It is too early for any of this, of course, but this is the way it is when the playoffs are nearing for some and the Giants are all but packed up and eyeing departing flights home. No postseason for you, again.
Free agency is not until March 14, and the NFL draft is not until April 25, but these are target dates for the Giants. Their final game of 2018 is Sunday against the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium, a finality that will serve as reality for only one of the teams. The Cowboys are moving on, to a home playoff game the following weekend. By then, Giants players will be scattered across the country, long gone from their team facility, closing out another year with double-digit losses.
This is the fate of the have-nots: always looking for what comes next because the here and now is not so good. The fate of Eli Manning is the centerpiece of all the speculation, rightly so, but anyone with a vested interest in the Giants must answer this question: Is the soon-to-be (Jan. 3) 38-year-old quarterback the main reason this franchise has regressed and will finish with a losing record for the fifth time in the last six years?
Has Manning been worse than his offensive line in that span? Has Manning been worse than the Giants defense that takes the field when a lead is there to be protected? Manning, without Odell Beckham Jr. to throw to, and unable, on this day, to lean on rookie Saquon Barkley to bust out on the ground, navigated his way to 27 points against a Colts defense that shut out the Cowboys the prior week. Answer this: Did you have any faith whatsoever the Giants’ defense, tasked with preserving a 27-21 lead, could prevent Andrew Luck from driving for the winning touchdown when the Colts took over with 3:43 remaining inside Lucas Oil Stadium?
Now step back and consider Manning’s greatest legacy: his two Super Bowl MVP performances. Were the last two Lombardi Trophies raised and secured more so because of Manning’s poise down the stretch in comebacks against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and XLVI or the relentless blue-wave pass rush that crumbled Tom Brady’s pocket and shattered his well-being?
The best way to find a pass rush is in the draft; free agency is a far too expensive place to shop for sacks — and this draft is loaded with edge rushers. At the moment, the Giants are in the No. 6 slot in a year when that could be right on the outer rim when it comes time to find a premier defensive player to help cure their most glaring deficiency. When a rookie interior lineman (B.J. Hill) leads the team with five sacks, and the most accomplished pass-rusher (Olivier Vernon) is underachieving badly and set to cost $19.5 million on the salary cap, a case can be made — and should be made — that until the Giants import front-seven defenders capable of wrecking a game, losing will continue, no matter who stands in for them at quarterback.
It is shaping up to be an unusual first-round draft scenario. There is reason to believe all five teams currently ahead of the Giants have no interest in selecting a quarterback. The Cardinals (No. 1) and Jets (3) took their franchise quarterbacks (Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold, respectively) in the 2017 draft. The 49ers (2) have Jimmy Garoppolo returning to health, and the Raiders (4) have Derek Carr. The Lions (5) have Matt Stafford, only 30 years of age.
This draft order, until the final games are played this weekend, is fluid, though. The Bills (7) took Josh Allen last year; they are set at quarterback. The Buccaneers (tied for No. 7) could certainly stick with Jameis Winston. The Jaguars (a record of 5-10, just like the Giants) have a glaring need for a quarterback and for now have the No. 9 pick in the draft.
Junior Justin Herbert (Oregon) and redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State) are considered the top two quarterbacks in this class. Neither has declared yet for the draft, and both are thought to be marginal high-end prospects, in need of plenty of refinement. A run on pass rushers could and likely will take Nick Bosa (Ohio State), Josh Allen (Kentucky) and Ed Oliver (Houston) off the board before the Giants’ turn comes up, as well as the top interior defensive tackle, Quinnen Williams of Alabama. The Giants might have their pick of any quarterback in this draft, but it is not likely they will have any of them rated as a top-10 player on their value board.
Coach Pat Shurmur said it is “a fair assessment of our team” that his defense needs to learn to finish off games. That is a roundabout way of saying fourth-quarter pass rush is needed, badly.
“You’ve got to go out and take these wins,” Shurmur said.
In a league in which covering receivers and backs is virtually impossible, the only way to take anything is to disrupt the opposing quarterback. The Giants cannot do it — their 26 sacks is tied for 30th in the NFL — and it has been their undoing.