Boom or draft bust? What Daniel Jones needs to do to keep Giants QB job in new offense

There have been games in Daniel Jones’ NFL career where he looks like the long-term answer as quarterback for the Giants. Think back to the three games in 2019 when he had at least four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Then there were other games where he looks like a wasted pick in sixth overall in 2019. Like his three-interception performance against the Rams in 2021. Or really every game in 2021, a season where he only had one game for 300+ passing yards and two with multiple touchdown passes.

The Giants decided ahead of the 2022 campaign not to exercise his fifth-year option, meaning barring a mid-season extension, he will be a free agent next offseason.

Jones has one more season to prove he can still be an NFL quarterback and commit to staying in New York. The Sporting News delves into what Jones will need in his fourth and possibly final year under center for the Giants.

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Be content with his weapons

The Giants don’t give Jones much help in the reception room. None of New York’s wide receivers from a year ago ranked in the top half of ProFootballFocus’ top 115 for that position. Kenny Golladay’s ranking of No. 59 was the highest. Sterling Shepard (ranked 81st and Darius Slayton ranked 112th. Saquon Barkley ranked 58th out of 62 running backs. Tight end isn’t much better. Free-agent signee Ricky Seals-Jones ranked 44th out of 70 on the position.

New York may not have taken further free-hand steps to address the lack of guns, but it has turned to the draft to improve it. It drafted Kentucky wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round and San Diego State tight end Daniel Bellinger in the fourth round.

And there’s reason to believe they could make the difference. Jones attempted just 6.6 percent of his passes down more than 20 yards, but he had an 80.7 grade, his second-best by depth per PFF. In 2020, he attempted 9.6 percent of his passes at that depth and had a 95.6 grade, his best. In 2019 it was again his best performance with 11.8 percent and a grade of 82.2.

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Robinson could become an asset in the deep passing department. His 98.7 grade for deep passing in 2021 ranked him 15th in college football, per PFF, and his 91.3 offensive aggregate score put him third-best.

Bellinger was rarely hauled past 10 yards (82.5 percent of his targets came from behind the line of scrimmage to within 9 yards), but he was a dangerous target at close range, with 91.7 marks for passing from behind the line and 79.4 on short passes (zero to 9 yards), according to the PFF. Last year, Jones had passing grades of 68 and 65.2 in these two areas. Maybe having a more reliable tight end on short throws will help.

Next, Jones needs to find better ways to utilize established receivers on offense.

Golladay had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Lions in 2018 and 2019, but he hasn’t been the same since arriving in New York. In 2019, he caught 31.9 percent of his targets from depth and his PFF rating was 97.6. In 2021, his target rate for deep passes was only 18.7 percent and his grade was 68.1. He struggled to break up (his 1.7 yards was the second-shortest of any qualifying receiver in 2021, according to NextGen Stats), but his average aimed air yards of 13.7 yards ranked 12th. There’s still a chance he’ll become a persistent deep threat again.

Injuries plagued Shepard in 2021, but he put up numbers similar to the 600- to 800-yard pace the Giants have become accustomed to. He still averaged 10.2 yards per catch with a catch rate of 67.9 percent. Shepard has been a reliable short- and medium-range receiver in recent years and he’s entering his 29-year campaign.

Slayton only started in five of its 13 games in 2021 and has seen its usage fall. He caught just 26 passes for 339 yards, the first time in his three-year career he had fewer than 48 receptions and 740 receiving yards. For the past two seasons, he’d been getting 90+ grades in everything from short to low before struggling with drops in 2021. If he can iron that out, Slayton has the speed to be a solid second option.

There are many “ifs” that Jones can’t control with the recipients. He needs this group to get back to form after having a poor year overall in 2021.

But there is also a lot about Jones. Given the strength of his receiving corps, he needs to make deep ball more of a part of his arsenal (his average depth of 7.3 yards in 2021 was the lowest of his career, according to the PFF). He needs to be more careful with mid-range shots over the middle (4.4 percent of his mid-range shots were turnover-worthy).

He needs to have one of the best seasons of his career to get another chance in New York. To do this, he must bring out the best in his recipients.

Emulate the overwhelming success of Josh Allen

This may sound crazy, but refrain from making hasty judgments. Let’s start with the facts.

Allen is an imposing free field runner, and that’s partly due to his size. He’s 6-5 and 237 pounds and looks more like a linebacker or defensive end than a quarterback. But Jones is no lightweight. He is 6-5 and 221 pounds.

Surely Allen is faster? Even that is difficult to say. Allen’s 4.75 40 time is faster than Jones’ 4.81 time, as is his 4.4 shuttle to Jones 4.41 and his 3-cone time from 6.9 to Jones 7.0.

But Jones had the advantage in times measured by the NFL’s NextGen stats on the field. Based on the 20 best times per week, Jones has four of the five fastest times on record between the two quarterbacks. His 21.23 mph on his 80-yard rush in 2020 is the second fastest time recorded by any Quarterback, trailing only Marcus Mariota’s 21.5 mph in 2016. Jones has been listed five times over 20 mph in the open field by NextGen Stats. Allen has only surpassed that mark twice, with most of his times being between 17 and 19 mph.

A look at the two’s blistering stats since joining the league.

Josh Allen Daniel Jones
2018 89 rushes, 631 yards (7.1 years) N / A
2019 109 rushes, 510 yards (4.7 years) 45 rushes, 279 yards (6.2 years)
2020 102 rushes, 421 yards (4.1 years) 65 rushes, 423 yards (6.5 years)
2021 122 rushes, 763 yards (6.3 years) 62 rushes, 298 yards (4.8 years)

One reason Jones couldn’t run like Allen is a lack of broken tackles. He has forced four in his career while Allen had 12 in 2021.

But if Jones is able to cross the line of scrimmage, he has the ability to accelerate. When he crosses the line, he’s averaging 8.37 yards per carry per stathead, almost a yard more than Allen’s 7.5 yards per carry.

The Giants need to trust Jones to run more often. He gets results when he takes off, but he could become a lot more of a weapon if he ran twice as often.

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And there are many reasons to expect this from them. Daboll oversaw Allen’s success as a double threat quarterback, and now he will help Jones guide him. Under Daboll, Allen had 124 run-pass option plays in 2021 and rushed 31 tries for 154 yards, according to Pro Football Reference. The Giants ran just 38 times with Jones under center a season ago, and Jones started for 49 yards on his just 10 times.

In 2021, Jones found plenty of success in running outdoors. According to ProFootballFocus, he averaged 8.9 yards per attempt when rushing to the left end and 4.7 yards per attempt to rush to the right end. Left tackle Andrew Thomas (offensive tackle ranked 19) helped seal the edge on the left, and the Giants added Alabama’s Evan Neal on the right in the draft. Jones being able to hold it in an RPO could help unbalance the defense and help him get to the edge when carrying the ball.

Work off Saquon Barkley

A natural transition? A natural transition.

For this run-pass option to work, Jones needs to bring Barkley back to the level of success he achieved in his first two seasons. In 2021, Barkley averaged just 3.7 yards per rush and 6.4 yards per reception. From 2018-19, those numbers were 4.8 and 8.1, respectively.

Barkley averaged minus 0.28 rushing yards above expectations per attempt in 2021, according to Next Gen Stats, after posting .63 above expectations in 2019 and 1.14 in 2018. He needs to get back to at least live up to expectations on the ground.

In his rookie season, Jones averaged 10.6 yards per pass attempt as the team executed RPOs. and 8.5 yards per attempt on game action. In 2021, the next time Barkley was consistent on the field, Jones averaged just 4.4 yards per attempt on RPOs and 7.0 yards per attempt on play-action passes.

It should come as no surprise that PFF ranked Jones as a play-action plus passer. He had a grade of 72.7 in 2019, compared to 62.5 when making no game action, and 79.7 in 2020, versus 74.6 on no game action throws. As recently as 2021, Jones was better when not making game action, with a score of 63.9 on game action to 72.4 on non-game action.

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Running more options and play actions could fool the offense, helping both Barkley rush more effectively and Jones more success out in the field. At his peak, Barkley was one of the best running backs in the league, and Jones is one of the more agile quarterbacks in the NFL. Forcing teams to think about three options — pass, QB run, or handoff — should be one of the keys to the Giants’ offensive success.

But Jones also needs to involve Barkley more in the passing game. Last year, Jones attempted to pass screen passes 9.8 percent of the time and he succeeded, earning an offensive score of 71.6. The Giants have an improved offensive line, and as Barkley tries to get back to his 2018 form, screen passes could give him a chance to get into space and make things happen.

Though Barkley’s 7.3 yards after catch per reception were 1.1 yards down from his first two seasons, they still matched Cordarrelle Patterson, ranked 17th in the league, per PFF. But Barkley has also been targeted just 57 times, a steep drop from the 121 in his 2018 rookie season and 73 times in 2019. Barkley is still a weapon in the passing game and should be used more.

There’s certainly no guarantee that Barkley will return to what he was before his 2020 cruciate ligament rupture. But when he’s playing at his pre-injury level, he’s the Giants’ best offensive weapon. And if Jones can make better use of him with misleading play calls and bets in the passing game, it could help elevate both players as they approach the free hand.

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