The third week of the preseason is typically when the starters play a majority of the game. Landon Collins said he expects the first-team defense will play about three quarters of the game Friday night against the New York Jets. That could give us a good look for who is actually on the first team since there’s still a few unsettled position battles as the New York Giants approach the regular season.
Let’s go over the defensive position battles and participants to watch Friday against the Jets.
Can Curtis Riley keep the free safety job?
Front-runner: Curtis Riley
Why: Riley has been getting the majority of the first-team reps at practice opposite Collins and he got the start at free safety last week against the Detroit Lions. Riley, a converted cornerback who played some safety in limited action with the Tennessee Titans last season, has been trusted as the deep centerfielder on plays when Landon Collins creeps closer to the line of scrimmage. Against Detroit, Riley got a little more run than the rest of the settled starters (22 snaps to 17), though he didn’t show up on the stat sheet. But much of that was due to the Lions not throwing the ball deep with Riley was in the game. The one lone deep pass came when Riley blitzed and was picked up by running back Ameer Abdullah. With starters getting more run on Friday, Riley should find himself with a bigger opportunity to make an impact on the field.
The competition: Andrew Adams remains a fixture in the safety rotation, but rotational piece appears to be his destined role to start the season. Adams was good in limited coverage last season — his 65 percent Success Rate was second-best on the team behind Ross Cockrell — but he’s not the type of player to be left alone deep. More reliance on three-safety looks with Riley and Adams deep with Collins at the line could be his best path to playing time — something that could become an option if linebackers continue to struggle in coverage.
Michael Thomas got 31 defensive snaps at safety against the Lions, but he was signed mostly to be a key part of a revamped special teams unit and his work on defense will be secondary to his role there. Sean Chandler got a lot of work (29 snaps) with the second and third teams, but he hasn’t stood out in a way that would propel the undrafted rookie into the conversation. He’s closer playing for a spot on the roster than the starting gig. Darian Thompson started the first preseason game at free safety, but missed the game against Detroit due to a hamstring injury in the game against Cleveland and hasn’t returned to practice.
Giants in good hands with B.W. Webb in the slot?
Front-runner: B.W. Webb
Why: Webb has been the standout in practices and has slowly worked his way up the depth chart. His rise started with a week in practice when he was seemingly on the receiving end of evert Davis Webb pass with the second-team. Since then he’s taken more reps with the starters. Webb didn’t “start” against the Lions because the Giants ran the first defensive play in a 3-4 base, but was the first slot corner out on the field. However, much of his play came with the second-team defense as an outside corner, where he has more experience. He finished the game with three tackles, a pass defensed, and a pass interference penalty.
The competition: Donte Deayon returned to practice this week after missing a significant amount of time with an injury so this game against the Jets is an important — and possibly only — shot at making an impact in the position battle. Grant Haley got the most play of any defensive player against the Lions — 60 snaps with the next highest at 45 — and there were some highs and lows during that time. He allowed a few receptions to Marvin Jones, but they were in close coverage where many struggle to cover Jones. The touchdown he allowed to T.J. Jones was an uncalled offensive pass interference. But it was clear the staff wanted to see Haley get some run, which could be a good sign for the undrafted rookie. Leonard Johnson had a few tackles, a tackle for loss charging up in the run game, and a pass deflection on a blitz against the Lions. William Gay played only seven snaps after a return from injury and he’s also gotten run at free safety in practice.
Outside linebacker: Kareem Martin a starter, but for how long?
Front-runner: Kareem Martin
This isn’t exactly a wide open position battle like the other ones, but the Giants have a few capable players who could fit on the outside opposite Olivier Vernon. Since the start of camp, this has been Kareem Martin’s job and it has continued to be halfway through the preseason. He got the start in Detroit and played the same 17 snaps as the rest of the starters. On those snaps, he had a deflected pass (nearly a strip sack) and a tackle for loss against the run. Martin played under James Bettcher in Arizona, which has given him the edge as the starter from the beginning.
The competition: Third-round pick Lorenzo Carter has flashed at times through the first two preseason games. He can still struggle with offensive tackles one-on-one as a down lineman, but he would have tallied his first sack if not for a poorly called helmet penalty against Mark Herzlich. Carter might not develop quickly enough to emerge as a starter early in the season, but could be someone to watch in the second half. Connor Barwin missed the game in Detroit and has yet to return to practice. It’s a long absence for an injury that was initially labeled as “soreness.” Regardless of how the order of the depth chart falls, the Giants want to rotate these pass rushers more often than they have in the past. With the starters now getting the majority of the playing time for this game, keep an eye out for how often players like Martin and Carter get rotated in and out.
Passing down linebacker
When the Giants go from their 3-4 base to a nickel look, the move has been to take one of the defensive linemen off the field, push the outside linebackers down to traditional defensive ends and leave Alec Ogletree and B.J. Goodson on as linebackers. But that might not always be the case. In obvious passing situations, the Giants might opt to bring another defensive back on the field. Last year James Bettcher played way more nickel (65 percent, seventh-most in league) than dime (7 percent, 18th), but that was also due to the presence of Deone Bucannon, a converted safety to linebacker. If the Giants want to bring on another safety and bring Landon Collins down in the box, one of the linebackers would have to leave the field. Alec Ogletree was brought in to be the athletic middle linebacker, but he’s had major struggles in coverage to this point, both in practice and in games. Goodson isn’t exactly known as a coverage linebacker and he struggled there — 45 percent success rate, 10.5 adjusted yards allowed per pass per Football Outsiders Almanac — in limited time last season. Ray-Ray Armstrong might be the best coverage linebacker on the roster — 50 percent success rate, 6.6 adjusted yards allowed per pass — and he has been getting some time with the first-team during practice in nickel situations. This might not be a major factor or even come up against the Jets, but it could be a decision the coaches are forced to make at some point this season.