Nobody would have predicted the New York Giants' cupboard to be so bare at the safety position by the time April rolled around. Antrel Rolle is out the door. Stevie Brown is in limbo. The current safety depth-chart is rationing two late-round draft picks and an undrafted practice squad player. Between them, they are credited with just 37 defensive snaps. Is the front office asleep at the wheel? Are they aware that the camp roster is 90 guys?
I understand the process of waiting out the initial waves of free agency and scoring some cheap heat on the back end. Still, the danger of this strategy is that it should be employed for depth purposes only. Tardiness has cost many teams a huge number of players. It's a great way of scoring a third wide receiver or a swing offensive lineman, but not ideal for deciding both starting safety positions.
To add to New York's headache, both of their current guys prefer to play as the strong safety. Modern defenses don't have as much of a difference between the safeties as there used to be, so role changes are possible, but still not easy. This task would be made all the more difficult due to a new appointment at defensive coordinator. Out goes the promising but never fulfilling Perry Fewell, and in comes a familiar face in Steve Spagnuolo. The Boston-drawler left New York for a short-lived head-coaching gig in 2009 and spent some time in New Orleans before catching on as a defensive backs coach in Baltimore.
Most fans point to the dominant pass-rush from the 2007 Super Bowl team as a reason to be excited, but nstead, our focus should be on the possibility of a formidable secondary. Even the most rudimentary schemes require an adjustment period, which is why role changes are problematic, but maybe the Giants have hired the right guy for maximizing their talent in this area.
What I've outlined below is an analysis of the current safety options on the roster. In future posts we will look at some potential free agents and a few possible draft choices. We may not know what GM Jerry Reese's final plan is for this position, but we can be sure he's not going into the season with just these guys.
Taylor was drafted to be an in-the-box thumper. A strong hypothesis for his place on the roster was the Giants' weak linebacking corps and the possibility that he could have a role in a three-safety package. He could take on some linebacker responsibilities but still provide capable coverage for passing plays.
Unfortunately, we have seen almost nothing of Taylor since he entered the league in 2013. His rookie season was dampened by two separate injuries and his 2014 ended before it began with another injury.
We didn't see much of Taylor as a rookie. He played just five defensive snaps all year, so we don't have much tape to analyze. However, he also played special teams where he yo-yo'ed between average play and poor play. I know this, because Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus knows this.
The Pro Football Focus system for grading special teams plays is maintained by McGuinness and gives us a depth of vision into an oft-overlooked aspect of the game. The system judges a player's ability to shed blocks, release at the line, block down-field as well as more regular categories such as tackles, missed tackles and penalties. In 2013, Taylor played in eight games on special teams. He received two negative grades, five neutral and just one positive "green" grade. Considering he saw little time on defense, this can't be enough to merit thrusting him into the starting lineup.
It's important to emphasize that special teams play doesn't necessarily correlate to defensive play, but core concepts remain. For example, the hold-up (or "vice") players on the outside of punting formations would have a similar skill-set to a cornerback in press-coverage. Another aspect would be the ability to contain. It's a vital part of run defense and the strong safety can often be the last guy with a shot at tackling a breakaway runner.
Taylor looked much better on defense in the 2014 preseason. He showed flashes of promise but there are several caveats to this. Taylor sustained another injury during this period. The majority of his playing time came against backups. Defenses usually play a "vanilla" style to mask key looks for the regular season. And of course, this is year old preseason tape under a different coordinator.
Expect Taylor to get a lot of looks in camp and this coming preseason. His lack of experience and rash of injuries could prevent him from being anything more than a depth player and special teams contributor. If this is the case, the Giants need to re-assess their scouting criteria for defensive backs.
Under Jerry Reese's management since 2007, the Giants have drafted seven safeties and only two of them ever started a game in the NFL, Kenny Phillips and Michael Johnson. A high number of these choices were late-round picks but it does point to a potential scouting issue. Many of these players were touted as projects, yet never metabolized into anything other than special-teamers and camp bodies.
While Rolle has held down one of the two starting spots since he arrived in 2010, the Goose to his Maverick has been a rotating cast of free agents. It was no shock that Rolle would move on to another team this year and after he signed with the Chicago Bears it became clear the position was about to undergo a major overhaul.
Nat Berhe, a fifth-round pick last year, has found himself as the default candidate to replace Rolle. His transition to free-safety would be smoother than Taylor's. With just two safeties on the roster, it's reasonable to presume that one will transition to the other spot and Berhe has minor experience in that area.
Another plus is that Berhe was healthy enough to play in all 16 games last season, though he did suffer a knee injury in the season finale. It's reported that he should be in playing condition for the Giants' off-season program, but still, his injury progress adds fuel to worries about a position in flux.
One advantage for Berhe is that he performed well in his limited time on-field. Much like Cooper he didn't play often (just 32 snaps), but it was promising and he added consistent play on special teams to boot. Berhe was a ghost for most of his rookie year, and as a rookie defensive back playing mostly on kicking plays that's probably a good start.
But what is he like as a player and why should he get a shot to start for the Giants? Well, his experience at both safety spots doubles his chances of significant playing time in training camp. Even in a scenario where he doesn't earn either job, he is likely to be first alternate at both positions.
While it is an microscopic sample size, of his 22 snaps in coverage last year, he wasn't targeted once. Take that with a heart-stopping mountain of salt, but it's a good sign. When a lot of rookies enter a game, the offense usually tries to test them immediately.
The Giants would like Berhe to be one of the two starting safeties and he will be afforded every opportunity to prove himself. It's doubtful that New York will gain two players better than Berhe between now and August, though it is possible. Given his versatility and the lack of options, pencil in Berhe as getting first-team reps on the opening day of training camp.
There is so little data available for Thomas Gordon that I'm reluctant to speculate as to how he may fit in to the Giants' plans for this position. He's a strong safety from Michigan who didn't light it up at the college level and spent some time last year on the Giants' practice squad.
He played 89 snaps for the Giants in last year's preseason and has no real game experience. Gordon is a complete wild-card. He's in a better position than most practice squad guys right now, because he caught on to a team with a dearth of talent at his position. It's not impossible that this practice player makes the roster next year, but he's unlikely to end up seeing many snaps in the regular season.
Gordon will probably be on the practice squad again in 2015 but could come on board as a special teams contributor and game day insurance if he produces well in the preseason. Projecting him to even be a primary backup would be a reach without seeing how he developed both mentally and physically after a year in the system.
There has been significant talk of the Giants converting one of their current cornerbacks to play safety this season. The similarities between the two positions are often discussed when a team suffers significant injuries in the secondary, but it's rarely a primary option for heading into training camp. Still, with just two safeties under contract, this remains a real possibility.
The most likely conversion candidate is Chykie Brown. He spent the first half of last season with the Ravens while Spagnuolo was the defensive backs coach. This experience could prove useful when learning the subtleties of the team's new scheme. On the flip side, he only ended up available for the Giants to sign because the Ravens didn't think he was good enough to keep on the roster.
Additionally, the 2014 Giants went through cornerbacks like Sean Payton goes through Juicy Fruit. It's unlikely that Brown would have been added to the 53-man roster if there hadn't been season-ending injuries to six defensive backs ahead of him (as well as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struggling to stay healthy).
But perhaps a change of position would do Brown well. It would be a big ask for a player who consistently presented coverage problems throughout his career but his odds of making the team in a shallow safety group are a lot better than going up against a crowded corner depth chart. Aside from coverage, I'm also scared of how many missed tackles he has under his belt. Many more could occur with a position change, but it's swing for the fences time here. All or nothing.
I don't think Brown makes the team as a corner, despite starting four games for New York last year. A change to safety would broadcast his flaws immediately, but this may be good. It could telegraph to the coaching staff what areas need to develop. If Brown is wearing blue in September, it'll be as a safety.
It's clear that all three of these options require significant development before they deserve a starting job. The Giants will need excellent corner play to cover a steep learning curve at safety. Perhaps one of these young guys can step in and impress. Right now, it doesn't look like any one player has a job locked up. With both starting spots up for grabs, it's anyone's guess as to who will be starting come September. Taylor and Berhe could take a developmental leap. Brown could surprise. Perhaps, neither of Big Blue's starting safeties are on the roster and we'll see an influx of new talent.
Tomorrow: We look at a pair of free agents who could be on the Giants' radar
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Alex Sinclair joins the staff at Big Blue View today. Alex, who lives in Dublin, Ireland, most recently worked as a college football analyst at Pro Football Focus. He is, of course, a Giants fan. Alex will primarily handle analytics and film breakdowns for us. Please welcome him aboard.]