Return of Saquon Barkley, other roster changes could pay dividends
A truncated offseason was compounded by a season-ending Saquon Barkley injury to put the New York Giants 2020 rushing attack, under the leadership of Jason Garrett, in a precarious situation. Former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur was fired after the 2019 season, and his offense consisted of mostly inside zone runs, with their predominant gap run being a backside guard pull to the 5 or 6 holes.
The Garrett rushing attack was a bit more diverse. According to thekneeldown.com, a site that aggregates team collective statistics, the Giants ran inside zone rushing plays more than 150 times under Shurmur; the next closest run call was man blocking concepts just more than 50 times.
Garrett used the inside zone just more than 100 times with man blocking concepts at around 85 plays, counter runs at around 65 plays, and power plays at just around 50 calls. The base run play under Garrett, outside of double teams inside zone/DUO was the counter-trey play that was significantly implemented in the game plan during the Week 5 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.
By this point, the Giants had lost Barkley and signed Devonta Freeman, who ended up suffering an injury after a Week 7 Thursday Night Football loss to the Eagles. The offense started finding success with their rushing attack as the offensive line came together, mostly after the firing of Marc Colombo, and just after Shane Lemieux entered the lineup as a starter.
Will Hernandez, the original starter, contracted COVID-19 and was relegated to a fill-in role, but I believe the two were comparable in skill-sets; however, Hernandez was a better pass blocker than Lemieux, more so than Lemieux was superior than Hernandez as a run blocker.
Nevertheless, the rushing attack was relatively successful for the Giants, to the tune of ranking 19th in overall rushing yards per game – the team was 6-10, meaning positive game scripts weren’t common. Wayne Gallman, Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris and Dion Lewis were serviceable in the absence of star running back Barkley, but the 2021 backfield looks significantly different, so let’s see where the position groups differ from the past year.
Key losses: Wayne Gallman, Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris, Dion Lewis
Key additions: Devontae Booker, Corey Clement, Gary Brightwell, Cullen Gillaspia
Why the Giants could be better
I’ll disregard the Barkley injury as another addition to the position group; the article would be too easy if that were the case. However, the Giants made it a priority to add a capable running back early in free agency. On Day 1, in a market that’s saturated with talent, the Giants signed Devontae Booker from the Raiders to a two-year, $5.5 million deal.
Booker is a 5-foot-11, 220-pound back who has a three-down skill-set: he can rush inside the tackles, go outside, receive the football, and be adequate in pass protection when asked to play in passing situations. This allows him to be a more capable running back than Wayne Gallman.
I am a big Gallman fan, but he was a bit one-dimensional. He was capable of running between the tackles, averaging a total of 4.7 yards per carry when rushing inside of the tackles (A, B, or C-Gap with a tight end). He was adequate as a pass-catcher, averaging an 11 percent drop rate through his career, but he was also less than desirable as a pass blocker.
His struggles in third-down situations, combined with his lack of special teams ability, led to him being benched in Week 2 – the game where Barkley was injured. Loved the toughness that Gallman ran with, and the quick vision he displayed, but he wasn’t a complete back – Booker is more complete than Gallman.
Booker has significant special teams experience, has been targeted as a receiver more than 20 times in four out of five seasons, and he’s capable of protecting the quarterback in six-man protection packages. I would also argue that Corey Clement is even better than Booker at protecting the passer and receiving the football, although Booker is better between the tackles in terms of physicality, vision, and contact balance.
Clement is no slouch with either of these three traits, but Booker is superior to Clement. Lewis had a solid role with the team in passing situations, but lacked an explosive ability that can lead to big plays; both Clement and Booker should, theoretically, be more capable of creating 10- or 20-plus yard runs, with one man to beat, better than Lewis.
The sixth-round pick, Gary Brightwell, isn’t a lock to make the roster with the subsequent addition of Clement. I would imagine that Brightwell lands on the practice squad and gets called up if something happens to Barkley, Clement, or Booker.
The addition of Cullen Gillaspia from the Texans will lead to direct competition with 2020 fullback Elijhaa Penny. There’s only one roster spot for both these players and the training camp battle should be entertaining. Penny was a quality special teams player last season, and Gillaspia has that capability, but the latter may be a better fit in the Kaden Smith counter-trey role as the lead blocker behind the back-side guard.
Overall, losing Gallman is unfortunate, but I believe Booker is an upgrade, in the broad sense, over Gallman who had his deficiencies. Clement is a good complement who may push for snaps if the Giants slowly ingratiate Barkley back into the lineup. Both Clement and Booker have value on special teams, and Gallman did not, albeit Lewis did.
Why the Giants could be worse
The combination of Gallman, Freeman, Morris, and Lewis was the most successful part of the Giants offense in 2020, which may not be saying a lot, but considering the state of a youthful offensive line and quarterback, it may be enough to make a case for the three over the recent additions.
Gallman was a key part of the Giants’ Week 13 road victory over the Seattle Seahawks. He rushed for 135 yards on 16 carries and kept the chains moving with backup quarterback Colt McCoy doing enough to not surrender the win. He had six rushing touchdowns on the least explosive offense in the NFL: that’s more than Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Chris Carson, and tied with Ezekiel Elliot and Miles Sanders.
Gallman ran with the vigor and tenacity that head coach Joe Judge attempts to instill in all of his players. Gallman also ran significantly more snaps in his career than Booker. The running styles are different, but Gallman did a solid job in the gap/power/man style that Garrett runs quite often.
The loss of Lewis doesn’t seem to be a vital one, but Lewis was a solid pass protector throughout his career. Lewis is a smaller running back, but his ability to diagnose blocks, position himself, absorb contact, sink his body weight to create leverage, and do just enough to impede the momentum of blitzing defenders helped the Giants in certain passing situations.
However, Lewis, along with the miscommunications along the offensive line, made some mistakes in 2020 and the result didn’t always live up to his solid pass protection abilities. With the Giants, in his age 31 season, he may have had his worst pass protecting season.
It’s obvious that the Giants wanted to ensure that their running back position was capable of executing several different assignments in 2021; their offseason additions make me believe that they weren’t fully confident in their running back position in 2020 after the injury to Barkley.
Singing Booker on the first day of free agency, in a depressed market, I believe substantiates that claim. Booker is a more complete back than Gallman and Clement is more versatile than Lewis. Adding someone like Brightwell, who can be a solid special teams contributor in the future, is a good way to build early talent on the practice squad. I am more confident in this 2021 running back room than I was in the 2020 room – we just need to ensure that Barkley is somewhat back to normal after the injuries he suffered in Week 2 of last season.