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Position Preview: Cornerback might be the Giants’ biggest question

Will the Giants’ cornerbacks return to form in 2018?

NFL: New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no position on the New York Giants roster inspires as much trepidation as the cornerbacks.

In 2016, the Giants’ secondary was one of the most feared units in the NFL, but after a horrendous, injury-filled, and embarrassing season and the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ross Cockrell, the unit has nothing but questions.

Will Janoris Jenkins return to his 2016 form? Will Eli Apple be able to build on his promising rookie season of two years ago? Does William Gay have anything left in the tank? Will they be able to field a depth chart with the unheralded group they have on the 90-man roster?

The Giants have to hope that they find favorable answers to those questions in training camp — their season might depend on it.

Outside corners

Janoris Jenkins - The Giants’ top quarterback, the team needs a bounce-back season from the corner known as “Jackrabbit.”

Jenkins was one of the three big free agent splashes the Giants made before the 2016 season, and he had an immediate impact on the defense. Jenkins responded to his first season in New York with the best season of his career. That year he held quarterbacks to passer rating of 65 and allowed just 50 percent of passes targeting him to be completed — both among the best in the NFL. Highlighting his year, Jenkins held Dak Prescott to an incredible 0.0 passer rating when he was targeted. For reference, throwing those passes into the turf would have resulted in a passer rating of 35.

But then Jenkins was caught up in the 2017 Giants’ melt-down. An injury suffered early in the season kept him from being the player he was in 2016, and a fractured locker room and the defense’s feud with Ben McAdoo derailed the entire season for the once-feared secondary.

Looking ahead to 2018, the Giants’ starting corners are among the most important players on their team. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher has built his defensive scheme around aggressive man coverage and disguising blitzes from the secondary. Both of those require tight, dependable coverage from the corners. If the Giants want to return to defensive respectability, they will need Jenkins and Apple to do so.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Eli Apple - For all intents and purposes, whatever could go wrong for Eli Apple in 2017, did go wrong.

The Giants’ 2016 first-round pick ended his rookie season on a tremendously high note. Over the course of the season he worked his way in to a starting role on one of the NFL’s best secondaries. It looked as though the sky was the limit for the young corner.

But it all came crashing down amidst locker room strife, feuds with the coaching staff and teammates, family problems, and his mother battling brain cancer. Apple still flashed enormous promise at times last year, but it almost seemed to be to spite coaches and he finished the season suspended.

The third-year corner seemed to be more mature and grown-up when he spoke to the media this offseason. He owned his issues and his own role in the Giants’ locker room melt-down. Apple will go into training camp as a starter and vital piece of the Giants’ defense. Ideally, he is looking to build off of that promising 2016 season and make everyone forget that 2017 even happened.

With his length, speed, and man coverge ability — and the importance of those traits in the Giants’ new defense — the team is certainly hoping he is able to realize his potential.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Sam Beal - The Giants acquired Beal in the third round of the 2018 Supplemental Draft. It was a move that was at once surprising and completely obvious. Beal is a long corner with light feet, quick hips, and natural man coverage skills. He improved every year at Western Michigan before losing his academic eligibility.

The Giants will hope that having their 2019 third-round pick in-house a year early will allow him to develop under their care before he takes the field. However, his talent could make him a primary back-up if necessary.

[What Does Sam Beal Bring To The Giants?]

Teddy Williams - The first of a trio of cornerbacks who did not play in 2017, Williams is a former member of the Carolina Panthers who was waived following a shoulder injury in last year’s preseason. Dave Gettleman originially signed Williams to a two-year, $2.3 million deal in 2015, and he primarily played special teams for the Panthers.

The 29-year-old Williams was a track star in college — he didn’t play football — but did have a 7 tackle, 1 interception effort against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in 2016, before an injury ended his season.

B.W. Webb - Despite having a high-priced free agent, a third year top-10 pick, and a shiny new third-round pick, depth at corner is still a major concern for the Giants. The Giants signed Webb this off-season hoping to address that. Webb was out of the NFL in 2017, he has still played in 49 NFL games, with 10 starts (8 of which were with the 2016 New Orleans Saints).

At 5 feet, 11 inches, 190 pounds, Webb could be a candidate to provide depth at both the slot and outside corner positions, which would only help his chances of making the team.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Slot corner

William Gay - While Gay is the likely front-runner to be the starting slot corner, that likely wasn’t the primary reason why the Giants’ signed the former Pittsburgh Steeler. At 33 years old, Gay’s true value might be in his locker room leadership and veteran mentorship for younger players. After the Giants’ cornerback position fractured badly last year, that leadership and experience in a winning culture should help the locker room grow the right way.

Whether the 33-year old Gay is able to get it done on the field for the whole season remains to be seen. Having another “Deon Grant” who can show the young players how to be a true professional, bridging the gap between player and coach could outweigh anything he can do on the field.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Chris Lewis-Harris - The Giants signed a bevy of under-the-radar free agent corners in the offseason, hoping that a crowded depth chart would produce capable back-ups for Jenkins and Apple. Lewis-Harris has five years of experience, most recently with the Denver Broncos in 2017 training camp.

The Giants signed Lewis-Harris on May 13th, after impressing the coaches as a try-out player at the Giants’ rookie mini-camp. Pro Football Focus credits him with 137 snaps of game experience, but in that span he has 13 tackles, as well as a pair of passes defensed and an interception in the 2016 season.

He could potentially provide depth at either slot or outside corner.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Donte Deayon - Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State in 2016, the question with Donte Deayon has always been whether or not he is big enough to play in the NFL. At 5 feet, 9 inches and 163 pounds, Deayon will never be the biggest dog in the fight at the NFL level, but given the size of the fight in the dog, he is an easy player to root for.

Deayon played in four games as injuries ravaged the Giants’ roster in 2017, notching 9 total tackles and a pass defensed. He got around his size issues at the college level by studying tape and playing the ball instead of the offensive player. The result was a dynamic ballhawking duo along with Darian Thompson, but it is fair to wonder whether Deayon can ever make the leap to full-time status at the NFL level.

[90-Man Roster Profile]

Grant Haley - Along with S Sean Chandler, Haley is one of the potential jewels of the Giants’ undrafted free agent period this year. Haley is short for the NFL at 5’10”, but has a more “NFL” appropriate frame at 190 pounds. He carried an early “Day 3” grade coming out of Penn State for his quickness and tenacious coverage ability. Mike Mayock opined at the NFL Scouting Combine that “I think he’s one of the most undervalued defensive backs in this draft. I think he’s tough and fast. For some reason, nobody talks about this kid.”

Haley and Deayon will likely be locked in a dogfight to be the back-up slot corner behind William Gay. It is possible that if both impress, the Giants might not risk either on the waiver wire given the DB-heavy nature of James Bettcher’s defense.

[90-Man Roster Profile]