The New York Giants' safety position was a mess in 2015. Landon Collins was an admittedly "lost" rookie. Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson and Justin Currie landed on IR before the regular season began. Cooper Taylor was on the team, off the team, back on the team, finally on the field, then on IR with a concussion. Brandon Meriweather and Craig Dahl were washed-up veterans signed out of desperation, who played like washed-up veterans signed out of desperation.
As a result, poor safety play was part of the reason the Giants were last in the league in passing yards per game (298.9) and 29th in passing yards per play (7.50).
Fast forward a year and the situation seems much better. Collins is a much more experienced, confident player with 16 NFL games under his belt. Third-round pick Darian Thompson has looked like the real deal thus far. Berhe, Jackson, Mykkele Thompson and Currie are all healthy, giving the Giants competition and options.
Landon Collins: Experience a great teacher
Safeties coach Dave Merritt was asked earlier in the offseason what kind of jump he expected from Collins in his second season, and he said "Hopefully it’s going to be a big one."
Whether the Giants use him mostly as a strong safety close to the line of scrimmage or in multiple roles, Collins is now entrenched as a key member of the defense. He expects to be better in 2016, and says he "can definitely be a great player."
"Landon Collins now is very confident in himself and very knowing - very understanding of the situation and progress with what he’s learned," Collins said. "If you saw him this past year, his standard of playing is elevated. Last year, Landon was kind of out there just trying to make plays and going through the motions, just trying not to mess up. So that’s probably the biggest thing -- you could say that last year I was kind of lost, and just trying to figure it out as the season went on."
Collins finished the 2015 season with a -8.5 Pro Football Focus grade, 84th out of 88 qualifying safeties. His NFL passer rating against was an abysmal 125.7, and he allowed five touchdowns while only getting one interception. Quarterbacks completed 74.2 percent of their passes when throwing into his area.
Collins was better against the run than the pass, which corresponds to what scouts expected when he came out of Alabama. Collins ended 2015 with a +2.7 PFF grade vs. the run and a -11.5 grade against the pass.
I think we can safely expect those numbers to be much better in 2016.
Nat Berhe: Finally back on the field
Entering 2015, Berhe was considered the favorite to join Collins at safety. A calf injury that eventually required surgery never gave him the chance to get on the field and compete. Berhe says he is "100 percent" healthy, and he now has the chance to earn the job he missed out on a year ago. Berhe says this year is "a total polar opposite" from a year ago.
Early indications are that Berhe and Darian Thompson are the leading contenders to pair with Collins. Berhe, a 6-foot, 194-pound third-year player, is probably not a pure free safety. He played a variety of roles at San Diego State. What he does appear to be possess are leadership skills, something that was lacking from the safety spot a year ago.
Darian Thompson: Rookie isn't overwhelmed
On paper, the third-round pick from Boise State appears to have the perfect skill set to complement Collins. While Collins is a big, strong, downhill safety who appears more comfortable attacking the line of scrimmage than roaming center field, Thompson comes to the Giants with a reputation as a ball-hawking free safety.
There is always, however, the question of how quickly a rookie can adjust and learn. So far, while you can't make definitive judgments with players in shorts and t-shirts, Thompson does not appear overwhelmed by the NFL game, or by the task of giving directions from the deep safety spot to his more senior teammates.
"DT is a guy who looks like he is comfortable in his skin, he can communicate well and we know he has good balls skills," coach Ben McAdoo said after Monday's OTA. "That showed up in his stat line and on his film study and he is making the most of his opportunities."
Thompson has impressed not only with his ability to be around the ball, but his willingness to make calls.
"That's just an attribute that I have as a player. I'm going to continue to try to do that," Thompson said. "I'm not really scared to be wrong, especially out here at practice."
The rest of the field
Bennett Jackson appeared to have won the starting free safety role a year ago, but an unfortunate knee injury in a preseason game landed him on injured reserve for the second straight season. Now, while the Giants have not released a depth chart, it is clear that Jackson is behind both Thompson and Berhe in the pecking order. Coming off two knee surgeries in two years, perhaps Jackson -- drafted as a cornerback -- could be an option in the slot if he shows he can still move well enough.
Mykkele Thompson, the surprise fifth-round pick a year ago, has also worked exclusively with the reserves.
Cooper Taylor, whose roster spot could be in serious jeopardy, has missed OTAs after surgery for a sports hernia.
Justin Currie and undrafted rookie Andrew Adams are the other safeties on the roster, battling to get consideration later this summer.
Starters: Collins, Darian Thompson
Reserves: Berhe, Jackson, Mykkele Thompson