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
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive defensive system places a great deal of pressure on defensive backs, who must be able to be left alone on an island in man coverage. One mistake could result in an easy touchdown. With that understanding in mind, it is a minor miracle that the Giants defensive backfield was able to hold up as well as it did in 2022 given injuries and the pedigree of many of the component parts that made up the whole unit.
The release of James Bradberry in May left a gaping hole at cornerback with the injury-prone Adoree’ Jackson remaining as the only proven starter. Nickel corner and 2021 3rd-rounder Aaron Robinson was moved outside and won the job opposite of Jackson in training camp. However, Robinson missed Weeks 2 and 3 with with appendicitis. He then tore his ACL and MCL in Week 4 and was lost for the season. Another 2021 draft pick, Rodarius Williams, was still recovering from a previous ACL and was also on IR. That left the Giants with three options outside: Nick McCloud (who was claimed off of waivers from the Bills in late August), Justin Layne (who was claimed off of waivers from the Steelers in late August), and Fabian Moreau (who was released by the Texans in late August). The defensive staff turned to Moreau, who started the rest of the season except for Week 11 (oblique injury) and Week 17 (healthy scratch). While Moreau was not an ideal starter, he performed better than anticipated.
The situation at outside corner got even shakier in the second half of the season when Jackson was lost for the final seven regular-season games with an MCL knee sprain he suffered while the coaching staff foolishly had him returning a punt. Jackson, who had been playing at a very high level, did not return until the playoffs. The Giants then turned to McCloud, who started those remaining seven games. McCloud had his ups and downs in coverage, particularly against upper echelon receivers, but played better than expected.
The Giants waived Layne in mid-November when Rodarius Williams was healthy enough to return (however, Williams only played in three games all season). Undrafted rookie free agent Zyon Gilbert spent the entire season on the Practice Squad but was a standard elevation three times, starting once.
At slot corner, the Giants had drafted Cor’Dale Flott in the 3rd round, but it was Darnay Holmes who served as the team’s primary nickel corner. He missed one game due to a shoulder injury. Holmes played a physical, aggressive game, but had issues in coverage at key moments of football games. Holmes also was a penalty machine, being flagged nine times. Flott saw quite a bit of action, playing in 11 games.
Safety was not immune to drama either. The Giants had parted ways with Jabrill Peppers in the offseason, opening the door for Julian Love, who had a career season. Love started 16 regular-season games and finished the year with a team-high 124 tackles. He played in 95 percent of defensive snaps and was flagged only once.
The problem was Xavier McKinney was lost for virtually the entire second-half of the season due to an off-the-field ATV accident during the bye week that caused multiple fractures in his left hand, requiring surgery. McKinney missed seven regular-season games. He also was a “healthy” scratch in the regular-season finale. This meant the team was without its two best defensive backs for the second-half of the year.
Making matters worse at safety was that veteran Tony Jefferson, who the had been added to the 53-man roster in early October, was lost a week later when he was placed on IR with a foot injury. He did not return until December. Rookie 4th-rounder Dane Belton broke his clavicle in early August in training camp. He missed the entire preseason and first regular-season game. Belton also appeared on the injury report a few times in November and December with a clavicle injury and was never completely healthy. Nevertheless, Belton did play in 15 regular-season games with five starts.
With Love shifting to Xavier McKinney’s spot, it was Jason Pinnock who picked up much of the slack. The Giants claimed Pinnock off of waivers from the Jets in late August. He played in 14 games, starting five contests in the second half of the season. However, he also missed three games due to shoulder and ankle injuries.
Undrafted rookie free agent Trenton Thompson spent the year on the Practice Squad, but did play in one game on special teams. The Giants also signed ex-Ram Terrell Burgess to the Practice Squad in November 2022. Burgess played in one regular-season game, also exclusively on special teams.
In summary, for much of the season, the Giants were without their two best defensive backs, being forced to start three players who had been cut in August (Moreau, McCloud, Pinnock). When you factor in the injuries on the defensive line (including Leonard Williams missing a month), Kayvon Thibodeaux starting off slowly due to injury, Azeez Ojulari missing most of the year, and in-season pick-ups starting at inside linebacker, you really appreciate what the defensive staff was able to accomplish with those who were still standing. If you had told fans that in August, they would have predicted a 3-14 season.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants did not re-sign any of their unrestricted free agents. Fabian Moreau, who started 11 games for the Giants, remains a free agent. Tony Jefferson also found no takers, retired, and has joined the Ravens’ scouting department. The team’s biggest free agent loss was clearly Julian Love, who signed a 2-year, $12 million contract with the Seahawks. At one point, the Giants had attempted to re-sign him, but it appears he priced himself out their price range.
The Giants did re-sign Practice Squaders Zyon Gilbert, Trenton Thompson and Terrell Burgess, but Burgess was waived after failing a physical in May.
In free agency, the Giants added CB Amani Oruwariye (UFA from the Lions) and S Bobby McCain (cut by Commanders). Undrafted CB Leonard Johnson, who did not play in 2022, was also signed.
The big addition was the 1st-round selection of Deonte Banks, who the team moved up one spot to acquire. The Giants also drafted CB Tre Hawkins in the 6th round and S Gervarrius Owens in the 7th round, meaning that almost half of their draft picks were spent on the defensive backfield. The Giant signed undrafted rookie free agents CB Gemon Green and S Alex Cook after the Draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Last season, this coaching staff made due with other team’s castoffs. Just as with the defensive line and linebacker, there appears to be more stability now. Most eyes will be focused on how quickly and effectively Deonte Banks, as a rookie, can nail down the starting cornerback spot opposite of Adoree’ Jackson. But there are many interesting and important story lines at this position.
Depth at cornerback. As we saw last year, players get hurt. And Adoree’ Jackson has missed time for four seasons in a row. Aaron Robinson had won the starting job before he got hurt, but he’s coming off a serious knee injury. He will compete against Amani Oruwariye, Rodarius Williams, Tre Hawkins, Zyon Gilbert, Leonard Johnson, and Gemon Green. Oruwariye is a wild card. At times, he was spectacular in Detroit, at other times awful. Rodarius Williams has flashed but also left a bad taste last year while publicly complaining about playing time. While Hawkins was a late pick, he also was one of the team’s 30 pre-draft visits.
Cor’Dale Flott will likely press Darnay Holmes at slot corner. He could also be a factor outside while Robinson could also be moved back inside. The ability of all three of these players to play inside does help their respective chances.
McCloud could be a more important piece than realized with the loss of Julian Love. The Giants had McCloud working at safety this spring, and that kind of versatility is what the coaching staff appreciated about Love. Regardless, the Giants must fill this vacancy, and that battle will be one of the most interesting of training camp. The leading contenders are McCloud, Bobby McCain, Dane Belton, and Jason Pinnock.
ON THE BUBBLE: There are currently 19 defensive backs on the 90-man roster. The Giants are likely to carry somewhere between 10 and 12 on the roster. The only sure bets are Adoree’ Jackson, Deonte Banks, and Xavier McKinney. However, Cor’Dale Flott and Dane Belton have a greater chance to make it given their 2022 draft status. Nick McCloud’s versatility also seems to be growing in importance. While everyone else is “on the bubble”, this may be the toughest position group on the team to predict as most of these guys have enough talent to make a roster. In other words, don’t count out guys even like Zyon Gilbert.
FROM COACHES AND PLAYERS: Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on Deonte Banks: “I just think he’s everything you want in a corner, starting off with he is tough and he can tackle. He likes to play press coverage and he likes to be on the island out there. He loves the challenge of it. You can see he’s that way here. Very humble kid.”
Defensive Backs Coach Jerome Henderson on Deonte Banks: “When you see his physical skillset, you’re absolutely excited about that. His size, his speed, his strength, his toughness, his one-on-one demeanor. We think we got a good one. I was really excited to get the guy we wanted.”
Defensive Backs Coach Jerome Henderson on slot corners: “It used to be that you only put little corners inside, twitchy small guys. But now it’s become a match-up game and it depends on who their slot (receiver) is because you get some big guys in there to deal with. That’s why we like having so many guys with versatility, when you think of X (McKinney), McCloud, Bobby McCain, and you add our corners into the mix, we have options to match the bodies hopefully and get it right… You may have that guy who you like versus anybody. Hopefully, we have that guy. If we don’t, we’ll go by the committee approach.”
Defensive Backs Coach Jerome Henderson on Nick McCloud:“He’s been repping at safety in the spring. He played everything (last season). Big, physical, fast, versatile. We do so much with our safeties covering the slot. We’re blitzing the nickel (cornerback) and now we need a guy who can cover that slot receiver. So we like him for that. We like him for his toughness, we like him for his competitiveness. We thought he would help us at the safety position… Right now, he’s just playing safety.”
Adoree’ Jackson on Nick McCloud: “I think Nick is a man, a Swiss Army knife. A guy that is going to do whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to do it at a high level. One thing I can say I appreciate Nick never put his head down, never wavering, never being woe is me, just like, ‘coach what do you need me to do’. Him being able to switch around it’s great because we can utilize him in different ways. I say I just appreciate Nick for him being unselfish. A lot of guys probably would be mad or whatever it may be, but him just going out there and loving the game, having fun with it, good things happen. It gets him on the field as well.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: Let’s be clear. Wink Martindale did not have two outside cornerbacks who he could completely trust to leave on an island last season. As I said above, it’s a minor miracle the Giants got as far as they did with late August castoffs. Things change now with Adoree’ Jackson and Deonte Banks. Yes, Adoree’ has to stay healthy. And yes, there will be growing pains with Banks. But when the two of them are on the field together, Martindale can really dial it up.
At corner, my focus really is going to be more at the slot position, and outside depth. Darnay Holmes is a lightning rod for fans. He’s an aggressive, physical player. But he was successfully targeted by opposing teams late in games, and he obviously gets too grabby, which leads to penalties. Holmes says he’s been working on this hard this offseason. We shall see. Meanwhile, Cor’Dale Flott lurks as does potentially Aaron Robinson.
Outside, the Giants really need to find solid 3rd and 4th corners. Robinson got hurt before he could demonstrate he could play outside. Tre Hawkins was obviously on the team’s radar scope, but he’s raw. As already mentioned, Oruwariye is a wild card. He could thrive under Jerome Henderson and Wink’s press-man schemes. On the other hand, he could be one of the first guys on the chopping block.
Keep one important thing in mind, Jackson is in the last year of his expensive contract ($19 million cap hit in 2023). Like the situation with Leonard Williams and the defensive line, cornerback could also be pretty high on the draft priority list in 2024.
Finding someone to play opposite of Xavier McKinney at safety is one of the more interesting training camp battles. Strong (and premature) cases could be made for Bobby McCain, Dane Belton, and Jason Pinnock winning a starting job. But now Nick McCloud enters into the picture. Could he be the next Julian Love? And don’t completely discount a guy coming out of nowhere like rookie Gervarrius Owens.
If any of these young guys want to really help their chances, they should go all out on special teams, especially with the Giants possibly parting ways with core special teamers come cutdown day.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: This was the toughest group for me to predict. Here are my thoughts:
Corner: Adoree’ Jackson, Deonte Banks, Aaron Robinson, Cor’Dale Flott, Amani Oruwariye, Tre Hawkins
I wanted to go with seven, but there simply isn’t room. I’d prefer to keep Darnay Holmes but someone had to go and if he’s pressed by Flott and/or Robinson, keeping him makes less sense with an almost $3 million cap hit. However, things change if Robinson is on the PUP and/or Oruwariye continues to struggle like he did in 2022. My guess here is Wink has a preference for big corners who can press, which gives the nod to Oruwariye and Hawkins behind the two starters. Flott and Robinson are the slot guys. Their ability to also play outside helps them immensely. Regardless, the competition here is intense and I would not completely discount Rodarius Williams.
Safety: Xavier McKinney, Bobby McCain, Nick McCloud, Dane Belton, Jason Pinnock
I wanted to go with six, but again, a numbers game. Gervarrius Owens, who made some plays this spring, could easily make the final 53. Heck, Alex Cook was sporting the green dot with the back-up safeties. His best shot, however, is likely the Practice Squad.