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: Defensive Backs
2016 YEAR IN REVIEW: 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.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants chose not to re-sign CB/S Leon Hall and CB Trevin Wade. The Steelers signed CB Coty Sensabaugh. The Giants signed unrestricted free agents CB Valentino Blake and S Duke Ihenacho and re-signed practice squad players CB Michael Hunter, CB Donte Deayon, and S Ryan Murphy. The Giants surprisingly did not draft a defensive back in a DB-strong draft. But the team did sign undrafted rookie free agents CB DaShaun Amos, CB Nigel Tribune, S Jadar Johnson, and S Trey Robinson.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: At cornerback, while fan focus will be on the depth situation after the top three cornerbacks, the main story line will be determining Eli Apple’s upside. He had a solid but not great rookie season. If he can elevate his game to a different level in 2017, then the Giants defense will be very tough. The Giants do need to determine their #4 and possibly #5 corners. Injuries happen. When Rodgers-Cromartie left the playoff game, the Packers picked on his replacement. With Leon Hall, Trevin Wade, and Coty Sensabaugh gone, someone else will have to step forward.
At safety, can Landon Collins duplicate or even build upon his 2016 All-Pro season? Much attention will be focused on who starts at free safety opposite of Collins. Darian Thompson is coming off a serious lisfranc injury. Nat Berhe and Mykkele Thompson have not been able to stay healthy. “Veteran” journeymen Duke Ihenacho, Eric Pinkins, and Ryan Murphy will battle Andrew Adams and the two rookie free agents (Jadar Johnson and Trey Robinson). There are a lot of bodies, but also a lot of questions.
ON THE BUBBLE: Everyone except for Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Landon Collins, and probably Darian Thompson.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Cornerbacks Coach Tim Walton on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: “Work ethic. He’s an athletic guy, he’s smart so he understands the game. He has enough ability that wherever he works at, he could be successful at it. He’s a very intelligent guy, he’s quick, he’s long, he has experience and he still moves well. Ten years in the league and you can’t tell that by his movement. He rarely misses practice, he practices all the time… He tries to lead the young guys, and tries to direct them on things, because he has a wealth of experience. They listen to him and look up to him, so that’s good.”
Safeties Coach David Merritt on Darian Thompson: “He looks good. The fact that he’s coming off a leg injury. The one day he complained that it was sore, two weeks ago. Since then, he looks good. He’s transitioning. I see him actually bursting and coming in and out of his transition. He’s doing a good job. There is still some ways to go and hopefully training camp we will be able to really test that foot. Right now, he’s going through all the individual drills. I’m happy and excited.”
Merritt on the competition at free safety: “I’m going to be honest with you, you can sit here right now and say yes (Darian Thompson is the favorite to win the job), but I can’t sit here and take away from what Andrew Adams has done. I think they’re all competing for a starting job. That second safety has been elusive for us. To have two guys that can actually step in there and actually hold down the position. Hopefully we will find that solid piece this year but we need four good guys. If we can get four good guys, it’s going to be great… Darian is a very cerebral guy. He is very smart and he understands the calls as well as Landon (Collins). To have two smart guys back there and to be able to feed off of one another, it’s going to be a good mixture between Darian, Andrew and Landon of course. Darian is a very smart guy and that’s what we knew about him coming out of college. He had the mental capacity to learn Spags’ defense and do things we’re asking him to do. It’ll be pretty exciting for sure.”
Merritt on Landon Collins’ ceiling: “Right now, if I was rating him 1 to 10 as far as where he is, right now Landon is at a 7. I think he can get up to playing at an 8 ½, 9 consistently. You’re talking always in the running for (Defensive Play of the Year) and constantly making Pro Bowls, things like that. Last year was such a big jump for the kid and I’m proud of him. That was last year. Antrel Rolle after he came off his big season the next year and didn’t do as well. I’m trying to make sure he doesn’t get caught in any type of trap. I understand right now that he was the best coming out of high school and the best coming out of college. Now, he’s here every year and there is going to be a new crop of guys coming in. The safeties around the league are humble. You have to make sure you’re humble. Keep your body in shape, keep your mind strong and understand constantly learning the game of football and studying your opponents.”
PREDICTIONS: This is arguably the most-talented group of defensive backs accumulated at one time in team history. Most of the question marks here surround health and depth. The Giants top three corners are as good as anyone in the NFL. Two are already playing at an All-Pro level. Look for Eli Apple to elevate his game and make this unit even stronger. As long as his foot is OK, Darian Thompson should start at free safety and give the Giants a very formidable (and intelligent) secondary. Special teams will be a big factor in determining the back-up corners and safeties.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie, Michael Hunter, Mykkele Thompson, Landon Collins, Darian Thompson, Andrew Adams, and Jadar Johnson. (Thompson can play both safety and cornerback, which helps his cause. Beat writers think special teams ace Eric Pinkins has a good shot – keep an eye on him. Donte Deayon is a favorite of Steve Spagnuolo).