Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Safeties
Aside from the 6-game run to finish the 2011 season, and a game here or there, the New York Giants’ defense has been brutally bad the last two seasons. The statistics don’t lie. In 2012, the Giants finished 31st in total defense. The defense allowed 6,134 yards, or 383.4 yards a game, both the highest figures in franchise history. The defense also gave up 6,022 yards in the 2011. These are the only two seasons in which the Giants allowed 6,000 yards in their history.
In 2012, the New York Giants allowed 60 passes of 20 or more yards (the NFL’s fourth-highest total), 29 passes of at least 30 yards (led the NFL), and 13 passes of 40 or more yards (second in the league).
The Giants have invested a lot of resources in terms of draft picks, free agent acquisitions, and salary cap space in the secondary. But the returns have not been good. The Giants were 29th in pass defense in 2011 and 28th in pass defense in 2012. Now to be fair, good pass defense encompasses all three levels of the defense: pass rush, linebacker coverage, and defensive back coverage. But there is no denying the New York Giants secondary has not performed up to expectations. Over-hyped and inconsistent players, questionable coaching, injuries, or a combination may be to blame, but quarterbacks on other teams have looked forward to throwing against this secondary.
Do the Giants have the players to improve their pass coverage? Can the coaching staff put these players in best position to succeed? The defense first needs to stop the run to get opposing offenses into more predictable passing situations. But to be blunt, the secondary has not done a good job of covering people. It’s scary to think just how much worse the pass defense would have been had it not been for New York’s 21 interceptions last season (more than a third of them from bargain-basement surprise safety Stevie Brown).
There are currently eight safeties on the Giants’ training camp roster. At most, the Giants will keep five on the 53-man roster. Former 1st-rounder Kenny Phillips signed a relatively cheap deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. While it’s clear the Giants were worried about the long-term health viability of his reconstructed knee, his departure is also a cause for concern. The Giants need to find an adequate replacement.
Antrel Rolle: Rolle was originally drafted as a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. After three inconsistent seasons at corner, the Cardinals moved him to free safety in 2008, where he excelled. Rolle was signed by the Giants in March 2010 after the Cardinals cut him in a salary-related move.
Rolle has never missed a game with the Giants. For the second season in a row, he finished with 96 tackles, two interceptions, and one forced fumble. He also had five pass defenses in 2012 (four in 2011). One of the better coverage safeties in the game, Rolle has good speed and range. Due to his experience as a cornerback, unlike most safeties, Rolle can play man coverage and has often been called upon to play the slot corner position. That said, Rolle hasn’t made a lot of plays on the football with the Giants (a total of five interceptions and 13 pass defenses in three seasons). Somewhat of a mouthy malcontent when he came to New York, Rolle has become one of the leaders of the defense.
“What’s helping ’Trel now is understanding the Giants’ way, the Giants’ system,’’ said DE Justin Tuck. “He wasn’t accustomed to that when he came in. He was more accustomed to (University of) Miami, things of that nature. Now I think he’s a lot smarter with some of the things he says in the media and some of the things he says in the locker room, and I think he’s gonna be a huge part of our leadership and success of the football team.’’
Rolle’s biggest problem? By far, he’s the highest paid defensive player on the team with $7 million in salary (and a $9.25 million overall cap hit) in both 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, only Eli Manning is currently scheduled to take up more cap space.
The Giants are hoping that they can play Rolle more at free safety this year. Injuries to other players have forced him to play both strong safety and nickel back.
“I truly believe that Antrel needs to get back to playing with great depth and vision off the quarterback,” said Safeties Coach David Merritt. “Because he’s not going to be down in that nickel role. I say that right now, but you know how that’s gone the past two years when he’s been forced down there with injuries. Hopefully Antrel can do what we paid him to come here to do, which is to play safety and be a playmaker back there for us.”
“We always shoot for (me concentrating on safety) each and every year,” said Rolle. “We always shoot for me to play the safety role and stay at the safety role but it’s never happened, unfortunately. At one point in time I would get frustrated…It’s a part of growing up, a part of being professional and most important a part of just being a team player and doing whatever you have to do in order for this team to be successful.’’
“With him wearing 15 different hats on the field and he’s able to make plays from all 15 spots, just imagine what he can do if he’s able to concentrate on one,” said Stevie Brown. “There’s no limit to what he can do.”
Perry Fewell is obviously counting on Rolle to be the leaders of the secondary. “He’s got to be the glue that keeps us together,” said Fewell.
“At safety I have to be a little more disciplined playing the position being that I’m the last guy in the line of defense so I just transfer my mind to understand my role and understand where my help is going to be and where I need to be the protector and where you can take those little slight chances and gambles,” said Rolle.
“My defensive mantra is just to be more consistent,” said Rolle. “To be more consistent and have more dog in us on a daily basis, on an every down basis. There were times out there, I felt, that as a defensive unit we went out there and we played exceptional, we played like the Super Bowl caliber team that we were. Then there were times we went out there and played like the 9-7 team that we were. As a defensive unit you can’t have the ups and downs because we all know that defense wins the game. We all know that. With the quarterback that we have, with the offense we have, they are always going to put points on the board. We expect that. So we just have to make sure we limit (the other team’s scoring).”
Stevie Brown: Brown came out of nowhere and had a tremendous season in 2012, intercepting more passes in a single season by a Giant in 44 years. Brown played in all 16 games, started 11, and finished with 76 tackles, 11 pass defenses, eight interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Brown was originally drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The Raiders cut him the following year and he signed with the Colts. The Colts declined to tender him in 2012 and he then signed with the Giants.
Brown has excellent size and strength for a safety. He’s got pretty good speed for his size, but he lacks overall quickness and agility that you see in smaller safeties. In 2012, the ball just seemed to find its way into Brown’s hands. Sometimes it was a lucky bounce or bad throw, but to his credit, Brown also made aggressive plays on the football. The million dollar question is was 2012 a fluke? Right now, Brown is penciled in as the starting strong safety.
“I look at it as my spot,” said Brown. “It’s my spot to keep.”
Brown needs to become more consistent and avoid mental breakdowns that lead to big plays by the opposing team. As a big, physical safety, he should also be a bigger factor in run defense than he was in 2012.
“Stevie and I have been hanging out a lot more just outside of football, talking and communicating, whether it’s going to watch a basketball game or a movie,” said Rolle. “I’m just trying to get a feel for what kind of guy he is and he’s trying to get a feel for what kind of guy I am because at the end of the day, we’re going to be married back there, free safety and strong safety. We have to make this marriage last.”
“His study and his ability to take coaching, he was a sponge last year,” said Merritt of Brown. “His film study and understanding that the post safety plays at a certain depth and the post safety has to be able play between a certain parts of the field. I am very impressed with Stevie and I truly believe that he can continue making those types of plays for us.”
Ryan Mundy: Mundy was signed by the Giants as an unrestricted free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers in March 2013. Mundy was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Steelers. After spending his rookie season on Pittsburgh’s Practice Squad, Mundy hasn’t missed a game in the last four seasons, and has started five times.
Mundy was an under-the-radar signing by the Giants. The word on him coming out of Pittsburgh is that he a very physical safety who hits hard and plays well on special teams, but who also struggled at times against the pass.
That said, David Merritt has talked about Mundy with great enthusiasm. Merritt says that Mundy is the leading candidate for the third safety position that Deon Grant played so well for the Giants in 2010-11. ”Ryan Mundy, that’s a guy who I’m impressed with,” said Merritt. “With his ability and his smarts, he would be the third (safety).”
Merritt also likes Mundy’s leadership. “If the season at all starts to dip and players start to slack, I’m gonna lean on him,” said Merritt of Mundy.
“I think I’m a physical player,” said Mundy. “I like to get in the box and mix it up with the bigger guys, knock around a running back, the tight ends, fullbacks.”
Mundy says being with the Steelers has prepared him well. “I know how to work, I know how to practice, I know how to focus in meetings,” said Mundy.
“Mundy’s definitely a professional, definitely a student of the game also. He wants to learn,” said Rolle. “He’s another guy who asks a lot of questions because he’s not so familiar with this defense…I think he plays the safety position extremely well…I’m happy to have him here.”
Will Hill: Hill was a top-ranked athlete coming out of high school in New Jersey, but off-the-field issues at the University of Florida caused him to go undrafted and unsigned as a junior entry in 2011. The Giants invited him to the May 2012 rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis and signed him after that camp ended. Hill not only made the 53-man roster last season, but he became an important reserve, despite being suspended for four games by the NFL for using Adderall. Hill played in 12 games and finished 2012 with 38 tackles, two pass defenses, and one forced fumble.
Hill has average size for the position, but he is a very good athlete with fine speed and quickness. He is a physical player and tackles well. He also is a very good special teams player. Physically, Hill looks and plays like an NFL starter. The questions with him are mental. Can he stay focused on football? Can he keep his nose clean? That is looking more unlikely as it was announced on July 20 that Hill has been suspended by the NFL for four regular-season games again, this time for apparently using illegal drugs. Hill’s future with the Giants and the NFL is now very much in doubt.
“Will is an excellent talent,” said Merritt. “He’s athletic. He’s fast. He will strike you. Will brings a lot to the table. Hopefully he steps up. He is able to produce and we can put him in special roles that will help us out.”
Cooper Taylor: Taylor was selected in the 5th round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Giants. Taylor is a huge safety with very good timed-speed, agility, and overall athleticism for his size.
“He has played strong and free safety, and we are playing him as the WILL (weakside) linebacker in sub defense,” said Merritt. “Runs a 4.4. He is just a big man and very smart. Right now (his head) is spinning because he is playing multiple positions.”
“I think what he’s going to bring to it is a lot of special teams play hopefully, a lot of production for us on special teams,” said Merritt. “If he has to go in the game right now, he would be the fourth safety because Ryan Mundy is doing pretty well. But this kid is going to be good for us. I think he’s at that point right now where he’s overloaded because he’s trying to play safety and linebacker which is a lot, so it’s a little overwhelming for him but he has the metal capacity to where he can actually learn it and produce.”
Taylor says there are key differences when playing the weakside linebacker in the sub-defense and safety roles. “There’s definitely some differences in terms of the drops,” said Taylor. “Playing from top–down rather than bottom-up in terms of the safeties trying to read the quarterback; and coming from the topside where the WILL is doing something a little different reading route combinations and getting underneath routes. So it’s definitely two different learning processes. But it’s good. The coaches teach us to do stuff well, so it’s been a good learning curve so far.”
“More than anything, he’s shown that he’s a guy who’s eager to learn,” said Rolle. “He wants to learn. He’s a guy who’s very intrigued by this defense. He wants to understand this defense without making mistakes. And everyone is going to make a mistake. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a 15-year veteran. You’re going to make mistakes in this league. He is a guy who’s athletic and big. He moves around extremely well. So we’re definitely going to look for him to come in on certain kind of packages and just be a playmaker for us wherever they put him.”
“To be able to get a young man like that who also has the mental capacity and is very smart, that’s the type of guy we had a couple of years ago in Craig Dahl,” said Merritt. “(Dahl) was able to line up the defense, which is what Cooper Taylor is doing already. He can line up the defense. He understands rotations. It is James Butler all over again as well, yet he is a better athlete than those guys were.”
Tyler Sash: Sash saw his playing time significantly decrease in 2012. First, he was suspended for four games by the NFL for using Adderall. In early December, he suffered a hamstring and despite being able to return to practice, Sash did not play in the last four games of the season. Sash played in just seven games and finished with only eight tackles.
Sash was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants. As a rookie, he played in every game and finished the regular season with 17 tackles and one forced fumble on defense. He also was one of team’s better special teams players. Sash is more of a strong safety-type who plays better closer to the line. He has good size, but lacks ideal speed and agility.
David Caldwell: The Giants signed Caldwell to a Reserve/Future deal in January 2013. Caldwell was originally signed by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2010 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve. In 2011, he played in 16 games with 13 starts and accrued 67 tackles and four pass defenses. The Colts waived him in August 2012.
Caldwell lacks ideal height but he is well-built and a good athlete. He’s a smart player and a reliable tackler. Caldwell did not make many plays on the football when starting for the Colts.
Alonzo Tweedy: Tweedy was signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft. Tweedy was a part-time starter in a linebacker/safety role at Virginia Tech. He has a nice size/speed combination, but was primarily known more for his excellent special teams play in college.
Summary: Until Will Hill’s suspension, the early favorites to make the 53-man roster were Rolle, Brown, Mundy, Hill, and Taylor. Rolle will obviously start at one safety spot, but one wonders if he will become a cap casualty in 2014. It’s hard to see Brown duplicating his turnover production again, but it may be more important for him to simply become a more consistent, reliable player on a down-to-down basis against the pass and the run. Mundy seemed like a ho-hum signing in March, but Merritt has been raving about him. Still, Steelers fans were underwhelmed. Hill and Taylor both have excellent physical tools. Taylor is extremely smart, but Hill’s second drug suspension raises serious questions about his future with the team. Hill’s troubles may have opened the door for Sash, Caldwell, or Tweedy, three players who are going to have to fight and scratch to make the team.