. The Giants may have to either reach for a quarterback in a draft rife with talent at every other position or wait until 2020.
The Giants could have chosen to build around multiple high draft picks or a solid quarterback (or both). Instead, they decided to draft a player who has a far bigger impact on fantasy football than real football (and he didn’t even go second in fantasy football drafts this year). Barkley’s raw talent could very well earn him enshrinement in Canton and perhaps status as a New York sports legend. But even if he accomplishes all of that, it still doesn’t mean it was the right decision for the Giants’ future.