2017 NFL Preview: If offense improves, Giants can go to a Super Bowl

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Eli Manning never ages. He looks about the same now as he did his rookie season with the New York Giants. It sneaks up on you that he’s 36 years old.

It’s possible last season we started to see cracks in Manning’s game. His numbers were down in many key areas. He averaged 4,423 yards and 32.5 touchdowns in 2014-15, and had 4,027 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. His interceptions went up from 14 in 2014-15 to 16 last year. His passer rating the last three seasons: 92.1, 93.6, 86.0. It wasn’t a collapse. But at Manning’s age, it’s worth noting.

Here’s the funny thing: The Giants took off as a team even as the offense struggled. The Giants went 11-5 and made the playoffs after a 2-3 start. They swept the Dallas Cowboys. It was a good season, and an improved defense was the reason.

That defense, for the most part, returns. Now imagine if the offense jumps up to being above average. We’d be looking at a Super Bowl contender. There are plenty of reasons to believe the offense can rebound.

Ben McAdoo moved over from offensive coordinator to head coach last season. He was a rookie head coach, and the job is much different. He wouldn’t have been in the middle of the Josh Brown controversy as offensive coordinator, for one easy example. McAdoo, who strangely won’t acknowledge he calls plays, got predictable in his play-calling (NJ.com did a great job pointing out how the Giants had almost no creativity in their personnel groupings) and the offense was stale. Maybe McAdoo still struggles with play-calling duties, because being a head coach in the New York market is still hard. But it’s possible McAdoo does better juggling both jobs. McAdoo orchestrated productive offenses when he was coordinator in 2014 and 2015.

The Giants’ personnel is better this season. Brandon Marshall is an upgrade at receiver, even at age 33. First-round pick Evan Engram is listed at a tight end but he has the ability to line up anywhere and be a great weapon in the offense. The running game can’t get worse than it was last season. And the Giants still have Odell Beckham Jr., one of the best players in the NFL.

Now we’re back to Manning. Perhaps the running game still stinks, the offensive line isn’t much better and Manning continues to fade due to age. None of that would be surprising. While Manning has never been a great quarterback (aside from two Super Bowl runs, which is fairly important), he has been good for a long time. I figure on him bouncing back, and the Giants’ offense improving with him. And if the Giants’ offense improves from below average – it was 22nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric while ranking 24th in yards per pass play and 30th in yards per rushing attempt – this will be a really good team. They finished 11-5 while finishing 26th in points scored. The Giants should score more this season, and perhaps much more. And remember, they match up well against the Cowboys in the NFC East.

The Giants’ defense is legit. Last year’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke, even though they benefitted from a great record in close games. I think they’ll be just as good this season, and maybe even better. Manning has one more run in him before he really starts showing his age.

After last offseason’s spending spree, anything the Giants did this year was going to be anticlimactic. But they did fine. Brandon Marshall was the big-name signing, and he’ll help. I’d have taken David Njoku over Evan Engram, but I see Engram’s appeal. The only contract the Giants gave out that was more than two years was to blocking tight end Rhett Ellison, who got four years and $18 million. Having Ellison and Engram could help coach Ben McAdoo be more creative with his personnel groupings. New York didn’t lose much in free agency. Receiver Victor Cruz was the biggest name to leave, though defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins was the most important loss. Grade: C

When someone tells you spending big in free agency never works in the NFL, show them the 2016 Giants. The Giants shelled out $203.8 million, $113.8 of which was guaranteed, to acquire defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, nose tackle Damon Harrison and to retain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The defense took off. All four of those players had nice seasons in 2016. New York ranked in the NFL’s top five in points allowed (second), first downs allowed (fifth), passing touchdowns allowed (second), interceptions (fourth), rushing yards (third), rushing touchdowns (fifth), rushing yards per attempt (second) and in the top 10 in yards allowed (10th) and yards per passing attempt (tied for seventh). The defense was amazing last season and it has almost all of the key pieces back.

With a defense that good, you’d like to be able to run the ball and play some complementary football. The Giants could not run the ball last season and didn’t do much to improve the running game in the offseason. The hope is that 2016 fifth-round pick Paul Perkins takes on a bigger role and is just as efficient as he was with limited carries as a rookie. He averaged 4.1 yards per attempt and was a good receiver out of the backfield. Perkins should be better than last year’s starter Rashad Jennings, but that doesn’t mean he’ll turn the Giants’ running game into a strength. Another obstacle to an improved running game is a poor offensive line. The Giants didn’t do much to address that this offseason.

Eli Manning has slowly been climbing up some all-time passing lists. That’s what happens when you play 13 years and never miss a start due to injury. Manning is seventh in NFL history with 320 touchdown passes and eighth with 48,218 yards. If Manning is near his typical numbers this season he’ll pass Warren Moon and John Elway for the No. 6 spot in passing yards. He’ll pass Fran Tarkenton for sixth all-time on the touchdowns list with 23 more scores. We can debate Manning’s Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials, but he’s going to crack the top six in all-time passing yards and passing touchdowns with two Super Bowl rings. Playing in a major market doesn’t hurt either. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday, whether or not you believe he belongs.

There’s really no doubt about this one. Odell Beckham Jr. has become a rare superstar. That hasn’t always been a good thing, but no matter how much drama surrounds Beckham, he always produces. Beckham’s 95.9 receiving yards per game ranks second in NFL history to Julio Jones’ 96.3. Calvin Johnson is third, miles away at 86.1. Beckham’s yards per game dropped to “only” 85.4 last season. It had to be easier defending him (relatively speaking, it’s never easy defending Beckham) knowing the Giants had little depth at receiver. Having Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram and promising second-year slot receiver Sterling Shepard to take some defensive pressure should increase Beckham’s efficiency.

From Yahoo Sports’ Brad Evans: “Paul Perkins is in the ‘biggest offseason winner’ conversation, but it doesn’t mean you should overreach for his services in fantasy (77.8 ADP, RB30). Many banked on the front office to address the backfield high in the draft or ink LeGarrette Blount to a short-term deal. Neither happened. As a result, the second-year rusher is in a prime spot to fill the role Rashad Jennings held last season, a gig that yielded 16.6 touches per game. Fantasy is all about opportunity and Perkins certainly has a viable one. However, his secondary profile induces vomiting. Last year, he evaded just 1.4 tackles per game, ranked No. 67 in juke rate and No. 65 in catch percentage. With Shane Vereen locked into the Giants’ third-down role and rookie Wayne Gallman in the conversation, Perkins isn’t the high-volume mid-draft savior some fantasy “experts” would lead you to believe.”

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Giants]

[Fantasy Football is open! Sign up now]

Last season safety Landon Collins became the first player in NFL history with at least 100 solo tackles, two sacks, five interceptions and 12 passes defensed in a season. It was a remarkable season from a player who struggled at times as a rookie. The Giants spent a lot of money in free agency last year to improve the defense, but the biggest reason for the huge improvement might have been Collins’ All-Pro season. He’s just 23 years old and might make a run at NFL defensive player of the year this season.

Can Jason Pierre-Paul be even better in 2017?

Jason Pierre-Paul was still a question mark last season, and that’s why he was working on a one-year deal. He proved he was all the way back from an infamous fireworks accident, getting seven sacks in 12 games. He was peaking in midseason, with 5.5 sacks in his final two full games, including three sacks in an amazing game against the Cleveland Browns.

“I think I dominated every game I played last year, not just the Cleveland game,” Pierre-Paul said, according to the New York Post. “I looked back on the tape, and I saw a player who’s just only getting better from the year before.”

Pierre-Paul cashed in with a four-year, $62 million deal. He missed the final portion of last season due to sports hernia surgery, but all reports say he looks healthy. If he can pick up where he left off when he got hurt last season, he can be one of the best defensive ends in football. We’ve seen him play at that level before.

It’s worth repeating: The Giants went 11-5 while finishing 26th in the NFL in points scored. Two seasons ago, with many of the same players, the Giants finished sixth in points scored. What if the Giants, after making improvements in the offseason, can get close to that level on offense again? We’re looking at a team that can make a Super Bowl.

The Giants were 8-3 in games decided by seven points or less last season, and 4-1 in games decided by three points or less. Sometimes there’s not much difference between 8-8 and 11-5 in the NFL. The defense will be good again, but maybe there’s some regression after such a huge improvement. And the offense isn’t guaranteed to turn things around with coach Ben McAdoo stretched too thin. The Giants finished 6-10 in 2014 and 2015 and while the defense will likely prevent a return to that level, the Giants could miss the playoffs in a tough division.

I like the Giants this season, and I like their bravado. Landon Collins shot right back when he heard Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott proclaim that Dallas would win the NFC East.

“They do not control the East,” Collins said, via NJ.com. “That’s over with. We’re going to have a run for it, but they’re not going to win. I can tell you that much. We’re definitely going to take over.”

He might be right. The Giants’ defense is rock solid and the offense should rebound to at least the middle of the NFL pack. It’s hard to believe, but a team in New York is actually flying under the radar a bit. The Cowboys are getting a lot of attention, but nobody should be surprised if the Giants take the NFC East title from them.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

More Giants coverage on Yahoo Sports: