The New York Giants have a problem. They have a number of players who are among the best at their positions in the entire league — players like Odell Beckham Jr., Landon Collins, Damon Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins.
But at the same time, their roster appears to be thin. If they want their 2018 campaign to be anything more than a “rebuilding” year, they will need players to surprise and out-play expectations.
That happens every season, and the best teams have contributors nobody saw coming.
Let’s take a few minutes and look at some of the players who could, potentially, be those pleasant surprises.
Ereck Flowers (RT)
We have to start with the big guys up front. After completely rebuilding the offensive line heading in to 2018, the Giants need that unit to perform, and if we are looking for players who the Giants both need to surprise and out-play expectations, and have the ability to do so, Flowers stands out.
There is a lot you can question about Ereck Flowers — namely, his technique and (at times) his attitude. However, you can’t question his physical tools, his toughness, nor his work ethic. Flowers has all the power, athleticism, and bloody-mindedness to be a solid starting offensive tackle in the NFL. What he hasn’t had was the technique — proper footwork, leverage, and hand usage — to bring all that to bear on defenders.
Make no mistake: moving to the right side is NOT a panacea that will cure all that ails his game, nor will he face easier opponents or be helped out by Eli Manning “seeing the rush coming.”
Instead, moving to a new position could strip away all of his bad habits and learn how to play the position the right way, from the ground up. As well, the Giants’ new coaching staff’s emphasis on forging relationships with players, and the addition of Nate Solder as veteran mentor, might finally succeed where past coaches have only made marginal headway.
If Flowers can do that, finally realize the potential that got him drafted ninth overall, he might force fans who advocate launching him into the Sun to eat some crow, and be a tremendous boost to the Giants’ offense.
Hunter Sharp (WR/KR/PR)
Sharp was quietly added to the Giants’ roster back in December of 2017 after Darius Powe suffered a broken foot in his first NFL action. Since the spring commenced, the former Denver Bronco has impressed, both as a receiver and as a returner. Our own Ed Valentine has remarked that Sharp’s spring has been “excellent.’
The Giants’ are searching for depth behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard at receiver. And while fellow former Bronco Cody Latimer looks to be the favorite to be the third receiver, Sharp’s abilities as both a punt and kick returner work in his favor to not just make the roster, but be active on game day and earn the coaches’ trust.
As a receiver, Sharp has clawed his way up the depth chart, getting snaps with the first team offense in the spring. At less than six feet and 200 pounds, he is hardly imposing, but the quickness that makes him a capable returner will also help him in Pat Shurmur’s offense.
B.J. Hill (DT)
Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, we come to the rookie who’s selection surprised pretty much everyone. Hill largely played the 1-technique on N.C. State’s talented defensive line, but he has been carving out a role for himself as a defensive end opposite Dalvin Tomlinson in the Giants’ “base” 3-4 defense.
Given the importance of stopping the run in the NFC East, and the quality of the offensive lines in the division, having three massive defensive linemen like Hill, Tomlinson, and Damon Harrison makes sense.
However, what is often overlooked is just how athletic Hill is.
Size: 6 feet, 3 1⁄2 inches, 311 pounds
40 Yard Dash: 4.99 seconds
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.53sec
Vertical Jump: 26.5 inches
Broad Jump: 101”
Bench Press: 35 reps
Size: 6 feet, 4 inches, 299 pounds
40 Yard Dash: 4.79 seconds
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.53sec
Vertical Jump: 26 inches
Broad Jump: 103”
Bench Press: 30 reps
Player A, as you might be able to guess, is Hill. Player B, is All-Pro and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
Athleticism is no guarantee of success in the NFL, it is encouraging for his role as a potential starter in an attacking defense that one his closest athletic comparisons (75.1 percent, per MockDraftable.com) is Cox.
The Giants are looking for somebody other than Olivier Vernon to pressure quarterbacks, and given Hill’s athleticism, he could prove to be a surprise asset in that department.
Grant Haley (CB)
The New York Giants wanted the safety out of Penn State. So much so, that in order to get him to sign as an undrafted free agent, they offered him one of the largest signing bonuses that any UDFA received this year — nearly a quarter of their total bonus pool.
The Giants’ depth at cornerback is a serious concern for the defense. Not only does James Bettcher frequently use nickel and dime packages, bringing multiple defensive backs onto the field on any given down. But the Giants’ depth behind Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple at cornerback, and Landon Collins at safety, is one of the great unknowns at this time.
Veteran free agent addition William Gay looks to be the front runner for the starting slot corner job, but at 33 years old, he might contribute more through experience and sagacity off the field than on-field play. The Giants need young, fresh legs behind Gay, and Haley intrigues at that spot. He lacks prototypical size and speed for the position, but he plays with a physical edge and has the quickness to match up on slot receivers.
Bettcher’s defense depends on physical play from his corners to disrupt routes and keep the ball in quarterbacks’ hands — as well as free up other defenders to blitz.
Haley is a long shot to emerge as a major contributor on defense as an undrafted rookie, but the lack of depth and his skillset make it possible, albeit a surprising outcome.
Curtis Riley (S)
Staying in the defensive secondary, we come to another unheralded free agent addition in Curtis Riley. Riley is another former undrafted free agent, and one of a bevy of journeymen defensive backs signed by the Giants in free agency.
Riley played cornerback for the Tennessee Titans, but has transitioned to free safety since coming to the Giants. And since making that move, he has distinguished himself throughout the spring. While Darian Thompson has, apparently, nursed an injury, Riley has capitalized on his opportunity and impressed defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
The Giants have a question of who will take the field alongside Landon Collins, and the free safety position can transform how a defense plays. It would certainly be a surprise if an under-the-radar former corner can lock down that position (and opposing receivers), but it would hardly be a surprise which the Giants would turn down.