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Training Camp Questions, Part 3: Defensive Backfield

 Twelve days and nine sessions of the Giants’ training camp are now in the books. Per usual, the receiver vs defensive back battles have dominated early camp coverage. We previously took a long hard look at the wide receiving unit. With Pre-Season Game #1 (vs the Miami Dolphins) looming large this coming Friday, it is high time we examined the secondary unit.

The 2015 Giants’ secondary was, in my mind, the third worst unit on the team (I place it mildly ahead of the defensive line and way ahead of the linebackers). The secondary did contain a sliver of talent, including one of the league’s better corner backs (DRC) who made the Pro Bowl and a rookie second round safety (Landon Collins) who, although forced to play out of position, had a fine first season and who, by far, led the Giants in tackles. Otherwise, the corners consisted of a disappointing former first round pick who could not stay healthy (Prince), two very similar utility journeymen (Trevin Wade and Trumaine McBride), a few additional mediocre talents who were on and off the team within a few weeks (Tramain Jacobs and Leon McFadden), and an utterly clueless former third round pick who, whenever circumstance forced him onto the field, most usually gave up an immediate long touchdown (no need to bring up the name).

The safety position was even odder. The Giants entered camp with virtually no experience at the position: three rookies (Collins, Mykkele Thompson, and Justin Currie), two 2nd year players with little-to-zero playing experience (Nate Behre and Bennett Jackson), and a third year player who had minimal previous playing time (Cooper Taylor). Then, in an almost eerie-like fashion, one safety after another fell to injury during the pre-season schedule. When the smoke cleared, only Collins and Taylor remained. With camp nearing end and zero quality FA talent available, the Giants were forced to bring in 31 year old oft-injured/bad knee Brandon Merriweather and 30 year old minimal talent Craig Dahl.

As known to all of us, this talent-starved crew of defensive backs did not fail to disappoint. By the time the 2015 season limped to the finish line, it was clear that a major clean out was in order. Prince was allowed to walk; he is now in Jacksonville playing out a one year “show me” contract. Corners McBride & Jacobs were not retained; neither were safeties Merriweather and Dahl. Finally, and mercifully, Jayron Hosley was released, hopefully never to return.

At the same time, the front office, perhaps driven by an awareness that recent staff housecleaning left them the only remaining candidates on the chopping block, went out and performed a knockout job of infusing new talent into the defensive unit. This was particularly true of the secondary in general and the cornerback position in particular. The first move was to sign highly touted free agent ball hawk corner Janoris Jenkins to pair opposite DRC. Next, the Giants used the #10 overall pick to draft Ohio State corner Eli Apple. They followed up by taking free safety Darian Thompson of Boise State in the 3rd round. Then, just last week, the Giants signed free agent corner Leon Hall, a fine veteran corner who specializes in slot coverage, to a one year deal.

Given these whole cloth changes, how might the Giant secondary look come the September 11 opener in Dallas? Historically, Steve Spagnuolo retains nine defensive backs on his regular season roster. Of the nine, five are corners, four are safeties. Spags does prefer that his starting corners specialize in press man-2-man. For his backup corners, he favors versatility ( the ability to play outside, inside/slot, and, if need be, fill in up top). At safety, Spags does like his starters to fit the traditional SS/FS mold. He likes his backup safeties to be able to play both positions but he has a noticeable preference for the SS style. On game day, he almost always dresses all five corners but only three of the safeties. Importantly, the third safety that does dress is usually the more “strong safety” of the backups. The rare occasion when both backup safeties dress is usually forced by one of the corners being out injured, resulting in a 4/4 split. (This happened twice in 2016.) Almost never does Spags dress all nine secondary players.

How do we pull all this information together to form a coherent "here and now" picture of the Giants’ secondary situation? First off, pay no attention to the recently released “depth chart.” At this point, it means little to nothing. A much truer depth chart will form following the Dolphin game; he roster and depth chart will continue to refine throughout the pre-season schedule. Second, let us assume that Spags stays with a 5/4 corner/safety split. Third, let us also assume that Spags retains his personal preferences as described above. Add in the talent available, and, barring injury (always a major concern), I see a defensive backfield in which all but one, or perhaps two, roster spots have already been determined. Unfortunately, for most players, the only real hope to retain employment with the Giants is to land one of the limited spots available on the practice squad. 

 

Cornerback

Dominique Rogers-Cromartie returns as the Giants’ premier shutdown corner. A former 1st round (#16 overall) selection by the Arizona Cardinals in 2008, DRC had a terrific season in 2015, racking up 58 tackles (52 solo), three INTs (one returned for a touchdown), 13 passes defensed,  two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery returned 57 yards for a touchdown. For his efforts, DRC was awarded his second selection to the Pro Bowl. Having just turned 30 years old, DRC remains one of the top corners in the NFL. He is fast, savvy, has great hands and is a true force against the run. He has three years left on the five year deal he signed with the Giants in 2014.

Janoris Jenkins was a priority high priced free agent signed by the Giants this off-season. Inked to a five year, $62.5 million dollar contract (28.8 million guaranteed with a 10 million signing bonus), it is now time for him to start earning that money. Originally drafted by the Rams in the 2nd round (#39 overall) of the 2012 draft, the former North Alabama star has had a fine career to date. In 2015, he made 64 tackles (56 solo), made three interceptions, defended 15 passes, and forced one fumble. A lockdown corner who does make the occasional mistake due to over-aggressiveness, he is a terrific compliment to DRC. Jenkins turns 28 in October.

Continuing with the cornerback rebuild, the Giants used the #10 overall pick in the 2016 draft to select Ohio State corner Eli Apple. Still just a baby (he turns 21 years old TODAY: Happy Birthday Eli!), he none-the-less had a stellar two year career at OSU. A strong, tough kid, he absolutely blanketed college receivers with an aggressive m2m style and was a big time force against the run. He was last year’s Fiesta Bowl MVP, holding Notre Dame’s outstanding WR Will Fuller to 32 reception yards. Having faltered in mini-camp when asked to play the slot (a position he had never played), he has since been switched back to outside corner and by all accounts is having a great camp.

Just last week, the Giants signed former Bengal corner Leon Hall to a one year, $2 million dollar contract. Drafted by Cincinnati at #18 overall in the 2007 draft, Hall has had a solid nine year NFL career. He has recently morphed into a primarily slot cover corner. Turning 32 this September, Hall recently suffered from back issues which caused the Bengals to leave him unsigned this off-season. Hall, who has since been cleared medically to play, rebuffed renewed interest by the Bengals in favor of the one year deal with the Giants. His $2 million dollar contract includes $500,000 in playing bonuses ($31.25K/game played).

Assuming that the health of the above four players will remain in good stead, then all four will make the team and but a single cornerback position remains unfilled. As stated above, Spags likes his backup corners to be versatile. The Giants have such a player in returning corner Trevin Wade. A five year journeyman in the NFL, the 27 year old former 2012 7th round pick out of Arizona is a cornerback version of a baseball utility man. As a 2015 Giant, he played outside on the edge, inside against the slot, occasionally blitzed on pass plays, and even filled in at safety. At this point, I would give Wade the edge to be the Giants’ 5th corner.

Competing with Wade is 4th year fellow journeyman Leon McFadden. A former 2013 3rd round selection of the Browns, McFadden has essentially done nothing while playing for three teams over the course of three seasons. (Wow, are the Browns lousy in the draft!) McFadden, who did play in two games for the Giants in 2015, may have the talent to push Wade for the 5th and final spot. Question is: does he have the heart?

I see the rest of the corners as camp fodder, although one (maybe two) might show enough to sneak onto the practice squad. A few quick comments:

Everyone loves the idea of “The Little Train that Could,” but, at 5’9” tall and weighing in at 158 lbs, UDFA Donte Deayon is just plain too small to play cornerback in the NFL.

Former Lafayette corner Matt Smalley is a 4.40 burner with decent size (5’10”, 180), but the utter lack of competition at his level indicates at best an outside shot at the practice squad.

As for Michael Hunter, I know nothing and therefore have nothing to say.

 

Safety

The Giants drafted Landon Collins with the first pick of the 2nd round (#33 overall) of the 2015 draft. Tough and big (6’0”, 222), he is a prototypical strong safety who, due to injury depletion, was forced to play out of position for most of 2015. He struggled a bit in coverage (nine passes defensed, one INT), but was a big time force against the run; his 108 tackles (80 solo) by far led the Giants in that most important of defensive categories. The draft of Darian Thompson and the return from injury of Nat Behre, Mykkele Thompson and Bennett Jackson will facilitate Collins’ move back to strong safety. In my opinion, Collins will shine at SS and will have a long and productive career with the Giants.

The Giants drafted Darian Thompson in the 3rd round (#71 overall) of the 2016 draft. Originally considered a late 1st/early 2nd round talent, he stock dropped significantly after a poor showing (including a 4.70 forty) at the NFL combine. It was later stated that he suffered from a stomach bug at the combine; in any case, his Pro Day numbers were vastly improved. When Thompson slipped in the 3rd round of the draft, the Giants jumped. Thompson had a terrific three year college career. In 44 starts, he had 19 interceptions and 15 tackles for loss. His aggressiveness did cause him to get burned for ten touchdown passes. Smart, studious, and hardworking, he immediately took to the Giants system. At this point, he is considered to be the odds on favorite to be the Giants’ opening day starter at free safety. I am very excited to see this kid play.

The Giants selected San Diego State safety Nat Berhe in the 5th round (#152 overall) of the 2014 draft. Early in his Aztec career, I was tipped off by a San Diego connection to keep an eye on Berhe and I subsequently followed him throughout his college playing days. At SDSU, Berhe had a Troy Palumalu-like ability to take over games, literally imposing his will upon his opponents. He finished his college career with 299 tackles (197 solo), 12 TFL, 5 INTs, 20 PDs, and 4 fumble recoveries. I was ecstatic when the Giants drafted him. He played mostly as a backup in 2014, then was sidelined for the entire 2015 season when an infected calf injury required surgery to remove a blood clot. Originally considered to be the frontrunner as the Giants’ 2016 free safety, it appears that Darian Thompson has eclipsed him at that position. Still, I think that he is a terrific talent and I expect Berhe to be in the Giants’ 2016 game day safety rotation.

Mykkele Thompson was a surprising 5th round selection in the 2015 draft. Using the 144th overall pick, the Giants selected a player that most prognosticators (including the player himself) projected to be an UDFA. Thompson went on to tear his Achilles tendon in a pre-season game against the Bengals. As such, we still have no idea whether he is an NFL caliber safety. He does have the measurables: 6’2”, 191 lbs, 4.47 forty, 36” vertical. (Note: Those numbers are pre-injury.) He played mostly as a FS at Texas with a bit of slot corner mixed in. In my mind, Thompson’s future with the Giants will depend heavily on how well he performs in the upcoming pre-season games. (I should point out that, given his total lack of game experience, he would, if cut, be eligible for the practice squad.)

The Giants selected Bennett Jackson in the 6th round (#187 overall) of the 2014 draft. A graduate of Notre Dame, Jackson played wide receiver as a freshman before converting to cornerback as a sophomore. As a senior team captain, he had 64 tackles, 5 TFL, one sack, one forced fumble, 2 INTs, and 3 PDs. Jackson was cut during the 2014 camp but was later added to the practice squad. Prior to the 2015 camp, the Giants announced that they were converting Bennett from corner to safety. Then, during a pre-season game against Jacksonville, Jackson tore an ACL and was lost for the season. Much like Mykkele Thompson, Bennett Jackson remains an unknown. Given his college experience as a cornerback, I would have thought that the Giants would have tried working him out at either slot cover or nickel safety, but it appears that this has not happened. As with Thompson, Jackson’s making the Giants’ roster depends on his performance in the upcoming preseason games; also like Thompson, if cut, he qualifies for the practice squad.

The Giants selected Cooper Taylor in the 5th round (#152 overall) of the 2013 draft. At the time, many Giant fans were intrigued by Taylor’s measurables: a college safety who was 6’4”, 228 lbs. Whispers of converting him to linebacker a la Brian Urlacher abounded among Giant fans. Of course, Cooper has proven to be nothing of the sort; in fact, dropping the phrase “of the sort” from the previous statement would pretty much encapsulate his Giant career. For a variety of reasons, he has managed to play in only sixteen games (with zero starts) over his three years with the Giants. When given the chance to play a significant role in last October’s Eagles game, he played so poorly that he managed to get his ass released the day after the game. Resigned in November to the practice squad, he was later activated to play and promptly went out with a sports hernia injury. Perhaps Taylor still has a future with the Giants but, as for me, I would cut him and move on. As it is, I see Taylor as fighting it out with Mykkele Thompson and Bennett Jackson for the 4th and final safety spot.

2nd year UDFA Justin Currie (W. Michigan) and rookie UDFA Andrew Adam (UConn) are the remaining two safeties. Other than noting that Currie spent the entire 2015 season on the DL, I have nothing to comment on either player.

Anyway, that is my take on the present state of the Giants defensive backfield. Sorry that this piece is so lengthy, but there was quite a bit of material to cover. Obviously, as we progress week-by-week through the pre-season, the secondary situation will become more focused.

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