By some statistical measures, the New York Giants had the worst defense in the NFL a season ago. After an offseason of tremendous change to that group, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was asked Wednesday if he was confident the days of defenseless defense by the Giants were over.
“They are done. We are going to be better. We are going to be better because of players, we are going to be better because of better coaching, less mistakes,” Spagnuolo said. “We are going to be better because it is the second year in the system and that is what we fully expect to do. Everything that we went through last year is over and we are moving on.”
Those are, of course, just words. Will the Giants really be better on defense? How much better? With mandatory minicamp concluding Thursday, let’s look at what we have seen this spring. Throughout the summer we will look at each position in depth. For now, let’s touch quickly on each position and see if there has been improvement.
The Giants, obviously, spent big money here. They brought in defensive end Olivier Vernon with a market-busting guarantee of $52.5 million. They added one of the premier run-stopping nose tackles in football in Damon Harrison. They brought back Jason Pierre-Paul, who seems at peace with everything that has happened to him.
“It [the defensive line] looks good on paper, but we need to see what we do on the field,” said Johnathan Hankins, the fourth member of the starting group.
Why did the Giants break the bank for Vernon?
“Because all of the offensive coaches thought that he was the toughest player to play against last year. I thought that said it all. Then you put on the tape and he is one of those guys that has a high motor and he makes a difference in the football game,” Spagnuolo said. “Jerry Reese saw the same thing, Ben saw the same thing, everybody kind of felt the same way when we watched him.”
The Giants can’t, however, rely on just Vernon and Pierre-Paul to supply their pass rush. They need something from Owa Odighizuwa and Jay Bromley. They need depth players to emerge.
This unit, though, is definitely better than a year ago.
Janoris Jenkins replaces Prince Amukamara, and has looked good thus far. First-round pick Eli Apple had an exceptional practice on Wednesday, perhaps his best of the spring. Undrafted free agent Donte Deayon is opening eyes. The Giants still have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Trevin Wade.
There is potential for this group to be better than the cornerback group the Giants field a year ago.
After practice Wednesday, Apple said he feels “like a different player” than when OTAs began a few weeks ago. The Giants have worked with him constantly to break a habit of grabbing with the emphasis being “feet before hands,” he said.
Spagnuolo said that while the grabbing issue will be a work in progress, that Apple has bee “pretty good” this spring.
“He is still a rookie, so there has been a bit of a learning curve here, but I will say this, I do see a competitive guy there,” Spagnuolo said. “I think that if you are going to play that position in this league, that is the first thing you have got to have, and I think that some of the guys around him have gotten confident in him. He has made a lot of plays here.”
Of Jenkins, Spagnuolo said he has been “pleasantly reaffirmed that he is a competitive, top-notch guy that doesn’t back away from anything.”
Deayon, the 5-foot-9, 158-pound corner from Boise State, continued an impressive spring with an interception and a couple of passes defensed on Wednesday.
“He is a joy to work with. He made another big play down in the end zone today,” Spagnuolo said. “He has been making plays all year. He loves football, he gets football, he has what I call the football ‘get-it’. He is really smart and he competes, so he’s got a chance, no question.”
The Giants appear to be in a much better place at safety than they were a year ago. Landon Collins is a much more assured player, though it has been apparent in the spring that he can still be exposed in one-on-one coverage down the field.
Darian Thompson and Nat Berhe are competing for the other spot. They are inexperienced, but more talented and athletic than the veteran stop-gaps the Giants had at that spot a year ago.
Thompson, a third-round pick, has continued to impress Spagnuolo with his demeanor on the field.
“He has been working with Landon quite a bit. That kind of probably says a lot that he is up there with those guys. I said this before, he is still doing it, he is assertive, he is vocal, he is not afraid to make a mistake,” Spagnuolo said. “I think the first thing that you need to do at that position when we ask you to make calls is not to be afraid of making a mistake and to be vocal. If he continues to do that, he will learn the defense. He is smart enough, and then it is just a matter of when you get out there, where is his skill level, and I think we will find out a lot when we get to those preseason games.”
This is the one position on the defense where, on paper, the Giants are in roughly the same place they were a year ago. Devon Kennard is still the SAM. J.T. Thomas and Jonathas Casillas are still competing for time at the WILL. They added Kelvin Sheppard and Keenan Robinson to compete with Jasper Brinkley in the middle. All are adequate players, no more.
The difference could be health. Can Kennard and Thomas, who missed significant time last season stay healthy? If so, that would provide an upgrade.
“There is a lot of competition there, so I think they are all getting better,” Spagnuolo said. “All of the defensive spots, you find out most when you put the pads on and that one especially. The guys that are going to play down hill, the guys that are going to play physical, the guys that are going to be playing with their pads and punching, pressing, so there is a little bit further to go there and that hasn’t really ironed itself out as far as who is playing where, who is starting, who is one and who is two and that is going to be an interesting battle in training camp.”
Yes, the Giants should be better on defense. The reason is simple — they have better players. Will they be a dominant defense? After the last two seasons there is no way I’m willing to predict that. Health will be critical, as they lack depth in some areas.
“I have always said this league is about players. The more top-notch players you have, the better your defense is going to be. To me, it doesn’t matter what scheme you put in, how much scheme you have and don’t, players make plays.,” Spagnuolo said.
“Jerry (Reese) and his staff have put together a group of guys that can compete against each other. We have lived by production is at the ball, guys that get to the football will produce, we are looking for guys that can produce, but certainly when the quality of your talent is really good in some spots, you have to play towards those strengths and I hope that is what we do.”
Giants’ fans have the same hope.