With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Special Teams
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Based on the main special teams categories, the New York Giants special teams units were far from special in 2022:
- Field Goal Percentage: 90.6 percent (tied for 8th in the NFL)
- Extra Point Percentage: 94.1 percent (11th in the NFL)
- Touchback Percentage: 58.8 percent (17th in the NFL)
- Opposing Kickoff Return Average: 25.6 (tied for 26th in the NFL)
- Kickoff Return Average: 21.3 (tied for 22nd in the NFL)
- Punting Average: 46.8 (tied for 17th in the NFL)
- Net Punting Average: 40.6 (tied for 25th in the NFL)
- Punts Resulting in Touchbacks: 9 (tied for 30th in the NFL)
- Punts Downed Inside 20: 26 (tied for 14th in the NFL)
- Punt Return Average: 6.2 (29th in the NFL)
Only five teams scored on kickoff returns and three on punt returns. The Giants did neither. The team attempted five onside kickoffs and recovered none. The Giants also had one punt blocked and fumbled on four punt returns.
The sole kickoff returner was Gary Brightwell, who returned 26 kickoffs for an average of 21.3 yards and a long of 47 yards. Richie James handled the bulk of punt returns, returning 24 for an average of 7.3 yards and a long of 23 yards. He also fumbled three times on those 24 punt returns. (Jason Pinnock fumbled too on his sole punt return).
Possibly the special teams low point was the very questionable decision to have starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson return three punts. On the third, he sprained his MCL and was lost for the second half of the regular season.
The high point remained the play of Graham Gano, arguably the team’s best player the past three seasons. In 2022, Graham was 8-of-9 on 50+ yard field goal attempts, with a long of 57 yards. On the other hand, new punter Jamie Gillan was inconsistent. He flashed a strong leg but his net punting average was bottom tier. His inside-the-20 punting improved markedly in the second-half of the season, however, with a four-game stretch with 12 punts downed inside the 20.
The top-10 special teams players on the roster in terms of snaps were:
- LB Cam Brown (398)
- LB Carter Coughlin (398)
- RB Gary Brightwell (295)
- S Julian Love (220)
- TE/FB Chris Myarick (212)
- DB Nick McCloud (200)
- S Jason Pinnock (194)
- LB Tomon Fox (186)
- RB Matt Breida (178)
- LB Tae Crowder (160)
Overall, outside of Gano, there wasn’t much to be excited about.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The kickers have remained the same and neither Graham Gano or Jamie Gillan will face competition in training camp. The Giants did sign an undrafted rookie free agent long snapper, Cameron Lyons, to compete with Casey Kreiter. Obviously, any new player on offense and defense could be a factor on special teams. And those who have departed on offense and defense are no longer part of the equation.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The only issue that caught the eye of fans this offseason was the decision to not have another punter on the 90-man roster to compete with Jamie Gillan. That strongly suggests the team is intrigued by Gillan’s skillset and wants to develop him. That being said, a punter could always be added before or during the season if Gillan struggles. It is interesting to note that while the team did not sign any undrafted rookie free agent players at several positions, including punter and the offensive line, they did choose to bring in another long snapper.
In camp, the real area to watch is the return game. It seems like the team has not had stability, consistency, and reliability on kickoff and punt returns in years. No one has really nailed down these jobs. Dwayne Harris, who played for the team in 2015-2017, was probably the last guy to do so. Among others, those who were returning punts in OTAs included Eric Gray, Darius Slayton, and Darnay Holmes. Veteran free agent Jamison Crowder also has returned 95 punts in his career, but most of those came during the years Dwayne Harris was returning punts with the Giants. Who returns kickoffs seems even more ambiguous. Gary Brightwell returns, but he may have a harder time making the 53-man roster in 2023 given the presence of Eric Gray. Influencing decisions here are continued efforts by the NFL to eliminate kickoff returns.
In terms of the high-snap guys on specials, Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin stick out like sore thumbs. But as this roster improves, can the team afford to keep two linebackers who only play on special teams and don’t contribute on defense? One or both could be on the bubble.
ON THE BUBBLE: The kickers are already set. Casey Kreiter and Cameron Lyons will battle for long snapper. Other than that, there are plenty of roster spots to win or lose on offense and defense based on special teams performance.
FROM COACHES: Special Teams Coach Thomas McGaughey on how changes to kickoff return rules might affect roster decisions with players such as Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin: “It’s tough. It’s not an easy situation when you know, for the most part, you’re going to get anywhere from 25 to 28 plays. Normally, you get really 14 to 15 of those plays, maybe 18, and then half of those might go away. Naturally, you might think, ‘Okay, what is my value?’ But that’s just what it is… The roster construction part of it, I don’t have anything to do with. All I can do as a coach is just make the adjustment with the rule change. The situation is what it is, and you can’t complain about it, can’t moan about it, you just make the adjustment and you keep it moving. As a coach, that’s my job.”
Special Teams Coach Thomas McGaughey on the long snappers: “It’s not so much of a competition. I think it’s more of a good, young player that we identified that can develop over time. Obviously, Casey is a veteran guy. He’s been around for a long time, and to be able to save him and be able to develop a guy at the same time as giving another guy some breaks, because he snaps a lot of balls. Casey’s a hard worker and he’s a great teammate, and a great leader. But Cam Lyons is definitely a very talented young snapper.”
Special Teams Coach Thomas McGaughey on who will return punts: “We’re trying to find who’s going to be the guy. The preseason is going to be important. It’s a long way away, but we’ve got a ton of guys out there catching and they’re all working hard and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Special Teams Coach Thomas McGaughey on finding gunners: “You want continuity at a spot so you can create consistency. It’s kind of hard to have that when you don’t, when you’re changing guys out every week. But you want to be able to develop players that can play those positions and then have them play those positions consistently.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: Right or wrong, fans are coming to the conclusion that Special Teams Coach Thomas McGaughey is a weak spot on the coaching staff. McGaughey has been with the Giants since 2018. In other words, not only was he hired by Pat Shurmur, but Joe Judge (whose background was special teams) and Brian Daboll both chose to retain him. That’s unusual and it says something about how McGaughey is regarding in the league, whether you like it or not.
I could list all of the special teams stats during the five years McGaughey has been with the Giants, but all of that data would leave your head spinning. To keep things simple, let’s look at sportswriter Rick Gosselin’s comprehensive annual special teams ranking for the Giants since 2018:
- 2018: 15th
- 2019: 7th
- 2020: 19th
- 2021: 10th
- 2022: 28th
With two top-10 rankings in the past five years (2019 and 2021), and under two different head coaches, these rankings seem to suggest the special teams coach is not the issue. (Incidentally, they also suggest that Joe Judge did not really help the team’s performance in his supposed area of expertise as well). Given the dismal state of the NYG roster for the past decade, the team-wide lack of talent most likely affected special teams as well more than anything else. In other words, if the team’s starters on offense and defense were not good, the back-ups (special teams players) were likely equally bad or worse in talent.
Nevertheless, the Giants did take a hit on the coaching front in July. Assistant Special Teams Coach Anthony Blevins, who has also been with the team since Pat Shurmur hired him, left the Giants to become a head coach in the XFL. So McGaughey lost a valued assistant just weeks before training camp started. As of today, the assistant special teams coach spot remains vacant.
Another fan myth that seems to have developed is that Jamie Gillan was atrocious at inside-the-20 punting. Actually, he was 14th in the NFL, so a little better than average, though the nine touchbacks hurt. He also got markedly better as the season progressed in this department. It’s too early to tell what kind of NFL career he will have. Gillan has a strong leg. We’ll have to see if he can generate greater consistency. McGaughey did make it clear that his net punting numbers were not on him alone, but also the fault of the coverage units.
Simply stated, the Giants need some consistency and reliability on special teams. When they have found a good player in recent years, like Cody Core in 2019, something has happened like when Core tore his Achilles the following summer and he was gone. They need to find some real studs in coverage who can nail down the job and bring the continuity that Coach McGaughey craves. There is a real opportunity here for guys such as Dane Belton, Jason Pinnock, Tre Hawkins, Gervarrius Owens, Trenton Thompson, Dyontae Johnson, Elerson Smith, Tomon Fox, Bryce Ford-Wheaton, and others.
At the same time, the Giants return game with Gary Brightwell returning kickoffs and Richie James returning punts in 2022 was not good. And the punt return issues leaked into the defense in a major way when Adoree’ Jackson was lost. The Giants need to get this resolved. It’s getting ridiculous. Find a punt and kickoff returner. It shouldn’t take five years and three head coaches to do so. I would think there would be a strong temptation to try Jalin Hyatt on kickoff returns given his straight-line speed.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Graham Gano, Jamie Gillan, Casey Kreiter