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Do the Giants Have a Plan?

Big Blue is the NFL’s laughingstock amid an offseason in which it traded Odell Beckham Jr. Is there a method to GM Dave Gettleman’s madness heading into the draft Thursday?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Aristotle once said that it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it, and right now the most difficult thought for football fans to entertain is that Dave Gettleman knows what he’s doing. The Giants general manager kicked off his second offseason with the team by trading star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Browns in March, and he followed it up by saying earlier this month that 38-year-old quarterback Eli Manning has proved he had “plenty left.” It seems like Gettleman is shooting from the hip, but he insists there is a plan.

“You have to have a philosophy, and you have to be intentional with every single move,” Gettleman told NJ.com on Sunday. “And you can’t panic. I’ve told [Giants co-owner John] Mara, ‘We’re going to fix this. We’re going to put a team out there that everyone is going to be proud of.’”

A general manager’s job is partly political. Holding onto the gig requires bringing ownership on board, and that often means selling the plan to the public. Gettleman is among the worst GMs in recent memory at selling a plan, but he does have a plan. It may or may not be terrible, but it exists. So with that in mind, let’s try to unpack what exactly it is and how it may affect the Giants’ approach to the draft, which kicks off Thursday night.

Running Away From OBJ

“There are three truths,” Gettleman told NJ.com. “Football evolves. The game evolves. The style of play evolves. But there are three truths that have not changed and will not change. OK? You have to run the ball. You have to stop the run. And you have to rush the passer.”

There is a snowballing pile of evidence suggesting that less is more when it comes to running the ball. Rushing attempts per game were at an all-time low in 2018. Meanwhile, rushing yards per attempt were at an all-time high. Overall, yards per play were at an all time high in 2018, and teams scored the second-most points of any season in NFL history. The numbers suggest that Gettleman is a dinosaur, but we’re looking at this through his reading glasses. From his perspective, the Giants’ moves—including the Beckham trade—make sense.

In 2016 and 2017 combined, the two seasons before Gettleman was hired, the Giants were 29th in rushing yards per attempt, 31st in rushing yards (92.5 yards per game), and dead last in rushing touchdowns (12). In that span, there were 16 players who had more rushing touchdowns than the Giants did. It’s not as if Gettleman took over an average rushing team and decided he wanted to make it the best in the league. He took on one of the worst rushing teams in football and wanted to make it respectable. This explains the first of his controversial decisions: drafting Saquon Barkley no. 2 overall. Running backs are of questionable value at the top of the first round, and quarterbacks are of unquestionably elite value, but Gettleman said after the draft that Barkley was the second player in his three-decade career to earn a perfect grade, after Peyton Manning in 1998.

“We couldn’t pass up on Saquon,” Gettleman said at his 2019 predraft press conference. “He was the best player in the draft. You can’t do that.”

With running back accounted for, Gettleman also attempted to fix the team’s abysmal offensive line. He used the Giants’ second-round pick (no. 34 overall) to draft UTEP guard Will Hernandez, a throwback mauler. He also shelled out for left tackle Nate Solder, making him the highest-paid tackle in NFL history at the time. The moves worked. The Giants’ 13 rushing touchdowns in 2018 were more than they had in the previous two years combined, the Giants went from 31st in points scored in 2017 to 16th in 2018, and went from no. 23 in offensive DVOA in 2017 to no. 13 in 2018, the fourth-biggest improvement in the league. Running the ball may not be as efficient as passing, but the Giants offense improved last year after investing in a running back and the offensive line. This offseason, Gettleman has doubled down on rebuilding the team around running the ball. He flipped pass rusher Olivier Vernon to Cleveland for guard Kevin Zeitler, giving the Giants a respectably talented (and quite expensive) offensive line.

But four days after the Browns and Giants made that trade, there was a follow-up: Gettleman sent Beckham to Cleveland for the no. 17 and no. 95 picks in the 2019 draft plus Browns safety Jabrill Peppers. The move came one offseason after the Giants signed Beckham to largest deal ever for a non-quarterback offensive player. But this past season, Beckham publicly voiced his dissatisfaction with the team’s offense, his lack of targets, and Eli Manning’s ability to throw downfield.

“I haven’t been in this situation. I haven’t been in the place where I felt like I could really go out and do everything that I’m capable of doing,” Beckham told ESPN’s Josina Anderson before the Giants’ Week 7 game.

So, if Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur were committed to running the ball and leaning even further into that in 2019, whether because they were sticking with Manning or trying to ease in a young quarterback, it’s hard to envision Beckham becoming happier with the direction they were headed in. And comments like the ones he made to Anderson could have hurt his trade value. Considering Antonio Brown, who forced his way out of Pittsburgh with a series of public complaints about his team and quarterback, was just traded for a third- and fifth-rounder, it’s not a reach to suggest that the Giants cut bait with Beckham at the right time.

Gettleman has taken heat for trading a three-time Pro Bowler who is among the most popular players in the league. But he’s steadfast in his view that the move was addition by subtraction. When asked by NJ.com this past weekend whether the Giants had a cultural problem, he responded, “Not anymore,” with a smile.

Replacing Eli Manning

Fans have clamored for Gettleman to replace Manning the past few offseasons, but the answer for why the Giants haven’t done so yet might be fairly simple: They didn’t love any of the prospects recently. Baker Mayfield was picked first overall last year, so the Giants passed on four first-round quarterbacks at no. 2: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson. Almost every other team passed on Jackson, too, at least once—even the Ravens, who eventually picked him at the end of the first round. Allen would have been a controversial pick at no. 2 overall. Rosen was considered in the mix at for the Giants last year, but he may be out in Arizona as the Cardinals eye Kyler Murray with the no. 1 pick Thursday. The trade market for Rosen seems lukewarm in 2019, which suggests teams may have been lower on him than the draft pundits were. It was surprising to see the Giants pass on Darnold, but Gettleman has suggested the team didn’t love the current Jets QB as a prospect.

“If you have to try to make yourself fall in love with a player, it’s wrong,” Gettleman said after the 2018 draft. “You will never be happy with the pick. … You shouldn’t have to talk yourself into a guy.’’

Gettleman reiterated that last week in his 2019 predraft press conference.

“I won’t force a pick. You can’t draft for need. You will get screwed every time and make a mistake.”

Gettleman may not be chock full of sage advice, but that counts. From the Jaguars with Blake Bortles, the Browns with Johnny Manziel, the Bills with EJ Manuel, the Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill—the list goes on—plenty of teams have bought into questionable quarterback prospects in the first round and wasted years waiting for development that never came. Gettleman and Mara have said several times this offseason that they are willing to be patient and wait for the right prospect rather than make a five-year mistake.

If the Giants’ 2018 board had Barkley at no. 1 and Darnold at no. 2, refusing to draft Darnold over Barkley was ludicrous, given the value of a quarterback. But if the Giants did not grade Darnold highly, it was wise to not force themselves to make the pick. And if that is the case, Gettleman has little choice but to talk up Eli, as he did the past two offseasons.

It’s also worth remembering that Gettleman’s words about Eli in 2019 are just that—words. The question is whether New York will draft a quarterback in the first round Thursday or trade for one before the season. The team has been linked to quarterback Daniel Jones, at least in part because of the long relationship between Duke head coach David Cutcliffe and the Manning family, and also because one team reportedly has Jones as the no. 1 quarterback on their board, and the Giants are the primary suspect. Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock, and West Virginia’s Will Grier are also in the mix, though some Giants beat reporters expect New York to make its move at no. 17 for a quarterback with the pick the team acquired for Beckham, not the no. 6 overall pick that the team is expected to use on a defender.

If the team does select a quarterback in the first round, and Gettleman reveals that the QB is graded higher than the ones from last year, it will be a curious revelation. On one hand, it will lead to a lot of scrutiny to how the Giants grade quarterbacks. On the other hand, the logic is sound even if the methodology is off: New York would leave the draft with a QB and whomever it chooses with its other first-round pick and would be in surprisingly decent shape for the future.

That future may come sooner than some expect. The Giants underperformed their Pythagorean expectation last year by two wins, which is a fancy way of saying they have a good chance of being better in 2019. Believe it or not—and even Gettleman had difficulty believing this—the Giants scored more points than any other NFC East team last year. The offense scored more than 20 points twice in the team’s first eight games and seven times in its final eight games, including dropping 30 on the Bears in Week 13 and 35 on the Cowboys in Week 17. Of New York’s 12 losses, eight were by a touchdown or less.

From Gettleman’s perspective, in a world where running the ball is the future of the organization, Beckham may have been traded at the right moment in time. Even if Gettleman was wrong, he may be forgiven if the team drafts the right quarterback in the first round.

“Being a quarterback of a team in this type of market is a load,” Gettleman said. “It is a mental load. You have to really vet out the background of these guys. Just like being the head coach of this team is a load, being a quarterback is a load, too.”

That goes for the general manager too. Gettleman has a plan, though it remains to be seen whether fans will be proud of it.