Giants' season still a success with return to playoffs

The New York Giants ended the season with a 38-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Here is a look at the season and what’s next:

Grade: B+

Season summary: It didn’t end exactly how they would have liked. The Giants dreamed big when they assembled at the start of the season and talked Super Bowl.

“Put the fifth trophy in the case,” coach Ben McAdoo told the team at the time, and he reiterated that notion on numerous occasions throughout the season.

Despite falling short after losing in the wild-card round on the road to the Packers, this was a building-block season. The Giants (11-5) earned a wild-card spot and returned to the postseason for the first time in five years. They did it on the backs of a defense that featured six new starters and jelled into one of the league’s top units. The Giants allowed the second-fewest points (17.8 points per game) during the regular season.

This should be the primary takeaway from the 2016 season. They appear to be building something special on the defensive side of the ball, and the Giants find themselves with a star wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., who makes big plays with regularity.

McAdoo’s first season as the head coach didn’t go as planned offensively, but it was an overall success. The Giants posted their first winning record since 2011, and McAdoo navigated them confidently through choppy waters. They won nine of their final 11 games in the regular season and consistently won close games. The Giants were 8-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer after faltering late with regularity in the final season under Tom Coughlin.

The 2016 season proved to be a step in the right direction for the Giants, who learned how to win as the season progressed.

Biggest draft need: Tight end

The Giants' offense stumbled most of the season. They weren’t able to run the ball consistently or get teams out of two-deep safety looks. Adding a young, talented tight end with athleticism would help them improve in both areas.

Larry Donnell proved he wasn’t the answer, and Will Tye was pedestrian when given a full-time starting role. Neither were a serious threat that scared opposing defenses. Rookie Jerell Adams looked as if he could contribute, but he isn’t necessarily the full-time answer. The Giants’ best bet would be adding a tight end in the draft. That could change the look of their offense with the future tight end working alongside Beckham and Sterling Shepard.

Key offseason questions:

Is Eli Manning on the decline? The Giants’ starting quarterback didn’t have his best season. He accounted for 26 touchdowns and 20 turnovers in a season that began with such high hopes. There was clearly a regression for Manning and the entire offense, which had its problems (including pass protection off the edges) from start to finish. They finished 25th in the NFL in total offense (330.7) and 26th in points per game (19.4).

Manning was a big part of the unit’s struggles. He has three years remaining on his contract and he’s 36 years old. Despite his incredible durability, the prime of his career is in the rearview mirror. This could be the twilight. At some point (maybe this year or next), the Giants need to start planning for the future. Right now, there is no legitimate, long-term contingency plan in place.

Do they re-sign DE Jason Pierre-Paul and/or DT Johnathan Hankins? The Giants have some expensive decisions to make on defense. Pierre-Paul had a bounce-back season before a core muscle injury. He finished with 53 tackles, seven sacks and eight passes defended in 12 games. He’ll be one of the top defensive ends on the free-agent market.

Hankins is also set to become a free agent after a strong season. He finished with 43 tackles and three sacks in 16 games, helping the Giants create an impenetrable interior on the defensive line.

Both Pierre-Paul and Hankins are quality players. The Giants just need to decide if they can afford them both and, if not, whether they prioritize the pass-rusher or interior lineman.

They’ll also have a decision to make on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who is coming off a strong season but is set to count $9 million against the salary cap. The Giants might feel they need to address that after he was reduced to a role of slot cornerback/outside insurance this season with Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple as the starters. Rodgers-Cromartie’s style also isn’t ideal for what the Giants are trying to do on defense.

How can they fix the offense? The Giants’ offense was their Achilles' heel this season. They couldn’t run the ball effectively (29th in the NFL) and weren’t consistent with their passing game, either. They also struggled to protect Manning, especially off the edges. The ball came out of his hands faster this season than at any point of his career.

It will be a challenge to go about fixing the unit, but Beckham and Manning are at least a solid start. Beckham is one of the league’s best and most explosive playmakers. He just needs more help, whether it’s with another running back, an improved tight end or another deep-threat receiver.

Key decisions will include whether Victor Cruz (due $7.5 million in 2017) returns and what to do at left tackle with Ereck Flowers struggling most of the season.