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Can the Giants Transition Into a New Era While Clinging to Their Past?

Over the past few months, New York’s brain trust has drafted a generational running back, stood by its aging QB, and watched the rumor mill fly about its superstar receiver. Entering 2018, Giants fans have reason to dream big—and also to question the very direction of the franchise.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a reason so much intrigue heading into the 2018 NFL draft centered on the New York Giants. By holding the no. 2 overall pick, general manager Dave Gettleman’s team represented the event’s true pivot point. Even if there was some mystery surrounding who the Browns would take at no. 1, it was long seen as a certainty that a quarterback would come off the board first. The Giants, on the other hand, were speculated to go in any number of directions, and their decision would dictate how the rest of the top 10 would unfold.

The crossroads the Giants faced on draft night mirrors the one the franchise had arrived at last winter. The December firings of head coach Bob McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese turned New York into an organization in transition. A disastrous 3-13 finish gave a postseason fixture its first top-five draft pick since 2004, when the Giants famously took Philip Rivers only to swap him for Eli Manning. The team’s standing in this draft—one replete with high-level quarterbacks such as Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen—gave the front office a prime opportunity to find Manning’s successor and complete the franchise overhaul that began with those high-profile leadership changes.

Instead, Gettleman elected to go with generational running back prospect Saquon Barkley, eschewing the quarterback pool until nabbing Richmond product Kyle Lauletta in the fourth round. In the process, Gettleman all but confirmed that Manning’s tenure as the face of Big Blue won’t end anytime soon. That decision gives Giants fans reason to dream big in 2018—and also poses some complex questions about where the franchise will go from here.

Despite all the positional-value criticisms that followed the Giants’ selection of Barkley, there’s no denying that Gettleman had a coherent plan entering this offseason. New York has been a mess along the offensive line in recent years, with no running game to speak of. It finished 29th and 26th, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA over the past two seasons, and although the Giants’ traditional pass-protection numbers weren’t awful (Manning was sacked 31 times last season), those figures were aided by his demeanor in the pocket. Manning’s average release time in 2017 was 2.4 seconds, the lowest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. His 3.01-second average time to sack was also the quickest in the league.

Anyone who watched the Giants flounder up front knew changes had to be made, and in that regard Gettleman wasted little time. He gave former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a four-year, $62 million deal (with $34.8 million guaranteed) that offers the NFL’s highest average annual value at the position. His staff selected guard Will Hernandez in the second round, and the UTEP standout should step in as a day-one starter. The Giants’ signing of guard Patrick Omameh didn’t grab many headlines, but he has a chance to join Solder and Hernandez as a first-year starter as well. Changes have been made and resources have been spent. Combined with the dynamic element that Barkley brings to the offense, the revamped line should give the Giants’ ground game a drastically different look than what was on display last fall.

Treating Barkley as a sure thing may seem dangerous, given that he’s never played an NFL snap, but there’s little doubt around the league that he’ll be an immediate factor. His transcendent skill set has never been in question. Barkley emerging as the sport’s next big star in the country’s biggest market seems more likely than not, and the thought of pairing him with Odell Beckham Jr. to create one of the league’s most exciting tandems is tantalizing.

But that’s where the organization’s uncertain future creeps back into the picture. The air around Beckham’s contract situation isn’t exactly optimistic. The wide receiver said earlier this week that he plans to attend training camp despite the reported distance between him and the front office going into the final year of his rookie deal, and how the Giants choose to handle this conundrum is their most pressing issue of 2018. The team is projected to have about $43 million in cap space next season, per Over the Cap, but that number starts to shrink in a hurry if some of its best players get paid. Beckham is likely looking for a deal that surpasses the five-year, $82.5 million contract (with $55 million in guarantees) Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans secured this offseason. With a necessary extension for safety Landon Collins also looming, the Giants could be out more than half of their existing 2018 cap space after simply retaining players on the roster.

It’s worth noting here that Gettleman has proved willing to let talented but troublesome players walk in the past (for example, the Josh Norman fiasco in Carolina), but Beckham inhabits a rare class of superstar. Norman played a marginalized position on a Panthers defense that hadn’t typically used high-level resources at that spot. At times, Beckham is the Giants offense. After he went down with a season-ending broken fibula in October, New York’s attack looked more like abstract performance art than a group of 11 guys trying to score points. No matter which direction this franchise goes, employing Beckham should be an aspect of its approach.

Beckham’s contract status is further complicated by some of the win-now moves the Giants have made in recent years. The team’s 2016 spending spree that included big-money deals for Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, and Damon Harrison now has massive implications for a front office that didn’t hand out any of those contracts. In a way, though, those deals prompted Gettleman to make supplementary, similar-minded moves. Rather than attempt to solve the defense’s linebacker problem in this draft, the Giants dealt two picks (fourth- and sixth-rounders) to the Rams in a package for Alec Ogletree, whose salary is affordable this season but will count for $11.8 million against the cap come 2019. While the Giants were desperate for help at the position, especially given first-year coordinator James Bettcher’s blitz-happy scheme, the choice to trade away picks for the right to pay a linebacker close to $16 million over two years isn’t one that a patient franchise makes. The Giants are trying to become relevant again instantly. That’s not easy for a team that lost 13 games a year ago.

And that brings us back to the front office’s decision to take Barkley over a Manning successor with the no. 2 pick. As Gettleman and Co. weighed the benefits and drawbacks of rolling with Manning for at least another season, it decided that spoiling a year of its expensive deals by using the second pick on a guy who probably wouldn’t see the field in 2018 didn’t make sense. That’s understandable, and it’s easy to envision a world where these Giants are drastically better than last season’s group. The locker room should no longer be in disarray after McAdoo’s ouster; Bettcher has been able to find defensive success without high-level edge rushers in the past; and this team does boast an intriguing set of young skill-position talent. The thought of route combinations featuring Beckham, Barkley, Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram already has opposing defensive coordinators sweating.

Yet even if this year’s Giants are entertaining under new head coach Pat Shurmur, their ceiling is very much in question, and that is tied directly to what Manning can be at this point in his career. It’s plausible that with increased talent around him, superior protection up front, and a quarterback-friendly scheme that allowed Case Keenum to thrive in 2017, Manning will be able to turn back the clock—and turn this offense into a top-10 unit. But many of the areas in which Keenum succeeded in Minnesota are areas in which Manning has traditionally struggled. The Vikings used play-action on 28.7 percent of Keenum’s dropbacks last season, and his 111.8 quarterback rating on those plays was the fifth-highest mark in the league. Manning’s 84.1 rating on play-action throws ranked 24th of 29 qualified quarterbacks, and he’s generally finished near the bottom of the league in that category. That could stem from New York having poor running games of late, which should change with Barkley in tow. But it’s no guarantee that Shurmur will be able to work the same magic with Manning as he did with Keenum last season.

The Giants’ choice to stick with Manning is a show of dedication to the status quo (albeit with a few tweaks). The question in this case is whether the status quo was worth maintaining. New York should improve upon its 2017 record behind an offense that’s likely to be a fixture in highlight packages every week. Yet even a huge jump in the standings could leave this team on the outside of a loaded NFC playoff picture.

If the Manning era ends two years from now after a couple of more seasons of treading water, the Giants could look back at this spring and wonder about the road they didn’t take. There’s an alternate universe, though, where the combined superpowers of Barkley and Beckham unlock one last great run before Manning calls it a career. Gettleman and his staff bet big on door no. 2 this offseason. Now we wait to see whether that gamble will pay off.