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21 Questions in 21 Days

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21 Questions: How many wins to clinch NFC East?


With the calendar flipped to July, asks 21 important questions heading into the team's 2021 training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.

For 21 days, a member of the crew will answer one question about the roster, coaching staff, schedule, and much more.

No. 20: How many wins will it take to clinch the NFC East this season?

Dan Salomone: With the NFL expanding to a 17-game schedule, the winner will just have to get to double digits. There is always a chance that one team just gets hot and stays hot in this topsy-turvy division that has not had a repeat champion since Andy Reid's Eagles won four in a row from 2001-04. But the NFC East is matched fairly evenly again, which means they could beat up each other. Much was made about Washington winning the division last year with just seven wins, but at the end of the day, it earned the right to host a playoff game and took the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers into deep water with a fourth-string quarterback facing off against Tom Brady.

John Schmeelk: Can the Giants find a consistent edge rusher? Will Saquon Barkley, Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines return from injury and be productive? Can the team repeat their performance on defense? How will the Giants use their myriad of weapons on offense? Will Daniel Jones take the next step in his development?

These are all key questions that need to be answered this season, but they pale in comparison to the most important one: Will the Giants young offensive line make significant improvement in 2021?

The offensive line impacts every part of an offense. Last year, the line was effective in run blocking. Even without Saquon Barkley, the Giants averaged 140 rushing yards per game from Weeks 4-13. Once the team adopted a primarily power/gap scheme style, it was very effective running the football and there's no reason that shouldn't continue with Barkley back on the field.

Pass protection was a different story - only the Jets allowed pressure on a higher percentage of their pass plays than the Giants (40.5 percent). The Giants' young line improved as the season went along, reducing that mark to 31.2% over their final six games. It ranked 13th in the league. Was that a sign of real progress or a product of a small sample size and the opponents they faced?

Rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas allowed only 15 pressures and four sacks in his final six games after allowing six sacks and 45 pressures in his first 10. Nick Gates should be better in his second year at center and Shane Lemieux got valuable experience starting at left guard in the second half of the season. But what happens on the right side of the offensive line will be critical. Will Matt Peart, who played in spot-duty earn the starting right tackle spot, or will a returning Nate Solder provide stable veteran leadership and win the job? Who will replace Kevin Zeitler, who was arguably the team's best lineman last year, at right guard? Can Will Hernandez bounce back and successfully move to a position he hasn't played since high school or will someone else win the job?

The Giants hired Rob Sale as their new offensive line coach this off-season (after changing the position's coach midway through 2020), hoping he will bring stability to the room.

If often takes young offensive linemen a couple of seasons or more to adjust to the NFL and play at a high level. The Giants could start an entire line with each player having four years or less of NFL experience. If they put it all together, the offense could be in the top third of the league.

Lance Medow: The Giants finished last season 17th against the pass, but that group showed improvement in the second half of the year and added more talent this off-season. The acquisitions of Adoree' Jackson and rookie Aaron Robinson will only strengthen a unit that already has James Bradberry (coming off his first Pro Bowl season) to go with veteran safeties Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers. Bradberry, Jackson, Ryan and Peppers each have played at least four NFL seasons and provide positional versatility.

The Giants have a young nucleus of players, including Julian Love, Darnay Holmes, Xavier McKinney and Robinson, who also provide flexibility when it comes to player alignment. Let's also not forget McKinney missed the majority of the 2020 season due to a broken foot and only appeared in six games, so he's still scratching the surface of his potential on the professional level. This group puts New York in a good position to showcase depth and protect itself from injuries. The talented unit also will allow the team to play more man-to-man. Last season, Patrick Graham rotated the corner opposite Bradberry but, this year, with Jackson aboard, he'll likely be able to be more creative with who he utilizes in the slot and on the back end at safety.

Dan Salomone: They were better in Week 17 than they were in Week 1, which bodes well for the development of the team under Joe Judge. After the 1-7 start, the Giants went 5-3 in the second half of the season, including four consecutive wins (three of which were on the road at Washington, Cincinnati, and Seattle). The momentum was propelled by the defense, which allowed just below 20 points per contest over the final eight games. With the exception of co-captain Dalvin Tomlinson, who signed with the Vikings in free agency, the core not only stayed intact, but it also grew with additions like cornerback Adoree' Jackson and edge rusher Azeez Ojulari. The Giants also added a host of weapons on the other side of the ball to complement what the team built on defense.

"What [Judge] was able to do last year as a brand-new head coach in this league at his age and not having any offseason program or any on-field activity, no preseason games, you just jump right into Week 1, we only won six games, but I just sense a different feeling from the players," team president and chief executive officer John Mara said this off-season about why he thinks Judge is the right man for the job. "They believe in his message and in his program. You can see that in team meetings, you can see that on the practice field, you could see that in their effort, so now is the time to just start winning more games. I think he showed us a lot last year, so now it's time to take the next step."

John Schmeelk: After three or four weeks of training camp, it begins to get very repetitive practicing against the same people every day. The offense and defense start recognizing the schemes and tendencies of the players they are competing against. It's a good time to get new faces on the field to give a different flavor of schemes and players on both sides of the ball.

Joint practices also give a measure of comparison to give organizations an idea of how their talent matches up against other groups around the NFL. Let's say the Giants are practicing against the Browns, they will get to see how their young offensive tackles block Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney. Those are invaluable opportunities that would not otherwise be available.

Getting more competitive reps during the week also makes it less necessary for teams to play their starters more snaps in full-contact preseason games. It can help veterans avoid injuries and give younger players more opportunities to prove themselves.

Check out the best photos from the Giants' 2021 Media Day as the team gets ready to open training camp.