Behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, the New York Giants possessed the NFL's 26th-ranked rushing attack last season. It was a stat that went against the very belief of what New York Giants football is and something that is a top priority of new general manager Dave Gettleman.
With free agency officially getting underway Wednesday, the Giants have been aggressive in addressing that issue, signing veteran running back Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Nate Solder.
While there is little doubt that Solder will bring a sizeable improvement to New York's offensive line after winning a pair of Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, the book is still out on Stewart.
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The 30-year-old back spent the first 10 years of his career with the Carolina Panthers, formerly working under Gettleman, as a tandem back, mostly with DeAngelo Williams. Still, he's rushed for 680 or more yards in eight of his 10 professional seasons, including a career-best 1,133-yard campaign in 2009.
While he's still expected to be serviceable, his numbers have faltered the last two years as Carolina's No. 1 back. He's averaged over 750 yards during those two years, but he's accruing just 3.6 yards per carry, well off his career mark of 4.3 yards per rush.
"I've got a lot left," Stewart said on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. "The only reason I'm playing is I know I can play. Dave [Gettleman] knows I can play."
Stewart immediately becomes the Giants No. 1 back considering Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen are free agents this offseason. Given Vereen's limited role with the Giants as more of a receiving back — he had 44 receptions compared to just 45 carries — one could expect him to walk in free agency.
But Darkwa is coming off a career year despite the Giants offensive struggles. Having never gained more than 153 yards in a single season since his debut in 2014, Darkwa became New York's No. 1 back, accruing 751 yards on 171 carries (4.4 yards per rush) with five touchdowns.
It was solid production for a player making just $690K, a figure that should increase in his next deal. However, it might not be with the Giants.
While Darkwa might be looked upon as an alternative option to Stewart should he struggle, a possible return to the Giants might not happen depending on how they fare in the 2018 NFL Draft.
With the Cleveland Browns acquisition of former San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde to join Duke Johnson in their backfield, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley could fall to the Giants with the No. 2 pick of the draft.
Barkley is considered to be the Giants' top choice in the draft as one of the most talented prospects available. If New York was to get him, Darkwa suddenly becomes expendable and the Giants have less of a need to re-sign him.
They might not have until the end of April to wait, though. After the season Darkwa had, a team in serious need of rushing help could snap him up before the Giants have a clear picture of where they stand with Barkley.