*In this edition of “Cover 3” on Giants.com, the crew discusses who is the biggest X-factor on the team in 2019. *
John Schmeelk: This is a really difficult question. I’m defining X-factor as an unproven player whose performance could make or break the team. On defense, the Giants have so many young players, and any number of them could be the X-factor. It could be any of their three pass rushers from the outside: Markus Golden, Oshane Ximines or Lorenzo Carter. It could be one of their inexperienced cornerbacks, like DeAndre Baker, Sam Beal or Julian Love, who will play a lot. It could even be Jabrill Peppers, who is entering his third season and has to replace Landon Collins.
Since there are so many option on defense, I am going to go with an offensive player: Evan Engram. With their track records and skillsets, I feel very confident about how Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate and even the Giants’ offensive line are going to perform. I cannot say the same about Evan Engram coming off a year in which he played just 11 games, a year after playing 15 in 2017. Engram has all the talent of the world, but we haven’t seen it come together on the field quite yet. We did see him clean up a lot of the drop issues he had as a rookie and improve as a blocker. His production in his second year, however, came in fits and starts. Engram had 22 catches in his final four games after returning from injury (and playing without Odell Beckham Jr. on the field), only one fewer than he had in his first seven games of the season. He also had his four best yardage performances in those final four games. He was a difference maker.
The Giants need him to be that kind of player for the entire year in 2019. Offenses need players who are mismatches and force other teams to game plan for them in order to be successful. The Giants have one in the run and pass game with Barkley. Engram, with his speed, has the chance to be one of those players at the tight end position. Linebackers can’t cover him, and safeties should struggle to stay with him too. Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard can certainly win one-on-one matchups, but I’m not sure how much teams are going to game plan for them over the course of the year. If Engram remains healthy and is a terror down the seam and in one-on-one matchups, they will have to game plan for him the way teams do for players like Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. He will be a key to exactly how productive and explosive the Giants offense will be.
Dan Salomone: When I hear X-factor, I think of versatility. When I hear versatility, I think of Jabrill Peppers. The New Jersey native, who was traded from Cleveland ahead of his third season, is a do-it-all player on defense and special teams. Heck, he even saw time on offense at Michigan. His play will go a long way in determining the success of the defense, and therefore the entire team because that was the side of the ball general manager Dave Gettleman targeted coming off last season. The other aspect that he brings to the team is leadership, which coach Pat Shurmur said was “felt immediately” when he came over from the Browns. Peppers brought energy to spring practices and traded barbs with the offensive skill players. Both sides agreed how competitive OTAs and minicamp practices were, and the plan is to translate that to a fast start when the regular season beings.
“He has a very charismatic personality and he loves to play the game,” Shurmur said of Peppers. “He picked up quickly what we were doing on defense well and he is extremely smart. He is very tough and very competitive. When you see guys like that on the field, you feel their presence immediately. He got to it quickly.”
Lance Medow: If there’s one area of the team that has the biggest question mark following it heading into the season, it’s the pass rush. Last season, the Giants collected just 30 sacks and the player who led the team in that category and was responsible for nearly a quarter of the sacks, Olivier Vernon, was traded to the Browns this offseason. When you look at the makeup of the current roster, there are 24 front-seven players with a combined 53.5 career sacks. Ten of the 24 players account for 34.5 sacks with no one having more than 6.5. Markus Golden makes up the rest with 19. That’s why he’s the Giants’ X-factor in 2019.
Golden had a breakout campaign, under James Bettcher, in 2016 when he recorded a career-high 12.5 sacks. Unfortunately, the following season he tore his ACL and was limited to just four games in 2017. Golden returned to the field in 2018 but collected just 2.5 sacks in 11 contests. It’s not uncommon for most players to need two seasons to recover from that type of an injury meaning Golden will look to pick up where he left off in 2016 this season and the Giants could certainly use another campaign in which he fills up the stat sheet.
Even though the bulk of Golden’s sacks came in one year, he’s the only player on the roster who has posted a double-digit sack season and has, by far, the most impressive resume when it comes to getting after the opposing quarterback. In 2016, Golden had the luxury playing alongside Pro Bowler Chandler Jones, who collected 11 sacks that season and Pro Bowler Calais Campbell, who had eight sacks but entering this year he doesn’t have a teammate with Jones or Campbell’s track records. That’s why the Giants will be leaning heavily on Golden to set the tone and tap back into his 2016 production and if he can get to that level, it will go a long way in determining how successful the defense can be in 2019.