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Keidel: 5 Bold Predictions For 2018 Giants

Jason Keidel
September 06, 2018 - 1:59 pm

Mike Garafolo was on Boomer & Gio last week (while Kim Jones and Jerry Recco filled in as hosts), musing over the new NFL season. When asked about the Giants, the NFL Network reporter said we almost have to apologize for predicting big things for Big Blue this year in light of their horrific performance in 2017, which left them in a 3-13 wasteland, sans a head coach or general manager.  He's right. The Giants got crushed by an epic wave of injuries and ineptitude, of infighting and backstabbing. Most of the responsible parties are gone. 

As the G-Men look to rebound from their gridiron apocalypse last year, here are five bold predictions for their 2018 season.

1) The Giants will regret drafting Saquon Barkley. 

If there were a direct link between personality and production, then Barkley should have been the first pick in the draft, playing for the bereft Cleveland Browns. If you're looking for a modest yet monstrous football specimen, a fine young man by any objective measure, you must root for the rookie RB. But an NFL club is measured by 16 savage Sundays, where yardage and points are the main metrics. 

With all deafening praise over the Penn State alum, you'd never know Barkley rushed for over 100 yards just five times in 13 games for the Nittany Lions last year - one of them against powerhouse Akron (sans LeBron James).  Barkley did rush for 198 yards...against Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, and Indiana...combined.  

Barkley is a clear and crucial upgrade at the position, as Big Blue's running game spawned as much fruit as the swamp surrounding their stadium. But the No. 2 pick should be a generational talent, and Barkley feels more like Reggie Bush than Le'Veon Bell. Of the top five backs in the NFL, only Ezekiel Elliott was picked in the top-five of the entire draft. Bell, David Johnson, and Alvin Kamara weren't even grabbed in the first round. 

So is Barkley the backfield ace who rushed for 211 yards at Iowa, or the wholly average halfback who averaged barely more than 2.5 yards per carry against Indiana and Rutgers, at home? Barkley can catch the ball, as well, and new head coach Pat Shurmur will find ways to get Barkley the ball in advantageous spots. Barkley will still help Big Blue's offense, and get his thousand yards rushing - it only takes 63 per game over an entire NFL season - and a few hundred yards catching the ball in the flat. But fans will wonder if they could have taken a rusher of similar heft in later rounds, while watching Sam Darnold grow by the day down the hall.

2) The Giants will be much better on offense.

Yes, it's the Captain Obvious call of the season. Just by default, the Giants will be exponentially better. With the return of Odell Beckham Jr from a broken ankle, the maturation of TE Evan Engram, the addition of Barkley, and the revamped offensive line, Big Blue will fare better than last year's 21st-ranked offense that put up a paltry 15.4 points per game (only the 0-16 Browns scored fewer points in 2017). 

Last year, they had no one to run the ball and Eli had no one to whom he could pass the ball. Other than that, the 2017 Giants offense was flawless. Even if we disagree on the extent of Barkley's ability, there's no doubting he's a biblical upgrade at running back. No doubt that's why the Giants drafted him, as only six teams averaged fewer rushing yards than the Giants (96.8 per game). Not surprisingly, none of those clubs made the playoffs. Not only did the Giants draft Barkley, they beefed up their offensive line by adding Patriots tackle Nate Solder and drafting UTEP guard Will Hernandez in the second round of this year's draft.

And this is why they hired Pat Shurmur - to keep up with the arms race on offense. If he can take Case Keenum to the NFC title game, he can work wonders with Eli Manning. 

So rather than say the Giants will just be better, let's stamp some bold ink and assert that the G-Men will go from No. 26 in the NFL in rushing in 2017 and will crack the top-ten in 2018. And don't underestimate the potential impact of backup RB Jonathan Stewart, whose former Panthers teammate, DeAngelo Williams, did some serious work in Pittsburgh when most thought he was finished. 

3) Evan Engram is (the other) key to the offense.

One of the few things Lombardi loathed about football is how often the fortunes of an NFL club pivoted on the quarterback's play. And that's back when he relied on the Green Bay Sweep way more than on Bart Starr's bombs to Boyd Dowler. Now, with the most nuclear offenses since the Cold War, the Giants will rely on receivers more than ever. And while all eyes are on Beckham and Barkley, we can't sleep on the tight end. 

Over the last 20 years, the NFL unearthed these new hybrid TEs who are more prized for their routes than pass protection and run blocking. Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates led this TE revolution. More recently we've seen Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Travis Kelce stack up yards and touchdowns. 

Enter Evan Engram, whom the Giants drafted in the first round out of Ole Miss. And while some of us thought it was a reach for a speedy yet undersized tight end, he showed some serious chops in his rookie season. So you'd have to expect him to improve on his 64 receptions, 722 yards, and six touchdowns. 

Kelce, whom most would take on their football or fantasy team after Gronkowski, averaged 12.5 yards per catch last year. As a rookie, Engram averaged 11.3 per catch. Kelce scored just two more touchdowns than Engram caught. And Kelce's longest reception was for 46 yards, while Engram's was 35 yards. You'd have to expect Engram's stat line to grow in his sophomore NFL season, making him perhaps the most underrated or under-reported tight end in the sport.  

4) Eli Manning will make his last Pro Bowl.

Sure, sometimes you just need a picture and a pulse to play in that Club Med football game in Hawaii. But folks act like Eli hasn't had a decent season since the Giants last won the Super Bowl five years ago. But while the Giants finished 6-10 in 2015, Manning tossed 35 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. And, naturally, it was the last time he was voted to the Pro Bowl. 

A year ago, Manning was supposed to enjoy the collective athletic splendor of Odell Beckham Jr, Brandon Marshall,  and Sterling Shepard. Then the first two wideouts were gone for the season, and Shepard wound up catching more passes (59) than Beckham and Marshall combined (43). Beckham is now uber rich, allegedly more mature, and always as talented as any WR on the planet. Marshall is washed up and washed ashore in Seattle. But with Beckham and Shepard healthy and hungry, they can live with some mutation of Kaelin Clay, Cody Latimer, and Russell Shepard. 

They say a QB's best buddy is a robust rushing attack. And the Giants will have one, even if they carried one too many (four) running backs on their roster. With Barkley expected to get over 350 touches, it's hard to imagine three more RBs getting that much playing time. But Eli will love a conga line of productive players in the backfield, especially Barkley. 

The "last Pro Bowl" part is just speculation, part of the boldness. Manning is 37 years old, after all, and there's an army of seriously gifted quarterbacks in the NFL pipeline. But whatever alchemy that makes the Manning DNA so supernatural will help Peyton's kid brother reach one more Pro Bowl as he inches toward age 40. Let's say he throws 36 TDs, 16 INTs,  puts up 4,400 yards, while completing 64% of his passes (the highest completion percentage of his career). 

5) The Giants will make the playoffs. 

While most sports trade on parity while turning fair play into a parody, the NFL lives on the poorhouse to penthouse narrative. In every season since 1990, at least four teams have made the playoffs who did not make the playoffs the year before. Last year took parity to a new orbit, with eight playoff teams who were at home at the same time the season prior.

We just saw the Giants rivals, just 95 miles south on I-95, the Philadelphia Eagles, win their first NFL title since Chuck Bednarik loomed over Jim Taylor as the clock expired on the 1960 NFL title game. It was Vince Lombardi's first (and last) playoff loss. Other clubs looking for their first Super Bowl ring - such as the Chargers to the Falcons - are expected to contend for a Lombardi Trophy this year.   

With such surreal parity at their backs,  is it so crazy to say the G-Men will at least contend for a playoff spot? You may be a bit too cynical after last year's 3-13 shipwreck to predict any kind of playoff run. But consider they will be exponentially improved on offense. And with the offense gobbling up more minutes, the defense will automatically improve from the gruesome squad that 373.2 yards per game, 31st in the NFL (only Tampa Bay was worse). With the addition of tackling machine Alec Ogletree, the G-Men will not hemorrhage 120.8 rushing yards per game, as they did in 2017 (27th in the league). Most importantly, they won't allow 24.3 points per game. Only the Dolphins, Colts, Browns, and Texans allowed more. Not surprisingly, none of them made the playoffs. 

We're not saying this is a Super Bowl team. We're just saying they can make the tournament, and will. Dallas has too much drama. Washington doesn't have the horses. And the Eagles are talking way too much to be seriously considered a repeat champion. Philadelphia has too much talent not to win at least 10 or 11 games, and will likely win the NFC East. But Big Blue should sneak in as a wild card club, going 10-6.

Twitter: @JasonKeidel