The New York Giants have traditionally built their defense from the inside out, with the front four or front seven being the dominant part of the defense and the cornerbacks and safeties generally being adequate, or just good enough. Well, and odd -- and maybe even unintentional -- thing happened as the Giants re-structured their roster for 2014. That script seems to have been flipped.
On paper, the Giants have what could be a dominant group of cornerbacks, while there are questions on the defensive line largely caused by the free-agent departures of the team's best two linemen in 2013 -- Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph.
"We’ve got 10 quality corners right now in the program," Giants' secondary/cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta said during mini-camp. "We have great depth at that position, the deepest I’ve ever had in my years in the league."
Giunta has been with the Giants for seven seasons, and has been coaching in the NFL for 21 seasons. So, his calling this group "the deepest I've ever had" is saying something.
In 2013, the Giants tried to get by with a group of veterans who had been with them throughout much of their championship run over the past several seasons. It did not work out very well.
Corey Webster, drafted in 2005 and coming off a terrible 2012 season, either could not or would not get on the field. It really has never been clear which. Regardless, he played in only four games.
Terrell Thomas was an inspiring story, returning after two seasons lost to torn ACLs. He made it through the season, playing all 16 games, starting seven and playing well at times. The Giants, concerned about his knee and his diminished athleticism, did not invite him back. Thomas is still looking for work.
The development of Prince Amukamara and the surprising emergence of Trumaine McBride were bright spots. The Giants, though, had to play Antrel Rolle in the slot too often and just didn't have the ability to really blanket receivers or make game-changing plays on the outside.
That should be different this season.
The biggest free-agent acquisition defensively was cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, certainly an enigmatic player but also one of the best in the league when he is engaged.
"I think he’s the best corner in the league, hands down," said teammate Antrel Rolle during the offseason. "He’s a phenomenal talent, one of the most gifted corners I’ve ever seen and the sky’s the limit for DRC. He can be as great as he wants to be."
If DRC wants to be dominant, and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell allows him to press and play man-to-man, he could be special for the Giants.
"He's got that other gear. He can run as fast as he needs to run to get up on top of a receiver, catch up to a receiver. He's got that gear that's incredible. He's such a smooth athlete," Giunta said. "His length is so good and his ball skills are fantastic. He's got that great skill set where he's got the speed to recover if he does beat, he's got the quickness to recover. He's got the length to reach out and knock balls away that other corners wouldn't be able to get to and he's got great hands to make plays on the ball in the air. He's got what you're looking for in a corner."
The Giants added Walter Thurmond in free agency, and the former Seattle Seahawk will be the slot corner. He is one of the best in the game in that role.
"He does a great job of studying, he has a great awareness of what people are trying to do to him. He plays with great leverage, understands his drops as an underneath defender. He's able to get there, get breaks off the quarterback. He's got great vision and to play inside like that you have to have great vision of everything that's going on around you, it happens so much quicker. Corner you're using the sideline to help you but in there you have so much space, especially covering guys," Giunta said. "He's got great quickness and he's a great technical. You'll see that when we're able to put our hands on people in training camp."
Amukamara, in his third season, finally showed hints in 2013 of why the Giants drafted him in the first round back in 2011. He is a solid cover corner, though not yet a feared one or a guy who has shown the ability to make game-altering plays. Perhaps in his fourth NFL season he will take that step.
"He was able to play all 16 for us and the only time he missed was when he got dinged a little bit in the opening game against Dallas, friendly fire," Giunta said. "He improved, he understands well, he communicates well, his instincts, his awareness are really developing. You can really see it in camp now, he's on top of all of the stuff. Now he's starting to gamble a bit and take some chances, which you like to see because you're taking calculated guesses and risking, ‘Hey, I'm going to go make a play.' That's what you want. He's developed that confidence in himself and the defense, he knows what's coming."
Providing depth are veterans McBride and Zack Bowman, a free-agent signee from the Chicago Bears. McBride made the Giants roster after being out of the league in 2012 and signing a reserve/futures contract. He was a revelation, starting 10 games, making two interceptions and totaling 15 passes defensed. McBride had a +6.8 Pro Football Focus grade and a stellar 57.4 passer rating against.
Jayron Hosley, a 2012 third-round pick, will begin the season serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Unless there are a rash of injuries, his absence will likely be of no consequence. Charles James, an undrafted free agent who stuck with the Giants last season and appeared in 12 games, had a tremendous spring and might be a better player than Hosley, anyway. The Giants also drafted Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson in the sixth round.
If the Giants can defend the run and create enough pass rush to give their corners a chance it could be fun to watch.
[E-mail Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org]