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: Special Teams
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: Despite the fact that the New York Giants’ special teams have been a liability for years, special teams ended up being the team’s strongest unit in 2018. New Head Coach Pat Shurmur chose not to bring back long-time special teams coordinator Tom Quinn and hired Thomas McGaughey to be the new coordinator and Anthony Blevins as his assistant. However, since McGaughey was diagnosed with cancer during the 2018 offseason, Quinn was retained as “assistant special teams coordinator.”
Overshadowed by Saquon Barkley’s phenomenal rookie season, place kicker Aldrick Rosas, who struggled in 2017, had the best year of any place kicker in team history, only missing one field goal all season. Newcomer punter Riley Dixon, who was acquired by trade, finished 7th in net punting. The Giants were 7th in the NFL in kickoff returns (24.4 yards per return) and 28th in punt returns (6.2 yards per return). The Giants were also 2nd-best in defending kickoff returns (20.4 yards per return) and 7th-best in defending punt returns (6.6 yards per return). The Giants did not return a punt or kick for a touchdown and they did not allow a punt or kick to be returned against them for a touchdown.
Two Giants made the Pro Bowl as special teams players, Rosas and first-team alternate Michael Thomas, who led the team with 12 special teams tackles. Other leading tacklers included Kerry Wynn (8), Kenny Ladler (8), Nate Stupar (8), and Russell Shepard (6).
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Six Giants returned punts in 2018, including Jawill Davis (12), Quadree Henderson (9), Odell Beckham (8), Kaelin Clay (5), Stacy Coley (2), and Corey Coleman (1). All but Coleman are gone. Five Giants returned more than one kickoff, including Coleman (23), Davis (7), Cody Latimer (5), Henderson (5), and Coley (2). Only Coleman and Latimer return.
Kerry Wynn, who had a very good year covering kicks, signed with the Bengals. The Giants did sign running back Rod Smith from the Cowboys, who was a core special teams player for that team.
The Giants signed punter Ryan Anderson after he impressed at the 2019 rookie mini-camp. Anderson last punted for Rutgers in 2017 when he was named First-Team, All-Big Ten, averaging 44.4 yards per punt.
Journeyman wide receiver/returner Brittan Golden was signed in January.
The team also added two long snappers: Taybor Pepper (who played in four games with the Packers in 2017) and rookie free agent Jake Carlock.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Can the Giants replicate their 2018 special teams success and even build upon it? Or will they regress back to their usual norm?
Aldrick Rosas had an incredible season in 2018. He increased his field goal percentage from 72 percent in 2017 to 97 percent in 2018, missing just one field goal, making the Pro Bowl in the process. Was his performance a flash in the pan, similar to Ali Haji-Sheikh in 1983, or is Rosas set to become one of the NFL’s best kickers for many years to come? It is interesting to note that the Giants do not have another place kicker in camp.
While Riley Dixon finished the year 7th in net punting, some think the Giants could do better. Ryan Anderson does have a strong leg and could challenge Dixon.
The Giants were very good at covering both punts and kickoffs in 2018. Using a wide cast of characters, they did a respectable job returning kickoffs but were poor in returning punts. The real questions here are who will be the primary returners in 2018? Corey Coleman averaged 26 yards per kickoff return in 2018. Cody Latimer and Jabrill Peppers also have experience returning kickoffs. Who will return punts is an even bigger mystery. The only obvious candidate at the moment is the starting strong safety Jabrill Peppers, although starting wide receiver Golden Tate also has punt return experience. However, Pat Shurmur has said that impressive rookie wide receiver Darius Slayton is also a candidate to return both kickoffs and punts.
At some point, Zak DeOssie will have to hang it up as the Giants’ long snapper. Does he hold on another year?
ON THE BUBBLE: The kickers are most likely set although Ryan Anderson could challenge Riley Dixon. Taybor Pepper or Jake Carlock would have to be really impressive to unseat Zak DeOssie as long snapper. Brittan Golden has experience returning kickoffs and punts, but has an uphill climb to make the team. The Giants have a number of core special teams players who may not make it including Nate Stupar, Kenny Ladler, Russell Shepard, Antonio Hamilton, and Rod Smith.
FROM THE COACHES: Head Coach Pat Shurmur on Jake Carlock: “He is a very good long snapper. We are always looking for guys at skill positions. He is a very accomplished linebacker as well. Much like (Eric) Dungey who can compete at different areas, he is going to do the same.”
Special Teams Coordinator Thomas McGaughey on whether he would hesitate to have a starter return kicks or punts: “Nope, not at all. It’s a play-making position. When you think about it over the years and you watch punt returners that have had success that have played on defense – the Deion Sanders, and all those guys. That’s a play-making position. That’s one of those positions where you can change the game just like that. I have no reservation by putting any kind of starter back there, because that’s a play that can change the game. We know 75 percent of game in the NFL comes down to the last possession. Any time you could gain an advantage on your opponent, you want to get that advantage.”
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… Yes, he’s going to (return kicks and punts for us)… That’s football – he’s a safety in the NFL. Those guys primarily do everything. When you look at them, most of them are three-core, four-core guys when they play. That’s just the reality of it, especially a young safety with a lot of energy like Jabrill.”
McGaughey on WR Russell Shepard, LB Nate Stupar, and CB Antonio Hamilton: “Those guys were the foundation of what we did last year. Whenever you can get veteran leadership and you can have continuity, that’s the most important thing. When you get guys that have done it before, and they’ve done it at a high level, and you can keep them in the same spots – it’s no different from having an offensive line with continuity, a secondary with continuity, it’s the same thing. A core group of special teams players. They’re no different from anyone else. You got to have that continuity if you want to have consistency.”
McGaughey on Rod Smith: “Big, strong, athletic, smart, playmaker – whenever you can get a guy like that on your roster to provide depth, and having value as a running back. (General Manager Dave) Gettleman always talks about having value on offense and defense, not just on special teams. He punches all the tickets. He’s a hard worker, he’s a pro, and he does everything you ask him to do. He’s 6’3”, 235 pounds, and has a skillset. He’s one of those guys if you’re sitting in a room, you won’t even know he’s there. He’s quiet, he comes in, and he works, and he does his job.”
McGaughey on Ryan Anderson: “Ryan is a lefty. Whenever you can bring a lefty in, and you can get a righty spin and a lefty spin is always good. Ryan has a lot of potential. His maturation from last year to this year has been huge. He came here last year to our local day. To see him again this year was a big difference. You can tell he’s been working on his craft, and he’s been working hard. It’s good to have him in to have a little competition. It’s always good to have two guys in where they can kind of compete against each other. It makes it better.”
McGaughey on Jake Carlock: “He’s a young guy with a lot of potential. He can run, he’s very athletic. So what we’ll see what happens with Jake. We’re excited about the chance of working with him.”
McGaughey on Eric Dungey: “He’s going to have a chance somewhere, right? We’ll put him out there. We’ll find a home for him. He’s athletic, he’s a tough kid. We’ll find a home for him. Those types of kids in college that are athletic quarterbacks, they always kind of find a way. They’ll figure out something. They’re athletic, they’ve always competed at a high-level, so they’ll find a way… Anytime you can get a big athlete that’s tough, that’s smart, that’s played the quarterback position, anytime you can get a style of athlete like that, and he’s coachable and is willing, a lot of good things can happen.”
PREDICTIONS: Saquon Barkley overshadowed the incredible performance of Aldrick Rosas in 2018. But the psychology of kickers tends to be on the fragile side and Rosas has to prove that 2018 wasn’t a fluke. If he becomes a perennial Pro Bowler, Rosas may be one of Jerry Reese’s most positive legacies.
Who returns kickoffs and punts seems up in the air at this point. My guess is that Corey Coleman remains the leading candidate to return kickoffs, but he could be pressed by Darius Slayton. For as much press as Jabrill Peppers receives as an athletic returnman, he only averaged 22 yards per kickoff return thus far in the NFL.
Peppers could end up being the primary punt returner, as he has returned 55 punts in the last two season for the Cleveland Browns, averaging 7.3 yards per return.
I think the Giants are going to face some tough roster decisions on veteran special teams players such as Rod Smith, Russell Shepard, Nate Stupar, Antonio Hamilton, and Kenny Ladler. My gut also tells me that either Eric Dungey or Jake Carlock will make the team as a special teams ace and jack-of-all-trades type player. The Giants face a bit of a dilemma with the ever-consistent Zak DeOssie. He plays a position where age isn’t a huge factor, and not only does he do a fine job of long-snapping, but he’s good at covering kicks. But he also doesn’t play another position. That said, Giants fans know all too well how costly having a bad long snapper can be.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Aldrick Rosas and Riley Dixon the kickers. Zak DeOssie as the long snapper, Corey Coleman as the kickoff returner and Jabrill Peppers as the punt returner. It’s too early to tell how legitimate a shot that Eric Dungey or Jake Carlock have in making the team, but I think one of these two will. If both falter, another one of the veteran core special teams players will make it.