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Steve Spagnuolo promises competition throughout the defense

The Giants’ defensive coordinator talks about his rookies and competition as they try to build on an impressive season

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could hardly be blamed if he came into the 2017 off-season program with more confidence than he did a year ago.

But he hasn’t. Instead, he looks thriving after a successful season as just another challenge.

“The challenge is to keep ‘em hungry,” Spagnuolo said. There’s a couple of things, I’d like to start better. You know, it was kind of slow, if I can remember back through all the games, especially dominating and being the reason why we won. We won the two games coming out of the blocks, but I would have liked to have played better defense, and then we came on. And you know, the goal here is to pick up right where we left off. And if we get hung up on what we did last year? That works both ways. At this time last year everyone was asking ‘how do you overcome how bad it was?’ You don’t even think about it, you move on. You do the same thing when you do real well, but it will be a challenge.”

Part of meeting that challenge is keeping competition alive and despite having a veteran, established defense, there will be competition at every level.

On The Middle Linebacker Position

There was great speculation that the Giants would be selecting a linebacker at some point in the draft, possibly in their first two picks.

That, however, didn’t happen.

Instead they will be relying on the players in-house to fill out the second level of their defense behind the defensive line.

“Well, we got a bunch of guys in there,” Spags said when asked who the middle linebacker will be. “Look, it’s early, we have to get out here in ‘Phase 2’ [of the off-season program] and have a couple walk-throughs. But B.J. [Goodson], Keenan [Robinson] are doing a nice job, Mark [Herzlich] plays a bunch of different positions. So we’ll see how it shakes out.”

“Everybody is going to get reps in practice. Some days you might see see B.J. out there first, some days you might see Keenan out there first, you might see Mark, you might see a bunch of other guys. ... The same thing really happened last year, if you think about it. Jasper Brinkley was here, Kelvin [Sheppard] was here, B.J. was a rookie. Yeah, so it’ll unfold.”

Spags had been asked a couple times about Goodson’s potential contributions. Finally he was asked what kind of jump the former Clemson linebacker has made going into his second season.

“Good! I mean look, any time you come in, all of these guys, I think will tell you the second time through all the little things you couldn’t remember the first year are just natural now. Making certain calls, I think he looks a lot more comfortable.”

On The Defensive Line

There will also be competition on the defensive line as the Giants drafted a pair of linemen. The first is defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson who is expected to step in and contribute next to Damon Harrison.

“There are a bunch of guys there. There’s Jay [Bromley], [Robert] Thomas, and Tomlinson will fill in there, and some other young guys coming in. It’s probably no different than the MIKE linebacker position and we’re just gonna let it unwind. Someone’s going to line up there next to Snacks [Harrison], in between now and Dallas we’ll figure that out. But, we are excited about having him. Everything you read and heard, I know Jerry addressed it and I’m sure Ben did too. He was a very impressive young man at the Combine, he’s got a great story like you said, and I think he’s a pretty good football player.”

Spags was also asked about Avery Moss, the other defensive lineman drafted by the Giants this year.

“He’s a pretty explosive guy,” Spags said. “I think Jerry talked about that. I mean you watch him on tape. From here down [lower body] some of those guys, I don’t know if everybody remembers Hugh Douglas, who was with me down in Philadelphia, and he was the first guy I saw who was just thick and powerful from here down (again, motioning to his waist down). Avery isn’t quite as thick as that, but I thought of him when I watched Avery on tape. And he has played that 4-3 defensive end position, which we do a lot of. We still play some ‘Under’ where they have to move down, and he looks comfortable doing it. Hopefully you put you him in the mix with the other guys we have, Kerry [Wynn], Owa [Owamagbe Odighizuwa], and Romeo [Okwara], hopefully they’ll come up with some good ones.”

“...We’re anxious to get him in here,” Spags added. “And thank God we can get out there and do some football. Or, kind-of like football.”

That competition is definitely a good thing for the defense. The Giants played their starting defensive ends on more than 90 percent of their potential snaps last year, but then had to cope with losing Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants don’t want to have to rely on Vernon and JPP as heavily this year, and will want to make use of their depth. They got a taste of having to rely on that depth at the end of the 2016 season.

“Any time you lose a pass rusher of JPP’s quality, it makes a big difference. we had four or five games after that and I thought the guys really came on. Look, you lose one of your best players, everybody else has to step it up, and I thought our guys did that. In that game [NFC Wild Card game against the Green Bay Packers], against that quarterback [Aaron Rodgers], yeah we certainly could have used him. But I thought the guys out there were fighting their butt off, we hung in there for a while and none of us like the way it ended. But that just gives us something to be hungry for.”

Competition In The Secondary

The top of the Giants’ depth chart in the secondary is set like few other teams in the league. Corners Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, Eli Apple, and safety Landon Collins makes for one of the top secondaries in the league. The depth behind them, however, is open for competition.

“We can always use more,” Spagnuolo said when asked if they have enough cornerbacks on the roster. “You can never have enough corners. But we’ve got guys like Double-D [Donte Deayon] he was on IR, so he didn’t play a lot and practice, so he comes back. You know, in the secondary it’s good to get a number of guys back. Darian Thompson, even though he’s not a corner. Blake’s [Valentino Blake] here, who’s new. Get some guys out there, let them compete and see how it unwinds.”

“Interesting question, Spags said, when asked how he will approach the safety situation. “I mean, look, this time of year all jobs are open.”

“Eli’s job is safe,” a reporter joked.

“Yeah, I think he’s okay,” Spags agreed with a smile on his face. “But, I think at that particular position [safety] guys realize that they got to come in and somebody has to surface. And whoever that is will start at the beginning, and like every year you need more than three, and nowadays you probably need four. We’ll see how it shakes out.”

Engram And The Defense

Both Ben McAdoo and Mike Sullivan were asked about first round draft choice Evan Engram. Spagnuolo was asked about the tight end as well, particularly his impression from a defensive perspective.

“I’m glad he’s only a problem in practice,” Spags said with a smile. “Look, I don’t know a lot about him, you know, I certainly didn’t the offensive side of hte ball with the college prospects. But everything I hear about him sounds like its similar to what we have to do when we play Washington or some of these other teams that have tight ends that can flex out and be like big wide receivers. So, a learning curve for him, but it’ll challenge our guys, which is good. I think we need that at the tight end position and it’ll make our guys better. So that’s what I look forward to.”