The 2020 season will bring another major change for the New York Giants franchise. New head coach Joe Judge, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will be bringing in a new way of doing business, a new offensive and defensive system, respectively, and a lot more. Sometimes, change can be a very good thing both on the micro and macro level. In today’s piece, we’re going to break down three Giants player poised for breakout seasons in 2020 based in large part on the change in the overall system, specific schemes, and in the coaching staff.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Will Hernandez, left guard
The early start of Hernandez’s career with the Giants was like something shot out of a cannon. After being lauded by most draftniks as a first-round talent, the Giants landed him in the second round and Hernandez almost immediately earned the starting left guard in training camp and never looked back. During his rookie season, Hernandez had early warts but flashes of dominance in the first half of the season. In the second half of the season, Hernandez looked like a rookie who had somehow already made the jump from playing at UTEP to dominating NFL defensive linemen. He finished his rookie season ranked the No. 14 offensive guard (either side, No. 7 left guard) among guards who played at least 80% of their team’s snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Despite transitioning from a mostly power and gap blocking scheme at UTEP to a predominantly inside zone blocking scheme under Pat Shurmur, Hernandez thrived.
Then, it all kind of fell apart in 2019. By those same grading metrics, Hernandez finished No. 28 overall and it gets worse when you factor in guards who played approximately 50% of their team’s snaps. And per my own evaluation of the All-22 coaches film of every snap Hernandez has played with the Giants, the regression was real. The question becomes why did Hernandez regress and is it a sign of things to come or just a blip in the career of an impressive young lineman.
The massive regression of left tackle Nate Solder (who he plays alongside) may have played a factor, but ultimately, I think the biggest factor is that Hernandez has been blocking in a scheme that doesn’t fit his skill set. If you look back over his first two seasons with the Giants, Hernandez’s best snaps came when Shurmur (very rarely) called for a power or gap-blocking run play. When the Giants pulled Hernandez, he made defenders in space pay for it and opened up big holes for Saquon Barkley more times than not. The good news is that the Giants are expected to shift their blocking scheme and utilize more power and gap plays under Garrett and offensive line coach Marc Colombo.
Of course, more power and gap won’t exactly help fix Hernandez’s woes in pass protection, but the fact that they didn’t pop up anywhere near as often on his rookie tape and the addition of a high-upside offensive line coach in Colombo should give all Giants fans hope on that front.
Deandre Baker, cornerback
After consecutive seasons of dominating — on an island on the boundary — in man coverage — against the best conference in college football by far — Baker struggled in his rookie NFL season. During the first half of the 2019 season, more often than not, Baker was the culprit in a Giants secondary that gave up their fair share (and then some) of big plays in the passing game. Baker improved his play down the back half of his rookie season, but it still wasn’t up to par with his production at the collegiate level in the SEC.
When evaluating his 2019 play as a whole, the majority of Baker’s struggles seem to tie back to the mental side of things. Based on what you see on the All-22, Baker actually did a better job of staying in phase in coverage (essentially stay in the hip pocket of a receiver while in coverage) than any cornerback on the roster aside from Janoris Jenkins — and at times even better than Jackrabbit. However, far too many times was Baker lost in coverage concepts that were likely foreign to him (and yes, he deserves some of the blame for not picking them up in time).
To be fair to Baker, former defensive coordinator James Bettcher utilized one of the more complicated defensive systems in the NFL — specifically in pass coverage. He often tasked his defensive backs with pattern match coverage concepts that would have likely worked a lot better with an experienced secondary (like he had in Arizona before joining the Giants). In 2020, Graham is expected to bring in a more defensive back-friendly system. Based on that, Baker’s two years of dominance at the SEC level, and the real strides he made during the stretch run of the 2019 season, I expect a major step forward in 2020.
Evan Engram, tight end
I know by this point you’ve likely tired of hearing Engram’s name as a potential breakout candidate given his inability to stay on the field due to injuries, but now is not the time to give up on him. Now is actually the best time to buy in low. The addition of Garrett and the offensive system he is projected to bring with him is the best career news Engram could have received. Garrett is expected to bring over an offensive system with Coryell routes (a vertically-oriented passing attack). In the past, Garrett’s offense has been described as tight end-friendly and the numbers support this. This is great news for Engram.
Specifically, tight ends in Garrett’s offense are asked to do a little bit more in the vertical passing game up the seams. This is a key aspect of Engram’s game that has oddly been underutilized during the first three seasons of his career with multiple coordinators. At the 2017 combine, Engram ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at 234 pounds. He also had a 36-inch vertical jump. More importantly, Engram hit on several long touchdowns up the seam during his career at Ole Miss.
Engram displayed a strong early rapport with Daniel Jones on a limited basis (due to injuries) in 2019 and the new offensive system combined with a little injury luck (for once) could be exactly what he needs to finally become the player the franchise hoped they were getting when they use a first-round pick on him in 2017.