When the New York Giants chose to not place the franchise tag on Landon Collins, safety became one of the biggest needs on the roster. With Collins gone and Curtis Riley also a free agent after his one-year deal expired, the Giants were down both starting safeties from 2018.
It was a position the Giants looked to fill quickly. Their first free agent signing was Antoine Bethea, a veteran safety who played under James Bettcher with the Arizona Cardinals in 2017. Then Jabrill Peppers, a 2017 first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, was a point of emphasis as part of the return in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade. The Giants now have their starting safety duo for the 2019 season.
After the decision was made to let Collins go, the story was the Giants preferred safeties who could cover with the ability to be interchanged as a single-high, two-deep, in the slot, or in the box. That was accomplished with the additions of both Bethea and Peppers, who have spent parts of the past two seasons both near the line of scrimmage and deep in the secondary. Let’s take a look at what both of these players can bring to those roles.
Even at Bethea’s age — he’ll turn 35 years old July — he’s one of the better coverage safeties in the league. Last season 17 safeties saw at least 40 targets per Sports Info Solutions. Bethea was second in yards allowed per target (5.58) and yards allowed per coverage snap (0.51). Both were bested by only Adrian Amos (4.2, 0.26).
Bethea (41) still has the ability to run with some of the league’s fastest receivers. In the play below, he was a deep safety (top of screen) and carried Taylor Gabriel into the end zone with no open window for the pass to be completed.
In 2018, Bethea played in the box more often in a typical strong safety role while Tre Boston was often the deep safety in Arizona. But the previous season with Bettcher, Bethea was more often the single-high safety and he showed range to pull off those responsibilities.
The below play came against the Giants in Week 16 of the 2017 season. Bethea was the single-high deep safety in the middle of the field. He read Eli Manning’s eyes toward Evan Engram down the field from the slot. Bethea broke on the ball and traveled half the field for an interception.
This is a spot where Peppers needs some work. He spent much of 2017 as the “angel” safety in the Gregg Williams scheme that places the furthest defender between 20 to 25 yards away from the line of scrimmage. It looks ridiculous and serves little purpose in defending anything effectively. The 2017 Browns were 29th in DVOA against deep passes.
He played less of that role once Damrious Randall was added and Peppers set up more in the box during 2018. His 7.61 yards allowed per target is just slightly below average among 59 safeties who saw at least 20 targets last season. That number ranked 37th. But once you adjust for what happened on those targets, Peppers’s coverage looks even worse. Using Adjusted Yards per Attempt (A/YA), which accounts for touchdowns and interceptions, Peppers drops to 57th in that group. That huge adjustment comes from just one interception and five touchdowns allowed, per SIS, most of which came from covering tight ends in the red zone.
Peppers (22) can struggle against more physical tight ends and that really becomes a problem close to the end zone.
On the below play against the Houston Texans, he gets swatted away by Jordan Thomas (83) within five yards of the line of scrimmage and it’s enough to create an open window in the corner of the end zone.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals, he lost a leverage battle against C.J. Uzomah, which again left a window open for a touchdown throw.
Then against the Atlanta Falcons, Austin Hooper got a quick advantage from the slot while Peppers overcommitted to the outside. Hooper had to adjust for the pass, but was able to power past Peppers into the end zone for a touchdown.
This below touchdown against Travis Kelce would be less concerning — it’s a perfect throw from Patrick Mahomes, of course — if this wasn’t a bigger overall trend with Peppers.
He has the ability to break on the ball, though he has just eight passes defensed over his first two seasons. His lone interception this season came in a similar fashion to Bethea’s against the Giants in 2017. Peppers started in a two-deep look, but switched to a single-high after the snap. Peppers read the quarterback and the lone route down the field and traveled across the field to intercept an underthrown ball from Case Keenum.
For Peppers, it’s clear there is ability there, but it hasn’t consistently been displayed over his past two seasons.
As much as James Bettcher likes to blitz from all over, he didn’t use Bethea in that role often during the 2017 season — mostly because Bethea was always playing deep. In 2017, he only had nine pass rushes per Sports Info Solutions. But last season when Bethea played in the box more often, his pass rushes more than tripled. In 2018, Bethea had 30 pass rushes that turned out to be pretty productive with 11 pressures and three sacks.
No safety blitzed more than Peppers in 2018 — his 70 pass rushes tied with Jamal Adams of the New York Jets. But like his coverage, the blitzing left a little bit to be desired. Five safeties rushed the passer at least 50 times in 2018, per SIS. Peppers was fourth among those five in pressure rate (15.7 percent) and the three above him — Adams, Derwin James, and Budda Baker — all had a pressure rate of at least 25 percent.
On his 70 pass rushes, Peppers created 11 pressures. That’s the same number Bethea created on his 30 rushes last season. Part of that is situation. Part of that can be improved under Bettcher. But Peppers has been below average in creating pressure in his first two seasons.
The below chart shows every safety since 2016 with at least 20 pass rushes in a season. There are 80 of them. The trendline isn’t perfect — r-squared is 0.3, meaning the predictiveness isn’t incredibly strong — but it’s still a decent enough display of what these safeties have accomplished when rushing the passer. Those above the line create more pressure than expected. Those below, the opposite. Peppers is represented by the two orange dots. Bethea’s 2018 is in red.
Current status: just said out loud, to no one, "wow, that's a proper angle," while watching Antoine Bethea. This is what happens after 16 games of Curtis Riley.— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) March 12, 2019
We’ve seen even at Bethea’s age, he still has the athleticism to make some great plays on the field. He has the instincts to also be a smart player on the field and limit mistakes.
Tackles can be a flawed stat, but they’re the best we have for what we’re going to talk about right now. It might surprise you, but Beteha was third among all defenders last season in solo tackles. He had 100 of them, behind only Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch. Both of those players are much younger and play a position much more likely to produce that type of numbers. Add in assisted tackles and Bethea drops to 13th overall, but those matter less and can be wildly varied in how and when they’re assigned.
Still, among all of those tackles, 54.5 percent of them came before a first down was picked up by the offense. Among 46 safeties with at least 40 tackles, the average was 51.3 percent.
Bethea’s ability to read and react makes him a productive player in the open field. Take the below play-action pass run by the San Francisco 49ers. Bethea was at linebacker depth on the hashmark of what turned out to be the backside of the run action. He took one step towards the run but saw wide receiver Trent Taylor (81) as he ran back across the formation. Bethea broke on the pass and made the tackle for a minimal gain.
One place Peppers has shown consistent ability is coming up to make a play in front of him. He had six tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage on run or non-sack pass plays. He can be dangerous when he reads a screen pass before it gets blocked and he can react quickly to short routes.
Only 50 percent of his tackles prevented a first down, which is below average but also was due in part to the role he played in the Cleveland defense. He’s an average tackler with a 15.5 percent broken tackle rate last season. The average among players with at least 40 tackles was 15 percent. Bethea was right next to him at 15.2 percent. Both will be a signifiant upgrade on Curtis Riley, whose 28.9 percent broken tackle rate was the worst among 95 defensive backs.
What we can learn
Bethea and Peppers both have the ability to play deep and in the box. Versatility has been preached as a key for safeties in the post-Landon Collins era. But given the strengths and weaknesses of the two, it looks pretty clear the Giants would be better positioned with Bethea playing deep and Peppers in the box as often as possible. Bethea has the experience in Bettcher’s system and even entering his age-35 season has the ability to be an above average safety. Peppers can still be a bit of a project. His play to date is a bit underwhelming as the sticking point to the Beckham trade, but that fact could be used as hope there is better play to come. Or it could be another miscalculation by this front office. But the Giants will hope a new system and new coach will help speed up that development.
The team will know what it’s getting in Bethea, but Peppers will bring with him a wide range of possible outcomes.