Feb 172017
 
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Landon Collins, New York Giants (October 23, 2016)

Landon Collins – © USA TODAY Sports Images

The biggest reasons for the New York Giants defense’s dramatic improvement in 2016 was the improved play of the (1) defensive line and (2) defensive backs. The Giants defense went from dead last in 2015 to tenth in yardage allowed and second in scoring allowed in 2016. And while the team’s 23rd-ranked pass defense (251.1 yards per game) does not sound impressive, the unit played at a far higher level than that, as indicated by three defensive backs earning All-Pro honors.

The secondary became a team strength because the Giants signed Janoris Jenkins in free agency, drafted Eli Apple in the first round, and watched second-year safety Landon Collins develop into an impact player at his more natural strong safety position. An inconsistent player in St. Louis, Jenkins became one of the best corners in the NFL in 2016, teaming with Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC) to form perhaps the NFL’s best trio of corners. While Apple had his growing pains, he performed well enough to shut down a number of opponents and allow the coaches to move DRC to the slot corner position. Meanwhile, Collins led the Giants in tackles, was second on the team in interceptions, and third on the team in sacks. The weak spot in the secondary was free safety as promising rookie Darian Thompson and Mykkele Thompson were lost early to injuries, Nat Berhe battled concussions, and undrafted rookie Andrew Adams started the bulk of the season. While Adams didn’t embarrass himself, he did not make many plays either. Late in the season, Leon Hall – who was shifted from corner to safety – took over the position.

THE STARTERS

In his first season with the Giants, Janoris Jenkins had his best season to date, being voted to his first Pro Bowl and his first All-Pro (second-team) selection. Jenkins started every game, except for missing one game due to a back injury, and finished the season with 49 tackles, one sack, 18 pass defenses, three interceptions, and one forced fumble. Jenkins was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. The Giants signed him as unrestricted free agent in March 2016. Jenkins is an average-sized corner with excellent speed and quickness. He is a confident, instinctive coverman who has gotten better each year and has developed into an elite shut-down corner. Jenkins plays well in both man and zone coverage. He plays with swagger.

The Giants drafted Eli Apple in the 1st round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He missed two games with hamstring and groin injuries, but surprisingly started 11 of the 14 regular-season games he played in. Apple finished the season with 51 tackles, seven pass defenses, one interception, and one forced fumble. Apple combines good size with excellent overall athletic ability, speed, and quickness. He flashes as a physical run defender and tackler, but needs to become more consistent in that area. Apple had a bit of an up-and-down rookie season in coverage. While he mostly handled his opponent, there were times when he gave up big plays. Apple makes a lot contact with receivers in coverage and he needs to continue to work on his technique. He has a big upside and looks to be developing into a fine player.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC) had another strong year for the Giants, being named second-team All-Pro. He missed one game with a groin injury but started nine of the 15 regular-season games he played in, taking most of his snaps inside at the slot corner position. DRC finished the year with 49 tackles, one sack, 21 pass defenses, six interceptions, and one forced fumble. Rodgers-Cromartie was originally drafted in the 1st round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 and signed with the Broncos as an unrestricted free agent in 2013 and the Giants in 2014. Rodgers-Cromartie combines superb size and overall athletic skills, including speed, size, and leaping ability. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the better cover corners in the NFL and capable of shutting down even top wide receivers. He has improved his toughness as a hitter and tackler. Rodgers-Cromartie made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and in 2015, the latter as an alternate. While he has not missed many games, DRC seems to battle a lot of nagging injuries.

In his second season, Landon Collins had a break-out year, being voted to his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro. Collins started every game and finished the year with 125 tackles, four sacks, 13 pass defenses, and five interceptions. Collins was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Giants. He is a big, tough, physical safety who lacks ideal quickness and recovery speed. Collins is good hitter and tackler and plays the run very well. He dramatically improved his play against the pass in 2016 and has rapidly developed into one of the best safeties in the NFL.

The Giants originally signed Andrew Adams as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2016 NFL Draft. Adams was signed to the Practice Squad, and then the 53-man roster in September 2016 after injuries hit the safety position hard. Force-fed into the starting line-up, Adams played in 14 regular-season games with 13 starts. He finished the year with 46 tackles, five pass defenses, and one interception. Adams lacks ideal height and speed but he is a well-built, athletic safety with good quickness. While Adams failed to make many plays on the ball in coverage, he was surprisingly reliable in that opposing offenses did not exploit him as much as would have been expected. That said, Adams saw his playing time decrease at the very end of the season in favor of Leon Hall.

THE RESERVES

Trevin Wade played in every game in 2016 with two regular-season starts. He received about 33 percent of defensive snaps and finished the year with 26 tackles and three pass defenses. Wade was originally drafted in the 7th round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He has spent time with the Browns (2012-13), Saints (2013-14), and Lions (2014). The Giants signed Wade to a reserve/future contract in January 2015. Wade is a decent-sized corner with only average athletic ability and speed. He can handle the slot corner position. Wade flashes solid cover skills at times but also gives up a fair share of completions.

Coty Sensabaugh was signed by the Giants in October 2016 after he was waived by the Los Angeles Rams. He played in 10 regular-season games with no starts and finished the year with 15 tackles. Sensabaugh was originally drafted in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. The Rams signed him to a 3-year, $15 million contract in March 2016. Sensabaugh has played in 72 regular-season games with 29 starts. Sensabaugh is an average-sized corner whose strength is playing the slot nickel corner spot.

The Giants signed Leon Hall in August 2016. The Giants started him off at his usual slot corner position before shifting him to safety when injuries hit that position hard. Hall played in 12 regular-season games with two starts, finishing with 31 tackles, two sacks, two pass defenses, one interception, and one forced fumble. Hall was originally drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. In his nine seasons with the Bengals, Hall played in 121 regular-season games with 105 starts. Hall is nearing the end of a productive career, but his corner cover skills have eroded due to father time and injuries (Achilles’ tendon injuries in 2011 and 2013 and back surgery in 2016). Hall’s final playing days may be best suited for safety.

Michael Hunter spent time on both the Practice Squad and 53-man roster in 2016. He played in two regular-season games and finished the season with four tackles. The Giants originally signed Hunter as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2016 NFL Draft. Hunter has a nice combination of size and speed. He is a physical, press corner who was up-and-down during the 2016 preseason for the Giants.

Nat Berhe had his second injury-plagued season in a row in 2016. Berhe missed nine regular-season games with two concussions. He ended up playing in seven games with two starts, finishing with 21 tackles, one pass defense, and one forced fumble. Berhe was drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Giants. He played in all 16 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams. But he missed all of 2015 due to a blood clot in his calf. Berhe lacks ideal size and speed, but he is a smart, physical, and aggressive defender who hits hard. The two concussions combined with his physical style of play cloud his NFL future.

Eric Pinkins was signed to the Practice Squad in October and the 53-man roster in November. He ended up playing in five games, mostly on special teams. Pinkins was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, who moved him to linebacker. Pinkins was waived by the Seahawks in September 2016. Pinkins has a nice combination of size and speed, but his instincts have been questioned.

PRACTICE SQUAD

Ryan Murphy was signed to the Practice Squad in late December 2016. Murphy was originally drafted in the 7th round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks waived him in their final round of cuts in September 2015. He spent time on the Practice Squad of the Denver Broncos in both 2015 and 2016. Murphy has a nice combination of size and athletic ability.

INJURED RESERVE

Donte Deayon was signed to the Practice Squad in September 2016 and placed on the Practice Squad/Injured Reserve in October 2016 with an unknown injury. The Giants originally signed Deayon as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2016 NFL Draft. Deayon is a fluid, dimunitive corner with very good quickness and leaping ability. He is tough and confident, but struggled at times for the Giants during the 2016 preseason.

Having won the starting free safety position in the preseason, Darian Thompson missed virtually the entire season after suffering a Lisfranc foot injury in Week 2. Thompson tried to return in November, suffered a setback in practice, and was placed on Injured Reserve. The Giants drafted Thompson in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Thompson has a nice combination of smarts, maturity, size, and overall athletic ability. Thompson has natural cover skills and makes plays on the football in coverage. It remains to be seen how much the lisfranc injury affects his career.

Mykkele Thompson was placed on Injured Reserve in September 2016 after injuring his knee in Week 2. Thompson was drafted in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Giants. He missed all of his rookie season after rupturing the Achilles’ tendon in his right foot during the preseason. Somewhat still raw, Thompson is a former quarterback and wide receiver who converted to cornerback and then safety in college. Thompson is a bit of a corner-safety ‘tweener. He is tall and thin with good speed, but he lacks ideal quickness for cornerback and ideal physicality for a safety. Thompson is versatile and smart. He is a good special teams player who blocked three punts in college. With two serious leg injuries in his first two seasons, his NFL future is cloudy.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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