State of the Franchise: QB question lingers over retooled Giants

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Giants organization, fans of the team around the world and those who realize that their torso is probably smaller than one of Saquon Barkley's thighs:

Change is not always easy. It's hard to let go. And this offseason, the Giants traded away one of the most beloved players on the team. An actual New York icon. And of course, I'm talking about Olivier Vernon.

Oh, the Giants also traded away Odell Beckham Jr. Yeah, change is afoot.

How the Giants got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.

The highs:

-- The arrival of Saquon Barkley. Barkley's 1-yard run against the Cowboys in Week 17 might have been just a 1-yard run on the stat sheet, but it took multiple tackle attempts and several defenders to stop the rookie sensation. To me, it was the play that kind of defined the Giants' season.

-- An impressive road win over the Texans in Week 3. That made you think, Hey, this team might not be so bad.

-- Beating the Bears in Week 13. No big deal, but the Giants were the only team to defeat Chicago in the second half of the regular season. So you did have that. In fact, the Giants won four of their first five games out of a Week 9 bye to keep themselves alive in the playoff race into mid-December.

The lows:

-- A 1-7 start to the season. The Giants had the aforementioned win over the Texans in Week 3, but then the team dropped a home game to the Saints and fell to Carolina the next week on a 63-yard field goal in the final seconds. They took a five-game losing streak into the bye.

-- Trading away Snacks Harrison and Eli Apple and waiving Ereck Flowers in October. I guess that was just a precursor of things to come.

-- Being shut out by the Titans in Week 15. As I mentioned, the Giants won four of their first five games coming out of the bye, but a 17-0 loss to Tennessee ended any hope of a playoff appearance.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Pat Shurmur. The Giants hired Shurmur in January 2018 despite his 10-23 record as a head coach. To put that in context, all of those losses came when he was coaching the Browns (2011-2012). When you compare Shurmur's stint with the Browns to Hue Jackson's, Shurmur ends up looking like Bill Belichick. And speaking of Belichick, that was a familiar refrain from Giants fans, to be all, "Hey, look -- Belichick failed in Cleveland and look what he's done." (Which is wrong, because Belichick didn't really fail in Cleveland, but that's for another post.)

Anyway, Shurmur was hired because of his excellent record as an offensive coordinator. Most recently, he had worked a miracle season out of Case Keenum as the Vikings went all the way to the 2017 NFC Championship Game. And you'd think you would hire a coach like this to develop a quarterback. Instead, he got Eli Manning. Which is weird. But the team does have Eli's heir apparent -- 2019 first-round pick Daniel Jones -- on the roster now, and we'll eventually see how Shurmur progresses in his second stint as an HC (not counting his one game as interim coach of the Eagles).

Quarterback: Eli Manning. Well, at least he's the QB1 for now. The G-Men used the sixth overall selection in the draft on Jones. The Duke product is the quarterback of the future, but when does he get the baton? Manning is the oldest player on the Giants' roster (38) and he's entering his 16th NFL season. How about that? Manning's career is old enough to drive a car. He's missed only one start over his last 14 seasons. (Seriously, that benching in 2017 was stupid.) He holds just about every major passing record for the Giants. He's beaten Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl. He's accomplished a lot. But at some point, he's going to the bench. And it might need to happen sooner rather than later. See, Manning is 8-23 since 2017 (that's the worst record in the league among QBs with at least 30 starts over that span). Manning has won nine games or fewer in eight of his last 10 seasons. But the upshot is that Manning is coming off one of the most efficient seasons of his career and even set a career high in completion percentage (66.0). But the job is going be Jones' at some point soon.

Projected 2019 MVP: Saquon Barkley, running back. As the Giants figure out which QB they should play and who is going to catch the ball with OBJ no longer around, Barkley will be the one constant in this offense. Barkley averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year as he rushed for 1,307 yards. He also caught 91 passes for 721 yards. This year, he could push to become the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. I know some of you might be skeptical because OBJ is gone -- sorry to bring that up again -- but how dynamic did you think the Giants' offense was last year? NFL history is filled with running backs who were the only option in their offense and went on to have monster years. For instance, Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing during his second NFL season. His quarterbacks that year? Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson. So how about we don't sweat the one thing Giants fans have to look forward to, OK?

Remind me again, who is gone? Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon and Landon Collins, you say? Yeah, I hope you still have that receipt for those jerseys you bought last year. The worst is when one of those guys goes on to have a Hall of Fame career elsewhere. Trust me on this. I have a Greg OlsenBears jersey. It hurts.

2019 breakout star: Lorenzo Carter, outside linebacker. One of the reasons the Giants might have felt comfortable moving Vernon was the presence of Carter, who did show some promise during his rookie season. Now the 2018 third-round pick is not only going to increase his workload, but he's going to need to replace Vernon's production, too. The Giants did sign Markus Golden and draft Oshane Ximines in the third round to boost the pass rush this offseason, but I'm expecting Carter to take a huge step in 2019.

New face to know: Jabrill Peppers, safety. Well, he's going to forever be known as "Not OBJ" to a lot of Giants fans, since he was acquired from Cleveland in the OBJ trade, but this could end up being a nice get. Peppers, a first-round pick in 2017, never really lived up to his promise during his two seasons in Cleveland. Which is fine. That happens. It's like when you find out that Ben Stiller was on one season of "Saturday Night Live." And you look at it now, and you're like, How did that not work? We'll probably be saying the same thing about Peppers when we look back at his time with the Browns in a few years. He was Pro Football Focus' 19th-rated safety last season, so it's not like he's some major underachiever, even if he hasn't quite generated the buzz some expected from him when he first entered the league. And he's kind of a special teams ace, too. I get that it's not fun to lose a three-time Pro Bowl selectee like Collins, but you're getting a younger and much cheaper player in Peppers, so in a way, this might be an upgrade. He could end up having a Zoolander-like season. Does that make sense? Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Another new face to know (because there will be many): Antoine Bethea. General manager Dave Gettleman is rolling the dice that Bethea, who last made the Pro Bowl in 2014, can recapture the magic. As an older presence who played for defensive coordinator James Bettcher in Arizona in 2017, this move makes a lot of sense. Bethea and Peppers in the secondary could end up being a buddy-cop situation like Stiller and Owen Wilson in, damn, "Starsky and Hutch"? Dang it. I wish there was a better Stiller movie comp. Nonetheless, I still like this safety tandem.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: LOW. You traded away one of your franchise players. Then you drafted the quarterback of the future. Congratulations -- you've bought yourself a few extra years for this remodel!

Will the Giants be able to ...

Get production from the WR corps? Beckham was targeted 119 times last season in 12 games. That workload will have to be spread around. Sterling Shepard, who signed a four-year extension with the Giants this offseason, had 102 targets last year and caught 66 passes for 872 yards and four touchdowns. He lined up in the slot for 55% of his routes last season, but he could end up getting kicked outside more because free-agent addition Golden Tate is one of the top slot receivers in the game. And he ran more than 70% of his routes from the slot last year, too. And then you have tight end Evan Engram, who figures into the mix, as well. That might be one of the problems. You have two slot receivers and a tight end who is probably best suited to line up in the slot. I wouldn't be so critical of moving Beckham if the team seemed to have a plan for replacing him. I like Tate, but you already had a budding stud in the slot with Shepard. It's like if your oven broke, but instead of replacing it, you added a second microwave oven. You already had one of those. What good is another one? Perhaps rookie Darius Slayton or Broncos castoff Cody Latimer can step up on the outside.

Improve the defense? The Giants have finished in the bottom 10 in both scoring defense and yards allowed in each of the last two seasons. They were absolutely dreadful at getting to the quarterback last season, when they tied for 30th in the league with 30 sacks. Vernon was the team leader in sacks with seven, so maybe it makes sense that he's now in Cleveland. It's like if you're hungry but don't want to eat, and you end up giving away your lunch to somebody, because I guess you won't be tempted to eat food if you don't have it. I don't know what I'm trying to say, but maybe it's not that big a deal to get rid of Collins and Vernon, because things weren't working with them on the defense anyway. If Peppers, Bethea, Ximines and Golden can come in and make some noise, then you're in good shape.

The team also spent first-round picks on DT Dexter Lawrence and CB Deandre Baker. Lawrence was an interesting choice at No. 17 overall. If the team hadn't been so maligned for taking Jones at the No. 6 spot, maybe more people would have been enraged with the overdrafting of Lawrence. But since everyone had already made jokes about Jones, it just seemed like it would be piling on to also kick them for taking Lawrence that early.

But I do like Baker, who had seven picks and 23 passes defensed over his last three seasons at Georgia. He might actually be my breakout pick.

Do better at running the football? I know, I had Barkley as the team MVP and everything. But did you know that despite how awesome Barkley was last year, the Giants still finished 24th in rushing offense? They tied for 21st in third-down conversion rate, which is not great when you have a stud like Barkley. So they need to get better in this area. Some of these issues stem from an offensive line that, while benefitting from the additions of Nate Solder and Will Hernandez, still struggled to protect the passer. Manning was sacked nearly 50 times last year. And I know he's not vintage Fran Tarkenton or anything, but that's still a lot. What's funny is, as I make that joke, Manning had the second-highest passer rating on the run last season (114.5), per Next Gen Stats. And I might need to commission a study to figure out how that happened.

Three key dates

-- Week 2 vs. the Bills. The Giants are opening on the road in Dallas. That's a loss. I don't mean to be so blunt. But this game against the Bills is a perfect barometer to see how this season is going to go. If the Giants start off 0-2, we might be looking at the dawn of the Daniel Jones era.

-- Week 4 vs. the Redskins. Well, the Giants are going to need to find victories where they can get them. This seems like one of those opportunities.

-- Week 7 vs. the Cardinals. I'm guessing this will be when Jones gets his first crack at starting for the Giants. This game comes 10 days after a Thursday-nighter in New England. So this seems like the perfect time for Manning to pass the torch, like Kurt Warner did for Manning 15 years ago.

One storyline people are overlooking:Eli Manning's numbers without OBJ. I know it's easy for fans to be dismissive when a player leaves via free agency or is traded, and to be all, "He wasn't that good anyway." I don't believe a lot of Giants fans feel that way about Beckham, though you do see some hot-take artists who go down that road. But let's take a quick look at Manning's numbers with and without OBJ since the WR entered the league in 2014. Eli saw declines in completion percentage (64.3 to 60), passing yards per game (277.8 to 225.7), TD-to-INT ratio (77:35 to 17:12) and passer rating (92.9 to 79.1) in his 15 games without OBJ during that stretch. Listen, I might not be a genius, but that is significant. Of all the numbers I'm throwing around here, these really stand out to me.

One storyline people are overthinking:The Giants drafted Daniel Jones too early. This is always one of my pet peeves. If you don't think Jones is that good, does it matter if the Giants drafted him sixth or 17th? "Hey, I know Jones didn't work out. But at least we used our second draft pick on him instead of our first." I don't get that line of thinking. It's weird. Like when people haggle to save a few hundred bucks on their car. All it really does is save you, like, an extra $3 a month or something. People always try to get too cute with their draft picks. To me, if you believe he can be your QB1, you draft him the first chance you get.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Giants MUST ...

-- Figure out the quarterback situation.

-- At least be competitive in the NFC East.

Again, you can't realistically expect the Giants to win the division over the Eagles and Cowboys. But you might want to avoid finishing in the cellar for the third year in a row. The Giants have finished last in the NFC East in three consecutive seasons only once in franchise history (1976-78). They will have some competition for the bottom rung this year because Washington is also in the NFC East.

But the Giants have not won the NFC East since 2011 and have the worst record among the division's teams since 2016 (19-29). The good news is, based on their opponents' records from 2018, they have the second-easiest strength of schedule in the NFL this year.

In closing

The Giants are in an interesting spot. In light of the decisions to trade away players like OBJ, Harrison, Apple and Vernon and to let Collins walk, you would assume this is a team in the middle of a rebuild. But then you have one of the oldest quarterbacks in the NFL as your QB1. At some point, the Giants need to decide what they are before they can truly move forward.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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