The New York Giants pass defense improved from 28th in 2019 to 17th in 2020. This 11 spot jump is quite the accomplishment given the year-long swirling personnel changes at linebacker and defensive back. The Giants were tied for 4th for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed with 22 and tied for 12th in yards per passing attempt with 6.2. New York was also 2nd in red zone scoring defense. Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham and his defensive assistants deserve a lot of credit for getting both units to play at a respectable level despite significant personnel issues.
Tied in with the pass defense is the pass rush. Remarkably, despite no viable outside edge rushers, the Giants somehow finished tied for 12th in sacks with 40. Much of that had to be schemed, including blitzes from defensive backs. On the down side, the Giants only picked off 11 passes on the year, with only one player (CB James Bradberry) intercepting more than one pass.
Only three of the team’s five primary defensive back positions were set throughout the year. Free agent acquisition James Bradberry was arguably the team’s best player, locking down one corner spot. He did miss one game due to COVID-19. Rookie Darnay Holmes won the nickel slot position, but missed four games due to injury. Strong safety Jabrill Peppers missed one game due to injury, but was also a fixture in the defensive backfield, often being utilized as a hybrid linebacker.
The other two spots were revolving doors. At corner opposite of Bradberry, Corey Ballentine (Weeks 1-2), Isaac Yiadom (Weeks 3-4), Ryan Lewis (5-7), Yiadom again (Weeks 8-16), and Julian Love (Week 17) all started. At free safety, Love started the first two weeks, followed by Logan Ryan for the bulk of the season, until rookie Xavier McKinney started in the final weeks.
Graham and Defensive Backs Coach Jerome Henderson were hampered by a number of early personnel hits. 2019 1st-round cornerback Deandre Baker was cut after his legal troubles in Florida surfaced. That was a major blow to the team as Baker was being penciled in to start opposite of Bradberry. 2018 3rd-round pick Sam Beal then surprisingly decided to sit out the season due to COVID-19. Rookie 2nd-round pick Xavier McKinney broke his foot before the season started and wasn’t available until almost December.
The primary play-makers were Bradberry, Peppers, and Ryan. Despite many teams not throwing in his direction, Bradberry led the team with interceptions (3) and pass defenses (18). He also forced two fumbles and recovered one. Peppers was third on the team in tackles (91) and second in pass defenses (11). He picked off one pass, forced one fumble, recovered one fumble, and led defensive backs with 2.5 sacks. Ryan was second on the team in tackles (94) and third in pass defenses (9). He picked off one pass, forced three fumbles, and recovered two. He also had one sack.
Bradberry was the stud of the group. Peppers improved as the year progressed with the coaching staff seemingly having a better feel for his strengths and weaknesses. He remained an inconsistent player however. Ryan quickly became a team leader and his tremendous versatility was desperately needed at safety and corner. That said, he missed plays against the run and pass at times.
It was an up and down year for the rookie Holmes. He did help to settle the secondary and his absence was noticed during the four games he missed due to injury. But his five penalties in coverage always seemed to come at the most inopportune times and he didn’t make many plays on the football (contrary to his collegiate reputation). The other corner spot was a a bit of a mess. Ballentine simply couldn’t handle the job and was eventually cut. Yiadom and Lewis were up-and-down, with Lewis missing most of the season due to injury. Love was a bit of an enigma. His playing time varied wildly on a game-to-game basis. He started the season at safety and finished at corner.
THE CORE GROUP
The Giants signed James Bradberry as an unrestricted free agent from the Carolina Panthers in March 2020. He had a major impact on the defense, arguably being the unit’s best player, and was voted to his first Pro Bowl. Bradberry started 15 games, missing one game due to COVID-19, and finished the year with 54 tackles, 18 pass defenses, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He played in 94 percent of all defensive snaps. The 6’1”, 212-pound Bradberry was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Panthers. Bradberry is a big corner (6’1”, 212 pounds) with good speed and agility. He plays a physical game both against the run and pressing opposing corners off of the line. Outstanding in coverage, Bradberry can erase even top receivers.
The play of Jabrill Peppers improved markedly as the 2020 season progressed as he seemed to become more comfortable with the team’s new defensive schemes and the coaches learned better how to use him. At times, he was a real difference maker on the field. However, there was still some annoying inconsistency in his play, particularly in coverage. Peppers played in 15 games with 14 starts (84 percent of all defensive snaps), missing one game with an ankle injury. He finished the season with 91 tackles, 19 tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits, 11 pass defenses, one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Peppers also served as the team’s primary punt returner, returning 15 punts for 187 yards (12.5 yards per punt). Peppers was originally drafted in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He was traded to the Giants as part of the Odell Beckham deal in March 2019. He started 11 games for the Giants in 2019 before being placed on Injured Reserve with a transverse process fracture in his back. Peppers combines good size (5’11”, 215 pounds) and overall athleticism. Still a better athlete than football player, Peppers flashes signs of being an impact safety, but he must become a more consistent player, especially against the pass. He does his best work when moving forward and attacking the line of scrimmage.
The Giants signed Logan Ryan in late August 2020. He ended up being a very important, jack-of-all-trades defensive back who was used at both safety and corner. Ryan also quickly became a team leader and solid presence in the locker room. In all, Ryan played in all 16 games with 15 starts (96 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished the season with 94 tackles, one sack, nine pass defenses, one interception, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. The 5’11”, 195-pound Ryan was originally drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He has spent time with the Patriots (2013-2016) and Titans (2017-2019), playing 109 regular-season games with 85 starts. Ryan has spent most of his career at corner, but now prefers to play safety. While Ryan has history of being an instinctive, play-maker, he also still misses too many tackles and can be exposed in coverage at times.
The Giants drafted Darnay Holmes in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Serving as the team’s primary slot corner, he played in 12 games, with five starts, missing four games due to injuries (neck and knee). Holmes finished the season with 30 tackles, 0.5 sacks, five pass defenses, one interception, and one fumble recovery. He played in 41 percent of all defensive snaps. Holmes lacks ideal height, but he is well-built with good speed and quickness. He is overly aggressive at times, as indicated by his five penalties in coverage. While Holmes had a solid rookie season in coverage, he needs to make more plays on the ball. Holmes can also return punts and kickoffs, but did not do so in 2020.
THE UNFORTUNATE INJURY
The Giants placed Xavier McKinney on Injured Reserve in early September 2020 with a fractured left foot that required surgery. The team activated him off of IR in late November 2020. McKinney ended up playing in six games with four starts (19 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished the season with 25 tackles, one tackle for a loss, one interception, and one pass defense. The Giants drafted McKinney in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The 6’0”, 201-pound McKinney is versatile performer, who is capable of playing multiple positions. He is a good athlete with fine instincts for the position, but he needs to become a more consistent tackler. Most of his rookie season was a wash due to his broken foot.
IN-AND-OUT OF THE STARTING LINE-UP
The Giants traded a 7th-round pick to the Denver Broncos for Isaac Yiadom in early September 2020. Yiadom eventually won the starting corner spot opposite of James Bradberry, playing in all 16 games with 10 starts (58 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished the year with 46 tackles, 0.5 sacks, five pass defenses, and one forced fumble. The 6’1”, 190-pound Yiadom was originally drafted in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Broncos. In two years with Denver, Yiadom played in 29-regular season games with nine starts. Yiadom has good size and plays a physical game. However, after some decent performances, his play really deteriorated down the stretch, and he was benched for Julian Love in the regular-season finale. Yiadom also did not make many plays on the football.
Julian Love spent most of 2020 playing safety but was shifted to cornerback late in the year, starting two of the final three games at the position (one in the slot). He also saw his playing time dramatically fluctuate on a per-game basis. In all, Love played in all 16 games with six starts (66 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished the year with 64 tackles, three pass defenses, and one interception. A collegiate corner, the Giants drafted Love in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft and moved him to safety. He played in 15 games with five starts as a rookie. A bit of a cornerback/safety tweener, Love lacks ideal physicality for safety and ideal speed/quickness for cornerback. But he is a versatile performer who played well at the corner spot late in 2020. Love needs to improve his tackling and make more plays on the football.
The Giants placed Ryan Lewis on Injured Reserve in early November 2020 with a hamstring injury. Before that, he had played in five games for the Giants, starting three (25 percent of defensive snaps). Lewis finished the year with 13 tackles and one pass defense. Lewis was originally signed by the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2017 NFL Draft. He has spent time with the Cardinals (2017), New England Patriots (2017-2018), Buffalo Bills (2018), Indianapolis Colts (2019), Philadelphia Eagles (2019), Miami Dolphins (2019), and Washington Football Team (2020). The Giants signed Lewis to the Practice Squad in early September 2020 and to the 53-man roster two weeks later. Lewis has played in 25 NFL regular-season games with nine starts. Lewis had a mixed performance in his three consecutive starts in October, playing well at times and struggling in one game.
The Giants placed Adrian Colbert on Injured Reserve with a shoulder injury in early November 2020 and reactivated him to the 53-man roster in mid-December. He ended up playing in six games with two starts (10 percent of all defensive snaps) and finished the year with 13 tackles. The 6’2”, 205-pound Colbert was originally drafted in the 7th round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Colbert has spent time with the 49ers (2017-2019), Seattle Seahawks (2019), Miami Dolphins (2019), and Kansas City Chiefs (2020). The Giants claimed Colbert off of waivers from the Chiefs in early September 2020. He has played in 33 regular-season games with 19 starts, accruing 74 tackles and eight pass defenses. Colbert has also played cornerback and is a good gunner on special teams. He had mixed reviews in his two starts in 2020.
The Giants drafted Corey Ballentine in the 6th round of the 2019 NFL Draft. As a rookie, Ballentine played in 13 games with two starts, receiving 27 percent of all defensive snaps. He finished with 26 tackles and two pass defenses, often struggling in coverage. Ballentine won the starting corner spot opposite of James Bradberry to start the 2020 season, but was benched after just two games. He played in seven more games, returning 10 kickoffs, before the Giants waived him in November. He spent the rest of the season with the New York Jets.
SPECIAL TEAMS AND PRACTICE SQUAD
The Giants signed Nate Ebner as an unrestricted free agent from the New England Patriots in March 2020. Almost exclusively a special teams player, Ebner only saw limited snaps on defense in five games, finishing with eight tackles and one pass defense. The 6’0”, 215-pound Ebner was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Patriots. In eight seasons in New England, Ebner has played in 111 regular-season games with no starts.
The Giants signed Madre Harper off of the Practice Squad of the Las Vegas Raiders in late September 2020. He was placed on Injured Reserve in mid-December with a knee injury after playing in nine games with no starts. The Giants activated him to the 53-man roster in early January 2021, but he did not play in the season finale. Harper ended up playing in just three percent of all defensive snaps and was credited with five tackles and one fumble recovery. The 6’1”, 196-pound Harper was signed by the Raiders as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2020 NFL Draft.
Montre Hartage alternated between the Giants’ Practice Squad and the 53-man roster a number of times in 2020. He only played in two games (two percent of all defensive snaps) and was not credited with a single tackle or pass defense. Hartage originally signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2019 NFL Draft. The Giants claimed Hartage off of waivers from the Dolphins in April 2020. Hartage has played in six NFL games.
The Giants signed Jarren Williams in early August 2020 after he was waived by the Arizona Cardinals. He spent most of the year on the Practice Squad, but did play in two games exclusively on special teams. The 5’10”, 187-pound Williams was signed by the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Giants signed Quincy Wilson to the Practice Squad in November 2020. The 6’2”, 193-pound Wilson was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He has spent time with Colts (2017-2019) and New York Jets (2020). Wilson has played in 32 regular-season games with 11 starts, accruing 59 tackles, 8 pass defenses, and 2 interceptions.
The Giants placed Brandon Williams on Injured Reserve in late September 2020 with a groin injury and reactivated him to the 53-man roster in early November. The team cut him a month later. In all, Williams played in six games, exclusively on special teams. Williams was originally drafted in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. The Giants signed him in late August 2020.
The Giants originally signed Sean Chandler as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2018 NFL Draft. He spent all of 2018 and parts of 2019 on the team’s 53-man roster. He began 2020 on the team’s Practice Squad, but was activated for three games, playing almost exclusively on special teams. The Carolina Panthers signed him off of the Giants’ Practice Squad in October.
The Giants selected Chris Williamson in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He spent most of the season on the team’s Practice Squad until he was cut in December.
Sam Beal opted out of the 2020 NFL season due to the COVID-19 issue. Beal has had a rough start to his pro career. The Giants selected Beal in the 3rd round of the Supplemental Draft in July 2018. He missed all of his rookie season when he was placed on Injured Reserve in July 2018 with a shoulder injury that required surgery. The Giants placed Beal on Injured Reserve again in September 2019 with hamstring and groin injuries, but added him to the 53-man roster in early November. Beal missed the last game with another shoulder issue. In all, Beal played in six games with three starts, receiving 26 percent of defensive snaps, and accruing 26 tackles and one pass defense. Beal combines good size (6’1”, 177 pounds) and overall athleticism. Stating the obvious, Beal needs to stay healthy. But he flashes the ability to be a solid coverman when he does play.