New York Giants Predicted To Win NFC East By Nate Burleson

New York Giants, Sterling Shepard

The NFC East has been a wide open division in recent years, with none of the teams in it really establishing themselves as dominant against their divisional foes, but the New York Giants haven’t featured in many predictions to win it this year. That’s largely to do with the team’s performance over the last three or so years. The Giants have largely fallen short of expectations and this offseason ended up picking in the top five of the draft because of that.

However, after making a number of changes, including using that draft pick to improve the offensive line, there’s a little more positive energy around this year’s Giants team compared to the 2019 one. That has even extended into a few predictions about the way the season will go.

It’s a bold claim, but according to former wide receiver Nate Burleson, who is now with NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, the Giants may just be good enough to take the NFC East title rather than the Cowboys or the Eagles.

He mentioned that, while other teams are the favorite in the wider narrative, the Giants have made a number of additions and improvements this offseason that might add up – those include bringing in head coach Joe Judge, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, spending the fourth pick on the offensive line, and also returning a healthy Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.

Saying the Giants will win the division is still a stretch and would require a number of factors, ranging from staying healthy to the team adapting to the new systems under an almost entirely new coaching staff very quickly, but their saving grace in this argument is that the NFC East itself hasn’t been the best division in general in the last couple of years.

With that in mind, the Giants getting an unexpected victory in the division race might not be a hundred percent out of the question – even if it is an unrealistic goal to come into the season expecting.

New York Giants Linebacker Corps: Strength or Weakness?

New York Giants, Giants, NYG, Ryan Connelly

The New York Giants have long been plagued with a weakness on defense. For years, the Giants’ linebacker corpse created a vast hole in their defense. New York rarely invested top assets into the position and it was exhibited by the unit’s performance. New York has worked to correct this error under general manager Dave Gettleman. Gettleman had made multiple key acquisitions at the linebacker position, though not all of them have panned out according to plan.

Alec Ogletree was the first move that Gettleman made to strengthen the middle of the defense. But, as fans know all too well, Ogletree was a severe underperformer in Big Blue and was cut this offseason. Last season, there did seem to bee some improvement in the Giants’ linebacker corps. David Mayo became a serviceable starter, earning a contract extension. Additionally, in the first four weeks of the season, it seemed like the Giants found a gem in Ryan Connelly. Connelly unfortunately suffered a devastating, season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season.

Fast forward to the 2020 offseason: Dave Gettleman has once again prioritized the inside linebacker position. One of the Giants’ big splash signings in free agency was linebacker Blake Martinez. New York then went on to draft four linebackers in the final two rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft, providing the team with plenty of depth at the position.

Taking all this into account, how does the Giants’ new linebacker corps fare? Is it now a strength on the team, or is it still a weakness?

The Positives

The New York Giants’ linebackers excel in run defense. Blake Martinez and David Mayo are both excellent run defenders. Martinez has recorded 144 or more combined tackles in each of the last three seasons. He posted a career-high 155 combined tackles in 2019. In 2018, Martinez only missed 12 tackles (7.7%) and in 2019 he missed 18 tackles (10.4%). Mayo earned a 90.1 run-defense grade according to Pro Football Focus in 2019.

Another positive of the Giants’ linebacker corps is its depth. As stated earlier, Gettleman has invested into the position group multiple times in the past two years. The Giants’ starting linebackers, Mayo and Martinez, will be accompanied by rising star Ryan Connelly once he returns from injury. Behind the three of them are three new rookies drafted in the final two rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. If injuries strike the linebacker corps again, the Giants have the depth to stay afloat.

The Negatives

The Giants still do not have a linebacker that excels in coverage. Some fans believed this flaw in the unit would lead the Giants to draft Isaiah Simmons in the first round. Evidently, that did not happen, and Giants fans are all happy to have their left tackle of the future in Andrew Thomas.

However, this still does not solve the Giants’ issue pertaining to a coverage linebacker; But a different draft pick just might. The Giants drafted safety Xavier McKinney in the second round. The versatile safety will see plenty of reps in the box as a coverage linebacker. McKinney serves as a possible solution to the Giants’ weakness, but they will still need to see improved coverage out of their linebackers in 2020.

In 2018, Blake Matinez surrendered a 73.8% completion percentage on the 61 targets in his coverage (45 completions). The opposition gained 410 yards on those 45 completions and scored 5 touchdowns. Martinez allowed a 118.9 passer rating when targeted in 2018.

2019 was an even worse performance by Martinez in pass coverage. His completion percentage allowed rose to 83.8%, allowing opponents to complete 62 passes on 74 targets for 570 yards and 2 touchdowns. This is definitely a major red flag for teams interested in signing Blake Martinez during the 2020 free agency period. Blake Martinez must improve in coverage for the Giants’ defense to flourish in 2020.

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson ready for his last dance at Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson, Nascar

If Johnson is going secure a playoff spot in his final NASCAR season, there’s no better place to clinch than this week’s Charlotte couple.

Unlike, say, Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera, Jimmie Johnson needs to earn his retirement gifts as he makes his final visit across NASCAR venues across the country.

NASCAR will continue its revival tour on Sunday night at its Charlotte hub (6 p.m. ET, Fox), the first half of a doubleheader to be completed on Wednesday. The opening event is the Coca-Cola 600, a Memorial Day weekend tradition dating back to 1961 and the longest event on the circuit at its titular 600 miles.

Such an event is perhaps the perfect counterargument to the idea of NASCAR not being a sport. A test of skill and endurance, the race features 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track and a runtime that would make Yankees-Red Sox games blush. It’s enough to make even the toughest drivers shake in their boots.

Johnson, however, has spent nearly two decades defying NASCAR norms. His final season of full-time racing isn’t about to change that.

His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been a mainstay atop the Charlotte leaderboards since his 2002 arrival. In terms of mid-2000s dominance, Johnson had a better stranglehold on CMS than USC had on major college football. His name appeared in the top three of eight straight Charlotte races. That includes a streak of four consecutive wins during the pair of visits during the 2004-05 seasons. Most drivers, in comparison, are lucky to get eight total top three finishes throughout the course of their entire careers.

“There is no doubt I’ll have a flood of emotions when we start our engines these next two races,” Johnson remarked to Jeff Wackerlin of Motor Racing Network. “I’m going to miss it.”

NASCAR is set to return Charlotte later this fall during the postseason, but that race will come at its “roval” configuration (part-oval, part-road course). Johnson has made a name for himself at the full-on oval with eight wins overall, the most in the track’s history.

Much like the popularity of Von Dutch and Justin Guarini, Johnson’s mid-2000’s dominance has struggled to translate in the decades beyond. His last win in the 600-mile event came in 2014 and he has gone home empty-handed in four straight Charlotte visits. The track is more recently known as the site of one of Johnson’s most heartbreaking moments. With the track in its roval setup for the first time on the Cup Series circuit, Johnson was battling to move forward in the 2018 NASCAR playoffs. Running second behind Martin Truex Jr. in the dying stages, Johnson was relatively secure in points.

It was never like Johnson to be satisfied with second place. Alas, that will and desire cost him nearly on the final laps of the Bank of America Roval 400.

Contract with Truex put them both sideways, and Johnson was forced to partake in the remainder of the playoffs as an on-track observer. It’s been part of an uncharacteristic win drought for Johnson. The No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t visited victory lane in 101 consecutive events, the last celebration coming in the Dover spring event in 2017. Johnson has 83 Cup Series victories to his name, which ensnares him in a tie for fifth-most all-time with Cale Yarborough.

“Took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected their day which I feel bad about,” Johnson told USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli at the time. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”

Now, it’s all about the win.

Even with the COVID-19 enforced delay, Johnson has spent 2020 making things right and creating an opportunity to go out on the right note. Entering his final week at Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval incarnation, Johnson sits in 12th place in the Cup Series point standings. Flashes of his former brilliance have been on display in the circuit’s early stanzas. A late crash took him out of contention at the Daytona 500, but Johnson has followed it up with four finishes in the top dozen over the last five races.

The lone exception was the first Darlington event last Sunday. Johnson had the lead at the end of the first stage, but contact with Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford put him into the wall and a 38th-place finish. He recovered to finish eighth in the second half of the visit to Darlington later in the week.

“It was a good rebound from a few days before; I wish I could have that weekend back,” Johnson said to Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports after the race. “I really felt like we had things going our way there and could have capitalized. But it’s nice to be back. Good finish in the top-10.”

The pause of live sporting events causes us to forget that they have a way of using timeliness to create uplifting moments. If Johnson can earn himself a playoff berth by winning at the track he formerly held a monopoly on, it would be perhaps the loudest announcement yet for the return of athletics, as well as a moment the sports-loving public can enjoy as a collective unit.

A win would more than likely put Johnson back into the NASCAR playoffs. If it comes on Sunday, Johnson would tie the legendary Darrel Waltrip for fourth the all-time wins list and at the top of the list of Coca-Cola 600 trophies. 

Johnson is certainly off to a good start this week at CMS. With NASCAR holding qualifying prior Sunday’s even, the No. 48 Chevrolet posted a time of 29.799, good for a front-row situation. Kurt Busch (29.790) was the only one quicker than Johnson, putting his No. 1 Chevrolet on the pole.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets are setting up Sam Darnold for success with recent signings

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold has had a tumultuous start to his career with the New York Jets, and 2019 was no different when he contracted mono and missed a chunk of the regular season. Despite missing three games last year, he still tallied 3024 yards, 19 touchdowns, and threw 13 interceptions.

He played only 30 snaps more in 2018, and while his numbers don’t reflect a significant improvement, he did see his completion percentage increase from 57.7 to 61.9%. He threw two more touchdowns and two fewer interceptions in year two in the NFL, indicating a minuscule improvement across-the-board. However, going into year three, Darnold needs to take a significant leap forward to prove that he can be Jets’ franchise quarterback.

The New York Jets took big steps forward this offseason:

General manager Joe Douglas made it a priority to bolster the offensive line and contribute veteran signings to help Darnold in his quest. He turned over their entire protection scheme, signing tackle George Fant, guard Greg Van Roten, and center Conner McGovern. He also drafted Mekhi Becton out of Louisville with the 11th overall pick. The only player that will remain the same on the line is Brian Winters at right guard. That is a substantial positive for Darnold, considering he was sacked 33 times last season in 13 games.

In addition to this retooling, Douglas also signed veteran running back Frank Gore and former Super Bowl MVP, Joe Flacco. Both players have the experience and knowledge to help Darnold progress as an NFL player. It is also a good contingency plan considering he has missed three games in his first two seasons in the NFL.

Ultimately, the Jets have done a lot to help Darnold to see it moving forward. The drafting of Denzel Mims out of Baylor and the return of tight and Chris Herndon should be significant in his development. With the defense returning to full health and the offense gaining multiple new starters, the Jets should be confident in their quarterback.

The New York Giants are taking a big risk at the inside linebacker position

New York Giants, Ryan Connelly

The New York Giants invested plenty of draft capital into the linebacker position this offseason; the problem is none of them are high round selections and capable of starting immediately. What does this tell us? The Giants are confident in Ryan Connelly moving forward, but that could be a risky move considering he tore his ACL in week four of the 2019 campaign (his rookie season).

Connelly posted great numbers on such a small sample size: 20 combined tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, 1.0 sacks, and 2 interceptions.

As a rookie linebacker, Connelly showed the instincts to plug running lanes, and the awareness to diagnose plays a high level. While he did get stuck in no-mans land a few times trying to catch runners on pitch plays, Connelly’s development was promising and deserving of optimism. Nonetheless, instilling faith in a player coming off a torn ACL is always problematic, especially when they only have four games of professional experience under their belt.

As a former fifth-round pick, Connelly will be learning an entirely new defense under Patrick Graham, consisting of different timings and pass-rush schemes. Graham utilizes linebackers and safeties frequently to scheme a pass rush, indicating that Connelly could be heavily involved in those plans. The former Wisconsin standout is also solid in coverage, posting decent numbers in the category. He allowed a 57.1% completion rate against in his first four games, including two passes defended.

Should the New York Giants be putting all their chips in on Connelly?

Overall, Connelly’s worthy of optimism but injecting late-round talent as his depth does not shore up a position of inexperience. The Giants drafted TJ Brunson, Tae Crowder, and Cam Brown, who can all adapt to inside linebacker with the Giants.

Brunson, who’s a decent player with solid athleticism, is very slow with diagnosing plays and can get lost in transition. He’s a fringe-roster player as a seventh-round pick. Crowder was the final pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and while he’s a high-character player, he lacks the playmaking ability to emerge as a starting-level player immediately.

Crowder emerged as a linebacker in college, earning the final scholarship spot on Georgia back in 2015:

“I was just on scout team at practice, just working hard, and my coach ended up noticing it going against the number one defense, making plays,” Crowder said. “He saw that I was an athlete and that I should be on the field. He reached out to me, we had a meeting, and he was like he sees me as a linebacker and stuff like that, as a defensive player. We just had a one-day tryout, and at that tryout I ended up doing pretty good and I stayed there from then.”

While I like Crowder’s work-ethic and mentality, he needs ample development before earning any reps on the Giants’ first-team. Lastly, Big Blue landed Cam Brown out of Penn State in the 6th round. While he acted as an outside linebacker in college, Brown has the size and athleticism to emerge as an inside linebacker. I would expect the Giants to test him out at both positions.

BREAKING: Sports can resume immediately in NYS

Today, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all professional sports are cleared to begin training and practicing in New York. It will go into effect immediately and include Buffalo area teams.

This is a big announcement, and it’s the first step to games returning. Right now, the NBA, NHL, and MLB are working on restart plans, and this allows teams to be able to practice at home if they choose to.

“Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps” said the governor on Sunday. “I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena–do it.”

The MLB is planning to plan an 82-game schedule in home ballparks if an economic plan is agreed upon. The NBA is zeroing in on Disney World to resume their season, while the NHL is looking at multiple cities to play.

“Work out the economics if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible, and we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

Cuomo also stated that he is very open to making the games accessible to all fans.

“The games could be televised. New York State will help those major sports franchises to do just that,” said Cuomo. “Hockey, basketball, baseball, football–whoever can reopen–we’re a ready, willing, and able partner.”

This is a big step in the right direction for a return to sports. Now, it’s up to the individual leagues to make agreements with their players and teams.

NHL: An explanation of why the Tampa Bay Lightning voted no on NHLPA vote

Tampa Bay Lightning player representative Alex Killorn wants to make one thing perfectly clear,

“Everyone on our team wants to play,” he said to Joe Smith of theAthletic.com.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of two teams (Carolina was the other) to say no in a vote the NHLPA had to authorize the continuation of discussions for the NHL’s return to play proposal. In a 29-2 decision the players association overwhelmingly decided it was important to get back on the ice and award a Stanely Cup.

Kilorn explained why his club voted no. The decision was a team effort after the Lightning representative provided all the key elements of the proposal to the teammates.

“I brought the format to my team,” Killorn said via text Saturday night. “They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series. My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.

“This was not my opinion alone. As the PA rep I have a duty to represent the voice of my entire team. I don’t want people to think that we don’t want to play. Everyone on our team wants to play. In saying that, we are fine with the vote the PA took and we are ready with it going forward.”

The Lightning knows first hand what it is like to end the regular season playing meaningless games and then facing a team that was playing hard in the first round of the playoffs.

Last season, Tampa Bay won 62 games in the regular season and clinched a playoff spot and the President’s Trophy early on. The remainder of their season had no value, they lost their edge and focus as the playoffs began. The lightning was swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets.  A bitter taste the club has yet to forget.

The return to play proposal has the top four teams in each division would get a bye. The NHL has suggested these teams would play games that have no real competition value while the bottom four teams in each division jump right into playoff-mode. Tampa Bay thinks the play-in teams would have an advantage once those clubs advance to the next round.

Of course there were other issues that caused the lightning players to vote no. Players will be away from their families approximately two months, tough on the younger dads on the team. This is a problem that will occur all round this unusual way of completing the season.

Yet at the end of the day, the Lightning players are committed to doing whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup.

“You don’t know how many chances you’re going to get at winning this (Stanley Cup).”

Every team will have it’s challenging once the NHL resumes. There are so many more things to resolve before the league can startup. Tampa Bay and the other 24 teams participating in the 2019-’20 playoffs will be looking forward to winning the Cup when the time comes.

New York Yankees: What will the outfield look like without Judge, Hicks?

Despite the New York Yankees’ success last season, they had a tremendous problem with keeping their players healthy. The 2019 Yankees racked up the most injuries of any team that season and in MLB history. Even though most of those guys have recovered and are looking to have a different story this season, two big players are still questionable for this season.

Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks are still dealing with injuries, and timetables for their return are uncertain. Hicks underwent Tommy John surgery following last year’s postseason and has been rehabbing ever since. He’s been throwing for some time now and began taking batting practice. Judge, on the other hand, is still a mystery as to how his recovery is going. He hasn’t resumed any baseball activities since he was shut down and there’s no telling when he will.

General manager Brian Cashman did mention that he expects Judge to return sometime this summer, and it’s expected that Hicks will do the same.

What could the outfield look like without Hicks and Judge?

It’s no question that losing Hicks and Judge from the lineup is a big loss for the New York Yankees. With that being said, the Yankees are lucky enough to have incredibly talented backups. I believe the outfield depth could look something like this:

Right field: Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade

Center field: Mike Tauchman, Brett Gardner

Left field: Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Tauchman, Clint Fazier

The Yankees are very fortunate enough to have several players that can play pretty much the entire outfield. Mike Tauchman and Brett Garder are both dual-position players, and you can stick Tyler Wade out there and he can hold it down. Despite the obvious lack of solid defense, Clint Frazier can also play multiple positions.

I believe that Mike Tauchman should be the primary backup outfielder due to his tremendous defense and strong bat. Due to his history of constant injuries, Giancarlo Stanton shouldn’t play left field every day, and that’s where Mike Tauchman can come into play.

With Hicks and Judge out with injuries, Clint Frazier could play right field, Tauchman in center field, and Stanton in left field. This, to me, is the best option for the Yankees. Those are three above-average hitters that can fill the void while Hicks and Judge work to get 100% healthy.

Give Mitchell Robinson Not Just More Minutes, But More Plays Beyond the Paint

New York Knicks, Mitchell Robinson

The New York Knicks seem to have no hope, a horrible future, a terrible owner, and even their biggest fans are losing hope. These are troubling times as a New York Knicks fan, and while I may not be the most attached to the New York Knicks, this still a New York team and it stinks to watch them in futility. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance for a turnaround, and one of those young pieces are Mitchell Robinson. The 7-foot behemoth is an offensive force in the paint and someone that can develop into a really good big with developing handles and an ability to be their dominant big in the future.

Value At Its Finest

Mitchell Robinson’s player value stats are pretty darn good, being 30th in Estimated Wins Added, 30th in Value Added, 16th in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), having 2.2 Defensive Win Shares, and a 1.8 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). These numbers are despite only having the 147th most minutes played in 2019-2020 which is very good and despite his inability to create shots beyond the paint, (which is a product of the Knicks not having a good offensive scheme), he still is a very valuable player. He is someone that adds a huge presence to the court and his value stats tell you that he’s definitely better than just a bench player.

Stunting His Growth Beyond the Paint

The New York Knicks have to develop Robinson by opening him up to being a more versatile defender and a better spacer/shooter. He is allowing opponents to shoot 38% on him from 3, which isn’t good but that’s because the Knicks are not asking him or training him to be versatile. This could severely stunt his growth as the league isn’t about pure big men, it’s about versatility and spacing, and if the Knicks are not able to help Robinson make that transition then he will be reserved to a bench role in my opinion. It’s not like this is usual for Robinson as opponents score only 44.3% of Field Goals off of him, which is a solid number for Robinson.

Starting Robinson at Forward or Center would help him learn how to fix what is the worst AST% in the NBA as he only has a 13.3% USG rate, which is 182/193 players. Versatility is something not in Robinson’s skill set yet, and unless the Knicks play him more, it never will be.

Better Than What They Put Out There

What exactly is the improvement other than perimeter shooting (which Taj Gibson is still awful at) that Taj Gibson brings over Mitchell Robinson? How about Reggie Bullock? These are both players who play Forward positions for the Knicks, and both are significantly worse and on top of that aren’t part of the future. Mitchell Robinson has the teams highest PER by a country mile and is only 6th in minutes played?

How in God’s name will the Knicks see any improvements in Robinson if he’s getting fewer minutes than players who are significantly less valuable than him? Sure he isn’t versatile but there’s no way he can become versatile if he’s only supposed to be in the paint and never is supposed to learn how to be able to dish it out to better shooters because one, the Knicks have no reliable shooters, and two, they never want him doing those things because he’s supposed to play the 5. If the Knicks find a way to screw up the development of a 7 foot 240-pound beast then I don’t know what I’d say.

Give Robinson more minutes and let him play a Forward/Center hybrid to allow him to become a more versatile player and less of a pure big man.

FanDuel Sportsbook has +2300 on Xavier McKinney winning DROY, could this be a reality?

New York Giants, Xavier McKinney

As we are now almost a month past the NFL Draft, fans and analysts can now start making predictions for the league’s freshman class. FanDuel’s Sportsbook published their Defensive Rookie of the Year bets and put New York Giants’ second-round pick, Alabama safety Xavier McKinney at +2300. For those of you who are not gambling aficionados, it is not exactly a safe wager. But it is worth taking a look at.

Topping the list, to no surprise is Chase Young. The Washington Redskins selected the highly touted edge rusher from Ohio State with the second overall pick, and with comparisons to Myles Garrett and the Bosa brothers, there is Hall of Fame expectations for Young. Other names higher up on the list was Cardinals’ LB Isaiah Simmons at +850, Bills’ edge rusher A.J. Epenesa at +1300, and Ravens’ LB Patrick Queen at +1700.

McKinney should be a person of interest when talking about the DROY race. The majority of the winners of this award recently have been defensive ends and linebackers, but McKinney could be a sneaky pick. Considering his draft position, and scheme fit in first-year DC Patrick Graham’s unit in New York, McKinney could be one of the steals of the draft. Usage of a heavy blitz package can unleash McKinney’s potential. As one of Nick Saban’s best defensive products, playing for someone who used to coach under Saban, like Joe Judge, could be a recipe for success.

Considered by many draft analysts to be the number one safety in the draft, snagging a first-round talent in the second round is always something to look forward to. With his high football IQ and overall toughness on the field, McKinney could be the defensive playmaker that the Giants have desperately missed over the last couple of seasons.