What the New York Giants are trying to achieve on defense does not happen in one off-season. General manager Dave Gettleman instituted a full roster rebuild after the 2018 season, trading away Odell Beckham Jr. and allocating a ton of draft capital toward rebuilding the secondary.
While the rebuild hasn’t shown many positive signs, youth agendas don’t normally translate to wins in the NFL. However, going into the second year of the rebuild, improvement should be on the horizon.
A big part of the team’s mantra on defense is versatility and creativity. Hiring defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will guarantee a reliance on man coverage and a schemed pass rush.
The secondary remains the biggest concern, after starting cornerback DeAndre Baker was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List and reserve option Sam Beal opted out of the 2020 season. The safeties represent the unit with the most potential in the backfield, and head coach Joe Judge has high expectations for them on a weekly basis.
“Versatility’s a huge part of all of our systems – offense, defense and the kicking game,” Judge said. “Our defense is going to be multiple. That’s both by base scheme, it’s also going to be based by game plan, who the opponent is. You’re going to see four to six DBs on the field at certain times.
New York Giants’ three-headed monster:
1.) Xavier McKinney
When the New York Giants drafted Xavier McKinney with their second-round pick, nobody knew much about him. He was the number one rated safety on the board, but the Giants had a ton of other needs at the time. Nonetheless, he has a specific mold that allows him to transition from free to strong safety when called upon. He is fantastic in cover-1 defense and can move up to the line of scrimmage and play against the run. The biggest concern is tackling technique, but he understands his rookie season will be full of hiccups and developmental mistakes.
Nonetheless, his adaptation to the NFL has been more seamless than anticipated.
The former Alabama defender is familiar with the way head coach Joe Judge runs his team:
“When (coach Joe Judge) discussed some of his rules and how he wanted things to be handled and how we wanted us to be as a team, it was almost like a mirror version of how it was at Bama for me,” McKinney said. “As far as that, it was an easy adjustment for me. I’ve already been in this type of system. It wasn’t that hard of a transition.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier lined up as a strong safety on 323 snaps, free safety on 271, and slot corner on 227 in 2019 with the Crimson Tide.
Julian Love had a glowing review regarding McKinney:
“When Xavier was drafted, I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s great firepower for us,’ ” Love said. “I had heard about him, I know how he is as a person, as a player, how he prepares. I think that’s what we needed around here.”
2.) Jabrill Peppers
Jabrill Peppers had one of his best seasons in 2019, despite missing the final five games of the year with a hip injury. Making the permanent transition to strong safety has allowed him to play closer to the line of scrimmage and utilize his instincts to react.
A look at his stats (2017 & 2019 at SS):
2017 stats: 13 games — 58 combined tackles, 1 TFL, 0 QB hits, 3 PD, 0 FF, 1 INT
2019 stats: 11 games — 76 combined tackles, 5 TFL, 2 QB hits, 5 PD, 3 FF, 1 INT
He is better when aggressive then staying deep in the secondary as a ball hawk. I expect him to lock down opposing tight ends and provide coverage the Giants have lacked at the position in recent years.
“I see energy (in Peppers),” Head Coach Joe Judge told reporters last week. “You hear him before you see him. You know when he’s in the room. He’s a lively guy, he brings a lot of energy to the team, a lot of energy to the locker room. You can tell he’s a football guy. He loves ball. He flies around. You can tell if guys are on the field, whether it’s conditioning, whether it’s the limited version of practice we had this morning, you can tell football guys. He’s definitely a ball guy.”
3.) Julian Love
One player who has been standing out during padded practices is second-year defensive back, Julian Love. Despite playing predominantly cornerback at Notre Dame during college, he has made the transition to safety and has taken well to the position. The New York Giants are trying to utilize him as a utility player who can fill multiple roles and play based on matchups.
“There’s just a learning curve, so you’ve seen him improve every day,” coach Joe Judge said. “He’s been more vocal. That’s important in his role, being the signal-caller in the deep part of the field.
“He has the athletic ability that we’re going to play him in a different variety of spots based on the matchups. You see him play up in some man-coverage sometimes. We’re going to move him around as needed.”
Having a player like Love that can fill-in and start in specific scenarios is exciting. Pairing him with McKinney and Peppers should give the defense creativity but hasn’t been present for a long time. With a simpler and more fundamental style scheme under Graham, Love can maximize his talents and contribute to a team that desperately needs a semblance of improvement.