EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Finally, the optimism seems warranted for the New York Giants. One look at their roster and it is apparent there is more talent from top to bottom than there has been since the 2016 season.
The upgrade can be credited to an overhaul during the past 16 months that has transformed them from barren to plentiful. The depth chart when coach Joe Judge arrived on Jan. 8, 2020 was scary, and not in a good way.
Of the Giants' 22 starters from Week 17 of the 2019 season, 12 are gone, as are 32 of the 53 players from that roster. Half of those 32 are either retired (quarterback Eli Manning), unsigned as of mid-May or out of the league. And that doesn't include retired long-snapper Zak DeOssie and tight end Rhett Ellison, who finished that season on injured reserve.
That is an indictment of general manager Dave Gettleman's progress until Judge was hired. Since then, they have worked together to stockpile quality talent, producing a roster that finally seems to have realistic potential.
"It's actually pretty astonishing ... seeing how much improved that roster is," said a personnel executive with a team that made the playoffs last season. "They have nice depth."
That comment came after the exec was given a comparison of the Giants' personnel at each position group from the day Judge was hired to now, which we will detail below. This offseason alone, the Giants added wide receivers Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and John Ross, tight end Kyle Rudolph, defensive lineman Danny Shelton, edge rusher Azeez Ojulari and cornerbacks Adoree' Jackson and Aaron Robinson. Their most significant losses were guard Kevin Zeitler and defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson.
"We've had a good roster-building season," Gettleman said. "We've added playmakers. We've added pass-rushers. We added corners. We feel good about what we've done."
With insight from the personnel executive and ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum (a former NFL GM), here is a position-by-position look at the Giants' roster when Judge arrived compared to now:
Current: Daniel Jones, Mike Glennon, Clayton Thorson, Joe Webb
Jan. 8, 2020: Jones, Eli Manning, Alex Tanney
The group that finished the 2019 season had better depth, but as Tannenbaum notes, this should be a better and more experienced version of Jones. And Manning, who spent most of the 2019 season as a $17 million backup, was about to retire.
Thoughts about the Giants' current QBs will change if Jones makes the jump the Giants, Tannenbaum and the executive all expect of him this season.
"That can quickly be fixed by Daniel Jones becoming a legitimate starter this year and getting over the hump," the executive said. "Good chance."
Current: Saquon Barkley, Devontae Booker, Gary Brightwell
Jan. 8, 2020: Barkley, Wayne Gallman, Buck Allen
There doesn't seem to be much hesitation from the executives in predicting Barkley bounces back from a serious knee injury. They also agree Booker is more dynamic and versatile than Gallman.
"He is one of these underutilized players who always maximized his opportunities," Tannenbaum said of Booker.
That makes the current group slightly better. Brightwell is also highly thought of because of his special-teams ability compared to Allen.
Current: Eli Penny, Cullen Gillaspia
Jan. 8, 2020: Penny
Gillaspia was claimed off waivers this offseason because of his ability on special teams, an area the Giants put extra emphasis on this offseason.
Penny also brings value in that regard. He finished second on the team last season with seven tackles on special teams and catches the ball well out of the backfield, if the Giants ever choose to call his number.
Current: Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Toney, Ross, Dante Pettis, C.J. Board, Austin Mack
Jan. 8, 2020: Golden Tate, Shepard, Slayton, Cody Latimer, Corey Coleman, Da'Mari Scott, Russell Shepard, Cody Core
The current group represents arguably the biggest upgrade of any position.
"It's dramatically better now," Tannenbaum said.
In the final game of the 2019 season, Scott and Latimer started in a three-wide-receiver set along with Shepard. Neither is still in the league.
This year's group is talented, deep and has a little bit of everything.
"The depth and the versatility of the group and the way the skill sets complement each other is the difference," the executive said. "You’ve got your speed guy in Slayton, Golladay, who is your contested-catch specialist, Sterling Shepard keeps the chains moving, and you have an offensive weapon in Toney and you're taking a flier on John Ross who is a legitimate speed guy. And same with Pettis."
The executive thought Pettis had a legit chance to be a starter after his rookie season in San Francisco. It's conceivable he's the Giants' sixth wide receiver entering training camp.
Current: Evan Engram, Rudolph, Kaden Smith, Levine Toilolo
Jan. 8, 2020: Engram, Smith, Garrett Dickerson, Ellison, Scott Simonson
Judge said the Giants wanted improvement at every position, and they now have four established tight ends.
"By adding competition, one of two things happen: You either bring someone in who [helps] you improve because they are good enough to take someone else's job, or you bring someone in who pushes the guys in front of him to keep their job, and either way you get a raised level of play," Judge said.
This is part of the thought-process with Engram -- hope his game elevates in a crowded room.
So, which group is better? From the 2019 roster, only Engram and Smith remain in the NFL, and the executive considers the current group significantly better after adding Rudolph as an in-line player who can block and make contested catches. He raved about his hands.
Tannenbaum was less impressed: "What's left with Rudolph? If he's healthy, they're better. But that is a wait and see."
Current: Andrew Thomas, Will Hernandez or Zach Fulton, Nick Gates, Shane Lemieux, Matt Peart or Nate Solder, Jonotthan Harrison, Chad Slade, Kyle Murphy
Jan. 8, 2020: Solder, Hernandez, Jon Halapio, Zeitler, Mike Remmers or Gates, Slade, Spencer Pulley, Eric Smith
This is where the opinions varied. The executive seems to share the Giants' optimism about this year's young group.
"Definitely better," he said. "They have an up-and-coming left tackle [Thomas] who played more consistently down the stretch [last season]. At least they have an insurance policy behind Will Hernandez. Gates has transitioned nicely to the center spot. There is a young guard [Lemieux] they seem to like and he'll be able to [focus] on one position all offseason, which is important for him. And a young right tackle prospect [Peart] they seem to be fond of and a former starter [in Solder].”
Tannenbaum also is optimistic, even if he thinks the group from the 2019 season was better.
"Solder has played better than Andrew Thomas. And I'm a Zeitler fan," he said. "This offensive line has a chance to be good if Peart develops. I loved Andrew Thomas coming out, but he has to play better. They have a chance to be good, but on paper, I'd take Zeitler and a healthy, younger Solder.”
Current: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Shelton, Austin Johnson, B.J. Hill, RJ McIntosh
Jan. 8, 2020: Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson, Hill, McIntosh, Chris Slayton
This is the one area where the Giants clearly are not better. They lost Tomlinson in free agency this offseason because they wanted to move that money to a different position group. The current group might be deeper now, but it's not as good.
"I don't think you're disappointed with [the current group]," the executive said. "Good unit still. But you had three frontline starters with Dalvin."
Current: Ojulari, Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, Elerson Smith, Ryan Anderson, Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown
Jan. 8, 2020: Markus Golden, Ximines, Carter, Kareem Martin, Chris Peace
Tannenbaum and the executive were in agreement that this unit has improved and has depth. Both are high on Ojulari, confident he's more talented than anything New York had when Judge arrived.
"I thought Ojulari was a [first-round pick]," Tannenbaum said. "He was different than [Kwity] Paye. He was a better space athlete. He was twitchy, good lower-body flexibility and he can drop in coverage."
The executive says Ojulari has the ability to become the frontline player the Giants were missing. He also noted Carter and Ximines can play the rotational roles that suit them.
Current: Blake Martinez, Reggie Ragland, Tae Crowder, Devante Downs, TJ Brunson
Jan. 8, 2020: Alec Ogletree, David Mayo, Deone Bucannon, Ryan Connelly, Josiah Taueafa
No need to spend much time on this one. Martinez is the only high-level starter on either list because Ogletree was done by the start of the 2020 season and about to be released.
"Martinez is a really, really good player," Tannenbaum said.
The executive sees reason for optimism beyond Martinez: "Crowder came on and played some nice ball for them," he said. "Ragland has starting experience."
Current: James Bradberry, Jackson, Darnay Holmes, Robinson, Isaac Yiadom, Rodarius Williams, Sam Beal, Madre Harper
Jan. 8, 2020: Deandre Baker, Antonio Hamilton, Grant Haley, Corey Ballentine, Beal
Poor James Bettcher. This exercise also serves as a scary reminder of what the former coordinator was working with at the end of his Giants' tenure. They were awful at cornerback, really bad at inside linebacker and extremely thin at outside linebacker.
They have invested heavily at cornerback since, signing Bradberry and Jackson to be the starters and drafting Holmes and Robinson in the middle rounds to man the slot.
"Frontline starters and the depth is better," the executive said, before adding that when opposing teams came into games last season, the plan was to throw at Yiadom or whomever was the CB2 that week.
Can't do that anymore. Now Yiadom is a backup fighting for a roster spot instead of a starter and a weekly target for opposing quarterbacks.
The Giants have a lot riding on Jackson. He's "a really, really good athlete ... if healthy," Tannenbaum said.
Current: Jabrill Peppers, Logan Ryan, Xavier McKinney, Julian Love, Nate Ebner
Jan. 8, 2020: Peppers, Antoine Bethea, Mike Thomas, Love, Sean Chandler, Rashaan Gaulden
The previous group had Bethea on the verge of retirement and really had no chance behind those cornerbacks. This year's class has three potential starters.
"McKinney, they'll have a role for him," the executive said. "They did a nice job with Logan Ryan last year and they cater to Peppers' strengths."
Tannenbaum says McKinney will be a good player if he can remain healthy.
Ebner is included here even though he is unsigned, because the expectation is the special-teams ace will re-sign this summer after fulfilling his USA rugby duties and potentially playing in the Olympics.