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Steve Spagnuolo: Free safety “in flux”

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Spags says Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor, Leon Hall among options

NFL: New York Giants-OTA
Darian Thompson
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

What will the New York Giants do if starting free safety Darian Thompson, out currently with a shoulder injury, isn’t ready to start the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys? Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Thursday Thompson’s spot is “in flux right now.”

“We’ll find out in these next two games,” he said.

Spagnuolo mentioned Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor, undrafted free agent Andrew Adams and veteran cornerback Leon Hall as possibilities.

Mykkele Thompson, who had been working as the second-team free safety, is out with a concussion sustained in Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.

Another player Spagnuolo did not include is Bennett Jackson, whose bid for the job last season was derailed by injury. Spagnuolo said that Jackson has “been moved out of there” and is now working as a cornerback, the position for which he was originally drafted.

Here are some other takeaways from Spagnuolo’s Wednesday press conference.

Middle linebacker competition “neck and neck”

Spagnuolo said that Kelvin Sheppard and Jasper Brinkly are still locked in a too-close-to-call competition to be the starting middle linebacker.

“Still neck and neck. We’ve been repping it exactly that way. Even when you see in practice, Kelvin will go with the first team, first series and then Jasper will do the same thing,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s been a great battle. Two guys that respect each other and that’s what the league is all about. The more you can get that at every position the better you’re going to be.”

Spags didn’t exactly give either player a ringing endorsement when asked if he thought one of them would be a good middle linebacker.

“I don’t know, we’ll see. I think they’re both quality football players. They’re what we have right now and those guys have been in the system long enough now where they’re functioning really well,” Spagnuolo said. “Ideally just like the offense would like the one quarterback to stay under center for all three downs, we would like to have the same thing. We may or may not have the luxury of doing that so we’ll figure it out as we go.”

What role for J.T. Thomas?

J.T. Thomas joined a crowded field at linebacker when he came off PUP this week. Where does he fit? Spagnuolo would only say the Giants won’t rush him.

“We’re going to work him in slowly. Sometimes you rush him too quick there’s another injury. We have to get him up to speed quick. Whatever the day is before we get to Dallas,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s a guy that helped us last year so hopefully we can get him out there and get him some reps in the Jets game. Again, if you rush him too quick and the volume gets too high, you run the risk of him getting another injury.”

Olivier Vernon a “natural” leader

Defensive end Olivier Vernon, the marquee signing in the Giants’ offseason free-agent splurge, is helping the Giants with more than just his on-field presence.

“People gravitate to natural leaders and natural leaders don’t necessarily have to be the vocal people. OV is not a vocal guy but there is conviction and action and people see that in him,” Spagnuolo said. “He is convicted in what he does and he shows that, he's a pro. He brings his lunch pail to work every day and he goes to work. I think the other guys see that and I do think they gravitate to him. He has been a great example for our guys.”

Eli Apple progressing well

Spagnuolo likes the development he has seen from the first-round pick, even though he acknowledged that missing last week’s preseason game set him back.

“I think missing that game kind of hurt, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that he stays healthy and gets into this game and gets a a lot of reps and works with that first group. I think that he is another young guy that has developed really well for us, and quicker then maybe we expected,” Spagnuolo said. “I know always when you are drafted in the first round the expectations are way up here, and sometimes I think they are unfair but when he stepped in for that first day it was pretty evident he could handle what comes with that. We have to get into the game and he has some good receivers that he has to go against but I like the way he is developing right now.”

Owa “up and down”

The Giants are counting on Owamagbe Odighizuwa to help their pass rush this season. Spagnuolo said the 2015 third-round pick’s development has been a mixed bag after he missed much of his rookie season with injuries.

“Up and down, he knows that. We talk about it all the time,” Spagnuolo said. “When you think about Owa, he is a true rookie, he missed all that time last year and he got himself healthy this year. The hour is up and we have our fingers crossed but it has been up and down.”

A little love for Donte Deayon

It doesn’t mean he will make the 53-man roster, but Spagnuolo didn’t hide how he feels about 158-pound cornerback Donte Deayon.

“I love that guy. He walks in the room and brightens up the whole room. I don't know if you guys have had the chance to meet him or talk to him but he is a wonderful young man and he is a feisty player - all 100 and whatever [pounds] he is. He is a football player, God gave him the body he has and he has used every bit of it to get himself where he is right now,” Spagnuolo said. “I am impressed with what he has done, he has a long way to go and he has to get a lot of reps and we have to see where he is when the bullets fly. The guys love him too and love being around him.”