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21 Questions in 21 Days

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21 Questions: Giants' biggest question mark

21-QUESTIONS-HELMET

With the calendar flipped to July, Giants.com 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 Giants.com crew will answer one question about the roster, coaching staff, schedule, and much more.

No. 19: What is the biggest question mark for the Giants?

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.

No. 17: What about last year should have Giants fans excited for Year 2?

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.

Dan Salomone: On Jan. 9, 2020, Joe Judge said at his introductory press conference that "you don't build the Empire State Building by washing the windows; you build it with the foundation and work it on up." While teams like the Buccaneers and Chiefs sat in their skyscrapers last season, the Giants started to build brick by brick. That's how you get back to the top – not only for a season, but for the long run.

Judge didn't promise to bring any magic wand to the organization or feed fans with the schematic flavor of the year. Rather, he set his sights on incremental improvement. Although it may not have looked like it on the outside when the Giants started 0-5 (and then 1-7), Judge said after the regular-season finale that he learned more about the team during that stretch than he did during the four-game winning streak – one that kept the NFC East race alive until the 256th and final game of an unprecedented NFL season.

So, what's Phase II of this construction project?

"I have kind of a vision internally that I know where we're going, and I have a process and steps," he said in his season-ending press conference. "Obviously, we have to improve on the field with some tangible results. We could look at that. We have to make sure we make progress across the board with personnel and schematics. But I have kind of measures in the rungs along the way that I kind of keep tabs on. I make sure the team is moving in the right direction. Not to be kind of evasive with that answer right there, but I'm not going to set out some identified goal for everyone to go ahead and measure us against on a yearly basis."

You'll know it when he takes out the Windex and squeegee.

Lance Medow: When Jason Garrett addressed the media during OTAs, he brought up an interesting point when he emphasized how turnovers in the first half of the season and the lack of explosive plays overall were two factors that defined the 2020 season. The offense had 15 of their 22 turnovers in the first eight games and recorded just 36 pass plays of 20+ yards (second-fewest in the NFL). Those are big reasons why the team is hoping the additions of Kenny Golladay and rookie Kadarius Toney will help improve a unit that averaged just 17.5 points per game (31st in NFL).

The simplistic answer to this question is the Giants need to score more points, but that's easier said than done. As Garrett pointed out, it's a matter of producing many more explosive plays and, most important, better ball security over the course of the season. Turnovers are killers because they're the equivalent to lost at-bats in baseball. The more opportunities you have in the box, the better your chances of getting on base. The same can be said in football where every possession carries a great deal of weight, especially when you're not scoring at a high rate, which is what happened last season.

John Schmeelk: In his first season, Daniel Jones was very productive in terms of yards (3,027 in 13 starts) and touchdowns (24), but his fumble (18) and interception numbers (12) were too high. Pro Football Focus tracks a quarterback's turnover-worthy plays each year (which account for tipped balls, dropped interceptions, etc.) and Jones finished with 31 in 2018, which was the fourth-most in the NFL.

In 2020, Jones became a more efficient quarterback. His turnover-worthy plays dropped to 17, which was tied for only the 16th-most in the NFL. His completion percentage ticked up to 62.5% and he was one of the more efficient deep passers in the NFL, even though he did not have a lot of attempts. His production also dropped, with 2,943 passing yards in 14 games and 11 touchdowns. He was more productive as part of the read-option run game with 423 rushing yards.

Jones needs to combine the strong points from his first two seasons in 2021 by mixing higher production with improved efficiency and be aggressive down the field while protecting the football. It's also important for him to stay healthy for all 17 games. A few good numerical goals would be to get his completion percentage above 63%, his passing yards above 3,500, and keep his TD-to-INT ratio at 2-1 while finishing the year with more than 25 touchdown passes.

Given the Giants' list of improved playmakers and a young and potentially improved offensive line, those type of numbers should be very realistic for Jones this season. From a team perspective, it would mean getting the offense into the top half of the league, and scoring more than 24 points per game. If he can do all that, the Giants should win enough games to make the playoffs.

View photos of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones throughout his NFL career.