When constructing their roster, the New York Giants pay close attention to making sure the bottom portion of the roster is filled with players who have shown that they can excel on special teams.
Pro Bowl special teamer Michael Thomas, Cody Core, Antonio Hamilton, Russell Shepard (now on IR), David Mayo, Nate Stupar are among the examples. Dropping a useful wide receiver in Bennie Fowler this week, mostly because he does not play special teams, is yet another example.
Nowhere does the Giants’ attention to building a quality group of special teamers show up more than on the Giants’ punt coverage unit.
The Giants are currently second in the league with a net punting average of 46.8 yards per kick, five full yards better than they did in that department a season ago.
Part of that is simply because punter Riley Dixon is booming away at 48.1 yards per punt, nearly three yards better than his previous best of 45.7 (2016 with the Denver Broncos).
The Giants, though, have been exceedingly stingy in not allowing returners to go anywhere once they haul in Dixon’s bombs. The Giants have given up just 21 yards on eight returned punts, an average 2.6 yards per return that has them third in the league.
Antonio Hamilton, often aligned as a gunner when the Giants punt, has been a critical special teams player for the Giants for two seasons.
“We just stick together. We stick with the plan. Riley does an excellent job of hanging the ball up and giving us enough time to get down there to cover the punts,” Hamilton said. “He’s doing a great job with managing that.
“A lot of punters are out here outkicking their coverages and getting big returns. We’re kicking it deep and he’s hanging it up a long enough time for us to cover it. Great things happen when you get your guys down there around the ball.”
Hamilton said Dixon who, like him, is in his second season with the Giants, has gotten better.
“He’s just improved. He’s been doing an outstanding job. Kudos to him,” Hamilton said. “He’s KICKING that thing, and it’s hanging up there.”
Veteran long snapper Zak DeOssie has been with Jeff Feagles and Steve Weatherford during his time with the Giants.
“He’s got all the talent in the world,” DeOssie said of Dixon, who is in his fourth NFL season. “He’s just starting to realize it.”
The Giants biggest special teams addition this season has been Cody Core, claimed on waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals when the Giants let Alonzo Russell go before the season began.
An outstanding gunner, Core leads the Giants with four special teams tackles. Thomas and Hamilton (two apiece) are the only other players with more than one.
“Cody doesn’t say two words, he comes in and he just does his job, and he does it very well. He plays hard, he’s physical, and he has really good awareness for the special teams area,” said special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey. “As a receiver, he’s solid, but where he excels is covering kicks, and he’s also an excellent blocker. He’s just a great teammate, and I think more than anything, that’s what the head coach wants and the GM wants, good people. When you couple that with his athleticism and his ability to make plays, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Sitting at his locker on Wednesday, Core said a whole lot more than two words when I asked him about his work as a gunner.
“I love it. I love it. Any time I get an opportunity I want to be the guy to make that tackle for the team. Every kick I want to be the first one down there making that tackle.” Or down the ball inside the 20, or inside the 10 or inside the 5 because it makes the other team’s offense work even harder and it helps our team,” he said.
“It’s fun. It’s an attitude, you’ve gotta have the right mindset. You can’t just go out there and run. You’ve gotta work.”
Core developed that attitude at Ole Miss. In addition to playing wide receiver, he played some safety early in his time there and played special teams all four years with the Rebels.
Core also credited Dixon with helping the coverage team.
“I think he’s No. 1 in the league to me in my eyes,” Core said, adding that Dixon’s ability to put the ball where the coverage team expects it has been critical.
“That’s the difference. We know where it’s going. He has great direction and great ball placement. Yeah, we do our part but he makes the job, I don’t want to say easy, but awareness-wise we know where it’s going, where it’s about to drop, how we need to be down field. He’s making the game easy.”
With Shepard shelved for the season, Core and Hamilton are the primary gunners in punt coverage. Ask either of them about the depth the Giants have at that spot and they mention Corey Ballentine, Grant Haley and Cody Latimer as players who can all fill the gunner role effectively.
“Unreal,” DeOssie said of the play so far this season from the gunners. “Those guys are just bringing a lot of savvy and speed. They’re around the ball. That’s all you can ask for. Double, single, whatever it is they’re putting forth their best effort. It’s unbelievable.”