How head coach Joe Judge can fix the Giants: Seven-step plan starts with hiring the right staff
The coaching staff Judge assembles with the Giants will play a key role in maximizing Daniel Jones' rookie contract
I will admit to being just as surprised as you were by the New York Giants' former New England Patriots special teams and wide receivers coach Joe Judge as their next head coach, less than an hour after news leaked their supposed top target Matt Rhule was reportedly , but now that the dust has settled, it has given me time to reflect and catch up on the decision. From a 30,000-foot view, it's impossible to not come away at least somewhat impressed with the Giants' decision to go outside the box and hire a special teams coordinator with a proven track record, and glowing reviews from two future Hall of Fame coaches -- Bill Belichick and Nick Saban -- both of whom he worked under.
CBS Sports' Tyler Sullivan, who is locked into the Patriots beat, further broke down Baltimore Ravens head coach Jon Harbaugh was the only coach prior to Judge to land a head coaching job and it's easy to see why that has been such a successful decision for that franchise. Special teams coordinators come into a new coaching situation without a rigid offensive or defensive system they plan to enforce -- so immediately they avoid the pitfall of coaches trying to fit talent into their schemes. They also come from coaching a unit where discipline and attention to detail are paramount -- anyone who has observed the Pat Shurmur and Ben McAdoo-led Giants teams can attest that these two traits are key to turning this franchise around.. Although several former special teams coordinators have been interviewed in the past,
As I have maintained from the very start of this head coaching search, the most important aspect of a new head coaching hire is the staff he assembled around him. One of the key downfalls to Shurmur's short tenure in New York was the staff around him. His offensive line coach, Hal Hunter, failed to develop a run blocking scheme that Saquon Barkley could get comfortable behind and the team's most promising line prospect -- Will Hernandez -- went backward in his development under Hunter. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher fielded a top-six defense three years running with the Arizona Cardinals when he had All-Pros like Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and Tyran Mathieu in their prime, but he couldn't adjust to the talent he had to work with on the Giants' roster.
The first and most important step for Judge in fixing the Giants is assembling the right staff. Unlike in the past, where Shurmur was blocked by the Vikings from hiring Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator and the team leaned on an old colleague (Mike Shula) of general manager Dave Gettleman, Judge will be allowed to handpick his staff, according to SNY's Ralph Vacchiano. With that in mind, I've got some ideas for how he can best fill out his staff.
1. Hire the right offensive coordinator for Daniel Jones
If you ask any Giants fan what the most important factor in a potential turnaround is, the unanimous answer should be the development of 2019 first-round quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones took a lot of heat for turning the ball over at a high rate (not uncommon for rookie quarterbacks), but he also became the only rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 350+ yards with five touchdowns in a game. He also as the only rookie quarterbacks in NFL history with three or more games that included at least four touchdown passes -- Jones threw zero interceptions combined in those three games. Judge's biggest decision will also likely be his first one -- finding the right offensive coordinator to help develop Jones as a quarterback and to fit his specific skill set.
There are a lot of negative things I can say about Shurmur's tenure with the Giants, but he did an excellent job with Jones' development as an NFL quarterback and his system was perfectly designed for this specific quarterback. While it is true that Jones entered the NFL with excellent mechanics from the waist up thanks to college coach David Cutcliffe, the Duke boss could have done a much better job from the waist down with Jones' footwork. Shurmur made progress there with Jones in one year, but he still has a long way to go. This was the only aspect of a potential Mike McCarthy hire that intrigued me (but it didn't make up for the possibility of the Giants returning to the slants-flats offensive system they featured under McAdoo).
In addition to finding an offensive coordinator with a track record for developing quarterbacks -- specifically from a footwork standpoint -- the Giants need to find an offensive coordinator whose system features the best of Jones' skill set. Shurmur's system featured a bevy of half-field hi-low reads, mesh concepts (crossers), zone-read and RPO concepts that jived perfectly with Jones' ability to throw accurately in the short to intermediate range and his ability to see the filed, getting the ball out fast on deep routes.
The one remaining coordinator whose system perfectly meshes with Jones' skill set and who also has a track record of developing younger quarterbacks who weren't drafted in the first round (Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins) into plus starters is former Redskins head coach Jay Gruden. He would be the first person I had on the phone if I were in Judge's position.
If the Giants don't land Gruden, these are the coaches they should call on to coordinate the offense and call plays (in no specific order):
- Joe Moorhead: Although he didn't fit the bill as head coach in the SEC, Moorhead did an excellent job coordinating Penn State's offense with Saquon Barkley in it. He would immediately get the most from Barkley while utilizing a system that maximizes horizontal spacing and the RPO game -- both fit Jones' athletic skill set.
- Norv Turner: Turner has a proven track record developing quarterbacks, he proved he can alter his system to fit the NFL's changing style (and a quarterback like Cam Newton or Kyle Allen) during his Panther tenure, and he knows how to maximize Barkley's skill set in the passing game -- something Shurmur never figured out.
- Joe Brady: The former Sean Payton offensive staff member made a name for himself by coordinating LSU's record-setting offense with Joe Burrow in 2019. Brady's offense would be a great fit for Jones' skill set.
2. Hire an experienced defensive coordinator
If you're a 38-year-old head coach whose prior experience includes coordinating the special teams and wide receiver positions, it's important to fill out your staff with experienced coordinators. In a perfect world, Judge hires a defensive coordinator who can take over the defensive entirely. The good news for the Giants is that several candidates stand out in this regard. Two coordinators stand out as my top targets for the Giants.
- Kris Richard: Although Richard was a fast riser last offseason, it seems he is drawing blame for the Cowboys' defense taking a step back in 2019. Upon further review of the Cowboys' 2019 season, injuries played the key factor in the unit's regression. Richard already knocked out his head coach interview with the Giants -- and it drew glowing reviews, CBS Sports' Cowboys insider Patrik Walker believes he should be a head coach, his players rave about his coaching style, and he would likely deploy a Cover-3-based defensive system that most great coordinators are (rightfully) moving toward with each passing season.
- Wade Phillips: It's unclear why the Los Angeles Rams moved on from Phillips, but he is easily now the most accomplished defensive coordinator on the market. He's also the most experienced. Phillips has coached elite defensive units in multiple seasons and his 2018 Super Bowl Rams defense proved that he can and will adjust to the schematic changes on the offensive side of the ball.
3. Pay up to lure a proven offensive line coach
One of the biggest factors in the Giants' struggles over the past
two seasons during Shurmur's tenure decade has been the play of their offensive line. The Giants entered 2019 with more key resources and talent on their offensive line in quite some time, but they only slightly improved, and their most promising prospect (Hernandez) actually regressed. It's hard to not place a large chunk of the blame on Hunter who was out of the NFL before Shurmur brought him on as the Giants' offensive line coach in 2018.
Finding the right offensive line coach is not easy, but it's not impossible. Former Redskins offensive line coach Bill Callahan has experience and success getting the most out of a wide variety of offensive line groups. In 2019, he took an injury-ravaged Redskins offensive line whose best player held out the entire season and turned them into a respectable unit. With more talent in the past, he has great success in developing offensive lines.
Callahan is not the only option for the Giants, but the bottom line is they need to prioritize finding the right offensive line coach over any non-coordinator role even if it takes them breaking the bank a little.
If there is even a remote chance Judge can lure long-time Patriots offensive line coach Dante Sarnecchia -- arguably the NFL's No. 1 offensive line coach -- a true wizard -- I would rank that the Giants' No. 1 offseason acquisition.
4. Retain special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey
When the Giants hired McGaughey to coordinate their special teams in 2018, they went from being ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' overall special teams ratings in 2017 to No. 3 overall in 2018. The Giants weren't as dominant on special teams in 2019 -- in large part due to Aldrick Rosas' massive regression bringing down their overall ranking -- but still finished No. 17 overall, per FO. McGaughey is the best special teams coordinator the Giants have had in over a decade and the decision to bring him back -- to combine efforts with Judge -- could evolve the Giants into the NFL's annual elite on special teams -- just like we've seen from New England for several years now.
5. Trim the roster fat
The Giants are already projected to have the ninth-most salary cap space -- approximately $66 million -- during the 2020 offseason, per OverTheCap. They can do even better than that. By moving on from Alec Ogletree, Rhett Ellison, Kareem Martin, and Antoine Bethea -- none of whom should be part of their 2020 plans -- the Giants will create another $20.8 million in 2020 cap space while incurring just under $7 million in dead cap (money they are allocating against the cap to players no longer on the roster). This will give the Giants nearly $78 million in cap space to save for re-signing younger players to long-term deals and to spend on revamping their defense similar to how the Green Bay Packers turned things around during the 2019 free agency period -- if they choose to go that route.
6. Spend willingly in free agency on the 2020 Draft's scarcest positions
One of the biggest misconceptions for a rebuilding roster in my mind is the idea that it's not OK to sign veteran players. Any and every winning roster needs veteran players. Any roster that has a quarterback going into the second year of his rookie contract -- after impressing in Year 1 -- should be thinking postseason. The Giants have never had any issue staying under the salary cap and teams don't gain enough by staying $30-40 million under the cap in any given season. If they can sign a player who can help them win now, they should do it.
After trimming the fat, the Giants should be flush with cap space, and their best bet is to target the positions that are the scarcest in the coming 2020 draft class and beyond. Here are a few positions they should target in free agency and some potential unrestricted free agents (at the time this is being published in January).
Deep half safety: Finding a safety who can succeed in the deep half of the field is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL -- up there with finding the right quarterback and offensive tackle. However, there are a couple potential free agents who have caught my attention:
- Rodney McLeod: I was hoping the Giants would sign McLeod when he first hit free agency several years back, but the Eagles struck first. Aside from the occasional injury, McLeod has remained an excellent deep-half safety for Philadelphia when healthy. Now 30, and set to hit unrestricted free agency again, he's an excellent fit for the Giants.
- Jimmie Ward: If the Giants want to splurge in free agency to fix the deep-half safety role that has plagued them since Kenny Phillips was healthy (for like the first 32 games of his career), Ward is their guy. The 49ers safety finished 2019 as Pro Football Focus' sixth-best safety overall (including box safeties).
Offensive tackle: While the 2020 class is actually deep at the offensive tackle position, it just so happens to also be one of the rare positions in free agency that has a pair of top-10 starters.
- Jack Conklin: The Giants need a left tackle to replace Nate Solder, everyone knows that, but that's probably not going to happen via free agency. However, they can still stand to upgrade at right tackle and Conklin is the most intriguing option after the former first-round pick had a breakout 2019 campaign. Conklin finished 2019 as the sixth-best right tackle, per PFF, and the 12th-best overall. He would be the anchor that Barkley and this run game so desperately need.
- Bryan Bulaga: A bit older than Conklin, and now with a more checkered injury history, Bulaga would be a cheaper fallback option for the Giants to explore in free agency. Despite playing through injuries, Bulaga graded out as the seventh-best right tackle in 2019, per PFF. He has consistently graded out among the 10 best players at his position during his Packers tenure.
*Both the inside linebacker and center positions remain areas that need to be upgraded on the Giants roster, but both positions feature either A. an underwhelming crop of prospective 2020 free agents (there are a few intriguing inside backers) or B. Several Day 1 and 2 targets (For EX: Isaiah Simmons, Kenneth Murray at ILB) who the Giant should consider targeting. The Giants would be best suited to address these positions via the draft.
7. Explore the possibility of acquiring more draft picks
A team like the Giants has a lot of roster holes to fill, so a team like the Giants should strongly consider trading down to acquire more draft picks in 2020. The hope is that bringing over Judge, who hails from the Patriots (a franchise keen on acquiring more draft picks via trade), will spark the Giants to do the same. Joseph Stromberg did an excellent job breaking down how basic economics proves teams should always trade down -- this is especially true for a roster like the Giants currently have.
I have already outlined my dream scenario for the Giants and it involves trading their original first-round pick (No. 4 overall) twice to two teams who are looking to move up and acquire their franchise quarterback:
If the dream comes true, and the Giants end up with three first-round draft picks via the two prospective trades above, they will position themselves to turn this franchise around (assuming Jones takes a step forward) faster than anyone expects, but it all begins with Judge kicking off his Giants tenure by hiring the right coaches around him.
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