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
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: In just three seasons, the Giants went from having one of the best secondaries in the NFL in 2016 to one of the worst in 2018. Three Giants were named to the All-Pro team in 2016. In 2018, the Giants had arguably the worst starting free safety (Curtis Riley) and worst starting cornerback (B.W. Webb) in the League. For the second year in a row, overrated strong safety Landon Collins could not replicate his 2016 performance and finished the year on Injured Reserve. The best player in the secondary, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, gave up too many big plays. The Giants decided they had seen enough of top-10 draft pick Eli Apple and traded him in October to the Saints.
The rest of the unit was manned by players such as Grant Haley, Antonio Hamilton, Tony Lippett, Donte Deayon (waived in October), Michael Thomas, Sean Chandler, Kenny Ladler, and Kamrin Moore. Who? Most fans never heard of any of these guys before 2018. In a way, encumbered with one of the worst pass rush units in the NFL, it’s a minor miracle that the secondary was not more abused than it actually was. The Giants finished 23rd in pass defense.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants re-signed cornerbacks Tony Lippett and Antonio Hamilton in free agency as well as Practice Squad cornerback Ronald Zamort. Landon Collins signed a huge, 6-year, $84 million contract with the Washington Redskins. Curtis Riley signed with the Oakland Raiders and B.W. Webb signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Giants obtained safety Jabrill Peppers in a trade from the Cleveland Browns. They signed safety Antoine Bethea after he was cut by the Arizona Cardinals. Street free agent cornerback Henre’ Toliver was also signed.
The Giants selected cornerbacks Deandre Baker (1st round), Julian Love (4th round), and Corey Ballentine (6th round) in the 2019 NFL Draft. Rookie free agents safety Tenny Adewusi, safety Jacob Thieneman, linebacker/safety Jake Carlock, and linebacker/safety Mark McLaurin were all signed after the draft. Thieneman has since been waived due to an injury.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The Giants have almost completely revamped their secondary. Jabrill Peppers and Antoine Bethea replace Landon Collins and Curtis Riley as the starting safeties. 2018 3rd-round Supplemental Draft pick Sam Beal, who missed his rookie season due to an injury, as well as three 2019 draft picks will have the inside track at making the roster at cornerback. Deandre Baker has already been moved into the starting line-up. Aside from Bethea, Jenkins, and reserve safety Michael Thomas, this is a very young group.
On paper, the Giants are better set at cornerback. Jenkins and Baker should be one of the better starting cornerback duos in the NFL. By all accounts, Baker was one of the most impressive newcomers during Spring workouts. Both will be pressed by Julian Love and Sam Beal. Perhaps the best battle will be for the starting nickel corner spot between Grant Haley and Julian Love.
Safety is a bit more unsettled. Jabrill Peppers played much better during his second year in Cleveland and the belief is that Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher sees him as a cornerstone to the team’s rebuilt defense and will employ him in a variety of ways to take advantage of his physical attributes. Bethea turns 35 in July and is obviously nearing the end. But he will provide leadership and inside knowledge on Bettcher’s schemes, making sure everyone is lined up properly. Depth at safety is a concern as there are no clear up-and-coming players behind the starting two.
Keep in mind that both defensive backs coaches are new with Everett Withers and Henry Baker coming from the collegiate ranks.
ON THE BUBBLE: As I discussed in my linebacker preview, the Giants may view some of these players as hybrid linebackers/safeties such as Jake Carlock and Mark McLaurin. So one of these guys could make the roster as a “linebacker.”
The Giants are likely to carry 9, 10, or 11 defensive backs. Some think Janoris Jenkins could be traded. My belief is that Jenkins, Deandre Baker, Julian Love, Sam Beal, Jabrill Peppers, and Antoine Bethea are the sure bets to make the team. Others with a good shot are Grant Haley, Corey Ballentine, and Michael Thomas, but they are not completely safe. Everyone else is on the bubble.
FROM THE COACHES: Head Coach Pat Shurmur on Deandre Baker: “He has been (making plays) on a pretty steady basis. I think he has made a play or two at each practice. Again, just learning how to compete at this level. Unfortunately, you can’t do a whole bunch of bump-and-run and press coverage, so the corners are at a little bit of a disadvantage. However, you need to learn to play off and for him to be able to make plays in those situations is good.”
Shurmur on Jabrill Peppers and Antoine Bethea: “They are doing a good job. You saw Antoine had an interception today. They communicate extremely well. They are very strong guys. Typically, one guy takes the lead on that, but they both can do it. When I watch, they are getting us in the right coverages and pressures. They are in the right spots and trying to play the techniques within the defenses that are called. That is the thing that you can work on this time of year defensively. All the communication. We are really pleased with where they are. It is only going to get better.”
Shurmur on Jabrill Peppers: “He has a very charismatic personality and he loves to play the game. He picked up quickly what we were doing on defense well and he is extremely smart. He is very tough and very competitive. When you see guys like that on the field, you feel their presence immediately. He got to it quickly… He is very vocal. Sometimes you don’t have to be very vocal and you can be a leader. You can look to him and see that he has that about him. He has a great presence. If you are around him on a day-to-day basis, you can see that he will quickly become one of the guys where you say, ‘OK, he’s got it.’ He loves playing football and has a lot of fun doing it and a lot of fun competing. I think that is part of his charm and what makes him special. He is so darn competitive. It shows up naturally.”
Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher on Jabrill Peppers: “Jabrill is a highly talented and ascending player in this league. A guy that has the flexibility to play strong safety and could come down in the box and play some money. He is a really talented blitzer and when you watched his tape in Cleveland, you saw all the different roles he played. You saw snaps where he plays nickel, high in the middle of the field, high and outside, where he plays down low. A guy that has a lot of versatility. A guy that when he learns this system, he is going to have a lot of fun playing in this system… I flew from Arizona to Michigan and spent a bunch of time with him when he was coming out (in the draft). I thought he was a dynamic kid and the people that were around him loved him. I got multiple texts from coaches that worked with him in Cleveland and it was not something I asked for, this was after we traded for him and they said that we were going to love him. He is going to work exceptionally hard and is going to be about what it is supposed to be about. You see him out here, we are doing stuff against the air and he is moving, sliding and running around. He is in a stance and sometimes you want to be like, slow down, this is on air. He is exciting.”
Bettcher on Antoine Bethea: “We have a chance to add Antoine Bethea, a guy who is one of the highest character players I have ever been around, smart, intelligent and an unbelievable leader. As you have an opportunity to wrap your hands around him and embrace him a little bit, you will see what I am talking about with him. I was talking to him the other day and I was joking with him telling him that as time goes on, I get more gray hair. As time goes on, he gets younger. That is just when you see his play, that is what it has been. The years in the league have progressed for him. He has played fast and played young. That what impresses me about him.”
Bettcher on Deandre Baker: “The thing I would say about Baker is that he played in a very, very tough league. We all know how long it was before he gave up a touchdown pass. He competed and covered some of the best players that have come out of that league on offense. His tape speaks for itself. One of the best, if not the best, tackling corner in the draft, period. Excited to have him. He did an outstanding job at camp this past week.”
Bettcher on Janoris Jenkins: “Janoris has been not great but unbelievable with our young guys. He has had great, teachable moments where as a coach you just have to let it go. You are starting to go coach the young guys and he is already on it. I see the ownership in year two that he is starting to take with those guys. It is outstanding and it is going to help us be a better defense and not just those guys be better players themselves.”
Bettcher on Julian Love: “Naturally, he is a nickel. What is the second position, is he a safety or a corner? Time tells with that and more reps tell us that. You have to be smart and pretty intelligent like he is to be able to handle that.”
Defensive Backs Coach Everett Withers on his cornerbacks: “It is exciting when you bring in all these young men. That is the biggest thing. Talented guys that can play. We are adding Sam Beal into the mix too. You take a guy like Janoris Jenkins, a guy that has been in the league for 10 years and look at him more as an assistant coach. He has taken that role so far this offseason and has done a really good job.”
Withers on Janoris Jenkins: “I think when he is in the meetings, he has such a vast amount of experience in this league that he can help guys not only schematically but understanding the game, splits of receivers and those things. He has done a really good job in the meeting rooms and on the field so far… He has been awesome.”
Withers on Jabrill Peppers: “I am excited. He has a lot of ability and does a lot of things. Our role right now is to try and help Jabrill schematically. Help him grow into what we do and add things into his playbook. He is a guy that comes to work everyday with a lot of energy. He has been really fun to watch so far.”
Withers on Deandre Baker: “He is a really talented guy. When you watch his tape, he is a guy with a lot of competitive experience. To have another guy over there next to Janoris, he is talented enough to go over there and be a factor over there opposite Janoris.”
Special Teams Coordinator Thomas McGaughey on Jabrill Peppers: “High energy, the guy is a for sure ball handler. Can make all the cuts full speed. He just brings juice. I’ve known the kid since he was 16 years old. I recruited him when I was at LSU. Jabrill is a special athlete. He can do anything – run the football, catch the football, whatever. He’s just a great athlete.”
PREDICTIONS: The guy who is flying under the radar is Deandre Baker. Keep in mind that despite drafting him late in the first round, he was the first cornerback selected in the draft. In other words, the Giants believe he was the best corner in this draft class. Thus far, he has not disappointed. Baker has the look of an old school, aggressive, physical corner who likes to mix it up both against the run and the pass. Janoris Jenkins has always done better when his team is playing better. I expect him to regain his 2016 All-Pro form as long as he stays healthy. Grant Haley remained the first-team nickel throughout the Spring practices. However, it is difficult to see him holding off Julian Love for long. Love may lack ideal long speed, but he a smart, aggressive player who makes plays on the football. Sam Beal provides quality depth provided he is over his shoulder issues.
The Giants also look to be upgraded at safety. Landon Collins was not as good as advertised. Most Giants fans know he had issues in coverage. He never regained his 2016 form. Curtis Riley was a train wreck at free safety. James Bettcher insists that Antoine Bethea can still play. At the very least, the team is already thrilled with the leadership and guidance he is providing. He’s like having a coach on the field. The real question mark here is what is Jabrill Peppers’ upside? Is he another one of those better-athlete-than-player types or is he about to experience his breakout season in his third year? It’s obvious the Giants are going to use him in a variety of ways, moving him around quite a bit and even have him blitz. The good news, again, is his attitude. The team is thrilled with his character. Depth at safety is a concern. Michael Thomas is a solid reserve/special teams type who also provides a good locker room presence. But it would be great if one of the young safeties came out of nowhere to surprise.
Don’t be surprised to see the Giants play with a lot of five and six defensive back packages throughout the year. Because of that, I would not be shocked to see the team keep as many as 11 defensive backs. Special teams will also be a big factor in deciding who stays and could help a guy like Antonio Hamilton.
This secondary has a chance to be very good for a number of years.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Janoris Jenkins, Deandre Baker, Sam Beal, Julian Love, Grant Haley, Corey Ballentine, Jabrill Peppers, Antoine Bethea, Michael Thomas, Sean Chandler