After selecting three cornerbacks in the 2019 NFL Draft — and a fourth in the 2018 Supplemental Draft — the secondary of the New York Giants is set to be young. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Last season, the Giants’ secondary was not one of the league’s better units, ranked 26th against the pass per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Despite some inexperience — UDFA Grant Haley turned into a starter, B.W. Webb was a starter after serving as a role player for much of his career, Curtis Riley was in his first season as a safety — the unit wasn’t particularly young.
By Football Outsiders’ snap-weighted age, which weights the age of the unit by snaps played instead of using an overall average age, had the Giants’ defensive back group slightly older than average at 26.3, which ranked 20th and just above the 26.1 average among all teams.
While that would appear to be expected to drop this season with the gang of youths brought in during the offseason, that’s not necessarily the case. By replicating the snap-weighted age formula and using the (admittedly flawed, but experimental) process of replacing this year’s projected starters into last season’s roles by snap count, the Giants come out slightly older with a snap-weighted age of 26.8 for the defensive back unit. Much of that is due to the projected playing time of the group — the 31-year-old Janoris Jenkins and 35-year-old Antione Bethea. For this exercise, I even placed less of an emphasis on Bethea and gave him Landon Collins’s snaps (73.3 percent in 2018) and gave the 95.5 percent of Curtis Riley’s snaps to the younger Jabrill Peppers (24), even though the on-field roles will be the opposite.
The majority of the Giants secondary, though, is likely to be made up of 22-year-old DeAndre Baker, 23-year-old Grant Haley, 23-year-old Sam Beal, 23-year-old Corey Ballentine, and 21-year-old Julian Love.
However, the experience veterans of Jenkins and Bethea should not be overlooked, especially with a player like Bethea as the deep safety net — a position that was not remotely a strength and more often a detriment to the defense in 2018. The rest of the secondary clearly is going to be young but that doesn’t predetermine the quality of the group.
In each of the past two seasons, the New Orleans Saints had the youngest defensive back group by snap-weighted age. By the end of the 2017 season, the New Orleans secondary was mostly made up of rookie first-round pick Marshon Lattimore, second-year undrafted free agent Ken Crawley, 2016 second-round pick Von Bell, rookie second-round pick Marcus Williams, and the veteran of the group in 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. That group helped the Saints to the fifth-best pass defense in the league by DVOA.
Last season, the Saints had a snap-weighted age of 24.3 — collectively two years younger than the Giants even project to be in 2019 — but had a significant drop off against the pass to a rank of 22nd by DVOA. Ken Crawley went from one of the league’s better corners in charting metrics during 2017 (18th in yards allowed per pass and 10th in success rate per Football Outsiders) to one of the league’s worst in 2018 and was eventually replaced by trade acquisition Eli Apple. Lattimore’s charting numbers were about average during his rookie season, but he dropped to 81st among 83 qualified corners in yards allowed per pass and 74th in success rate during 2018.
Defensive statistics are less stable from year-to-year than offensive stats and that is especially true of the cornerback charting metrics, which are much better as despective numbers than predictive ones. With nearly the same group coming back for a third season and a full offseason with Eli Apple as a starter, the Saints could still find themselves an improved group in the secondary and still one of the youngest. Lattimore, entering his third season, will only be 23 years old.
Perhaps the Giants could look more like the 2018 Seattle Seahawks, a team with the second-youngest secondary last season. The prior year, Seattle’s Legion of Boom started to crack. Due to injuries, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor played just over half of the team’s defensive snaps and Earl Thomas missed two games. But the Seahawks were able to rotate in a few young players who contributed instantly, such as nickel corner Justin Coleman and rookie cornerback Shaquil Griffin, who finished the season fifth in yard allowed per pass and eighth in success rate among qualified cornerbacks. The group overall was 21st in snap-weighted age that season.
In 2018, Sherman was in San Francisco, Chancellor was out of football due to his injury, and Thomas made it through just four games before suffering a season-ending injury. The Seahawks relied on more youth than expected. Griffin took over as the team’s top corner but struggled in that role (69th in yards allowed per pass and 74th in success rate). The 25-year-old Coleman continued his play as one of the league’s best slot corners, but was also in a contract year. On the outside, Seattle eventually relied upon rookie fifth-round pick Tre Flowers, who was up and down for 91 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Seattle finished a respectable 14th in pass defense DVOA, though much of that success was from Coleman in the slot (10th in DVOA) and work against running backs (13th in DVOA) and tight ends (10th in DVOA), which was more about the linebacking corps than Seattle’s young outside corners.
Then there is a secondary like the 2018 Colts, the fourth-youngest by snap-weighted age and 20th in pass defense DVOA. That group started to come together at the end of the season with solid performances by cornerbacks Pierre Desir (29) and Kenny Moore (23), but for much of the season, the secondary was aided by a defensive line and excellent group of linebackers that shut down the run — fourth in run defense DVOA. For as many rescources have been used on the defensive line and linebackers, this doesn’t feel like a path the 2019 Giants can take.
The Cleveland Browns also had one of the league’s youngest secondaries that played quite well. The Browns ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA. led by a first-round rookie corner.
On the other side, the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens had two of the league’s oldest secondaries and two of the league’s best pass defenses. Where teams don’t want to be is where the Oakland Raiders found themselves last season, with the third-oldest defensive back group in the league and a 32nd-ranked pass defense by DVOA.
Youth won’t be the determining factor in the Giants’ play this season. They also won’t be relying strictly on young players — the team will have experience at two important positions with players expected to be on the field for a majority of the defensive snaps. What will matter more than the age will be the play. If Janoris Jenkins plays like 2017 and 2018, his seven seasons in the league matter less. If DeAndre Baker immediately clicks, it won’t matter if he is only a rookie. It would also be fair to have more concern about the future play of Jenkins, who hasn’t had an above average season since 2016, than Baker and the other rookies.
Last season’s Giants secondary was bad, slightly inexperienced, and not that young. The youth movement was made, the inexperience can show at some point, but time will tell how that impacts the quality of the group.