With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Safeties
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW: Like the cornerbacks, the New York Giants safeties were supposed to be an area of strength in 2014 but ended up being a big disappointment. The team decided to cut super-talented but super-idiotic Will Hill after he failed yet another drug test. And Antrel Rolle followed up arguably his best season as a safety with one of his worst. Stevie Brown returned from an ACL injury but lost his starting job to Quintin Demps who later lost it back to Brown. Obviously neither stood out. Second-year safety Cooper Taylor missed the entire season with a foot injury. Rookie 5th Nat Berhe rounder played all 16 games but was primarily used on special teams. The Giants finished 18th in the NFL in pass defense and the safeties were missing in action far too often against both the run and the pass.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants gutted the position in the offseason as they made little to no effort in re-signing free agents Antrel Rolle (signed with the Bears), Stevie Brown (signed with the Texans), and Quintin Demps (still unsigned). The team also waived practice squader Thomas Gordon in May.
The only remaining safeties from 2014 are Cooper Taylor and Nat Berhe. Bennett Jackson, who spent his rookie season in 2014 on Injured Reserve, was switched from corner to safety this spring. The Giants signed corner/safety ‘tweener Josh Gordy in free agency but he saw most of his spring work for the Giants at cornerback. Three of the six safeties on the roster are rookies: Landon Collins (2nd round), Mykkele Thompson (5th round), and Justin Currie (rookie free agent).
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: On paper, the Giants have some interesting talent at safety in the form of one second rounder, three fifth rounders, a sixth rounder, and a rookie free agent. However these players are all young and inexperienced. Five of the six were acquired in 2014-15 from the college ranks, and the other (Taylor) was a 2013 draft pick. There is absolutely no veteran presence to speak of despite the fact that Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system is cerebral and complicated. And like most if not all systems, the safeties make the defensive calls in the secondary.
“It’s the most complex system I’ve been in,” said linebacker Jon Beason. “This is my fifth defensive coordinator. It is the most complex because we will not sit back and be dictated to by anybody…Offenses create problems by formations, moving people around, shifts and motions…Every call we (the defense) can make a change.”
So the chief story line will be how fast can the young pups grow up, and how many growing pains will there be?
“I think it is extremely hard (for a rookie to start in this defense),” said New York Giants Safeties Coach David Merritt. “(The safety is) an extension of the defensive coordinator. Whatever call comes in, you need to be able to hear the call, accept the call, and then spit it back out to your fellow teammates. For a rookie to come in and have that pressure, to be the extension of the defensive coordinator, it is extremely difficult.”
“Young,” said Spagnuolo of the safeties. “There is youth and inexperience there. It doesn’t matter what system you are in, in my opinion, defensively, (the starting safeties) are really important. Everyone else relies on them. The quicker we can get to the other nine trusting them, the better off we will be. I am not sure we are there yet. I think it is going to be a work in progress, but we will get there.
“Right now it is a challenge… It is a challenge for our patience and our trust in them. Everyday it gets better, I can tell you that… (But) we have a long ways to go in my opinion.”
Complicating matters is that Nat Berhe, who was pegged early by the coaching staff to start alongside rookie Landon Collins, missed all of the spring practices with a calf injury. Taylor, Thompson, Jackson, and Currie benefited from the additional practice snaps, but both Tom Coughlin and safeties coach David Merritt have said that Berhe’s development has been set back by the missed time.
With Collins sure to start at one spot, it is most likely that Berhe and Taylor will battle for the other starting position.
There is not a lot of time. The Giants face Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten on September 13.
ON THE BUBBLE: The Giants will likely carry four or five safeties. Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson, and Justin Currie are most likely fighting for one or two roster spots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: David Merritt on Landon Collins: “He has to make the calls and get everyone lined up…Now when you are trying to line up grown men who have wives and children at home and they need that call from you, it is a little different than lining up a freshman. The call has to be right. Right now, he is slow to go, which was expected, but he has to pick it up quickly for us to be successful…I really do (think Collins can do it). He is starting to realize that these missed alignments and the minus plays, I have to cut those out of my game in order for the guys around me to trust me. That is what he wants to be. He wants to be a leader. Okay, we are putting him out there. I think he is going to be ready to go, definitely, for Dallas.”
Merritt on Cooper Taylor: “Cooper is coming along well. Mentally, I never doubted Cooper would be able to pick up the defense. It is just now getting Cooper’s body to move in the proper direction once he receives the call and allows himself to line up and just see what is happening in front of him. The mental part, Cooper is fine, but it is now the physical part. We have to make sure the durability factor – he has to be durable for us because he has missed the past two seasons. Mentally, I am not concerned about him. Physically hoping that he will be able to step up and be durable for us.”
Merritt on Nat Berhe: “(Him missing spring practices) hurts tremendously because all the reps that Cooper (Taylor) and Landon (Collins) and Mykkele (Thompson) and some of the other guys have taken, Nat would have been right in there with all the other guys. By him standing on the sideline and taking mental reps – I understand you are taking mental reps, but it is different. It is not the same as putting your body through the motions and making your body react to different movements that the receivers are stemming at you. It is going to definitely hurt him and set him back a little bit, but hopefully he can come back at training camp and be ready to fight for a starting job.”
Merritt on Mykkele Thompson: “Mykkele, I knew was a smart kid. He came here and he is a cerebral kid, that is for sure. He is going to take what I say literally and take my word for it and go out and try to execute it. Now I am starting to see that the kid actually has some football awareness, where I didn’t think he had much of it when we first started off. The (missed alignments) that started at the beginning of rookie mini-camp and OTAs have drastically gone down. Mentally, he has excelled past my expectations…Long arms. We did a drill the other day where he was having to punch a bag and escape from the blocker and to see his arms and the extension of his arms, that was good to see. I am definitely interested to see him in the pads.”
Merritt on Bennett Jackson: “(His conversion to safety) has been good. You are going from the outside where you are playing on an island and then all of sudden, you go to a back end position where you have to see the formation and play, the moving parts, and put people in the right position. Jackson, in his situation right now, there has been a learning curve for him, which has been hard for him. It has been a struggle at first, but out of all the guys, that is one kid that when he puts his foot in the ground, he can go. He can go. I am looking forward to seeing Bennett at camp with pads on because I truly believe he will hit as well.”
Merritt on Justin Currie: “Justin Currie has done a great job, as well, our free agent. Big kid, as well. I am interested to see what he can do once the pads are on his shoulders and hopefully he will be able to be a thumper for us.”
PREDICTIONS: There will be growing pains. The young safeties will make mental mistakes that will lead to big plays and touchdowns. How bad this inexperience will hurt the Giants in terms of lost games in 2015 remains to be seen. But it’s the nature of the game that old players will eventually be replaced by young ones. Some of those young players will wither while others blossom. In his last interaction with the press, Tom Coughlin seemed generally pleased by the progress of the two rookie draft picks. “We have a good feel for the rookies, we really do. Thompson (has) been doing well and starting to come along and that was a key thing,” said Coughlin. “Collins has done a good job, has gotten better and has really done a good job of starting to direct back there, and I think the coaches are excited about him going forward.”
I believe the players who are currently on the roster will develop into fine players. What I don’t know – and no one really does – is how fast that process will take. The overall effectiveness of the entire defense and the fate of the team’s playoff chances may depend on how quickly Collins, Taylor, and Berhe become assets rather than liabilities. Based on coaching comments, one thing is clear – the team is looking for someone to take charge at safety as a vocal leader.
“You need to have one leader back there, and that’s what I’m still looking for,” said Merritt. “It’s elusive. I’m searching for it. If it’s Landon, great. If it’s Cooper, great. If it’s Nat, great. If it’s Mykkele, great. But I need to have a leader come up and emerge out of this mini-camp and emerge out of training camp…(We’ve had) very slow leadership as far as making calls and controlling the defense. The guys right now are very slow at making those checks.”
FINAL DEPTH CHART: The Giants will keep four or five safeties. I think they will keep five: Landon Collins, Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor, Mykkele Thompson, and Bennett Jackson. Jackson not only provides special teams value but he can play corner too. Justin Currie is intriguing but his best shot is probably the Practice Squad.