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Safety play will be big part of success, failure of Giants’ defense

A lot is expected from new duo of Jabrill Peppers, Antoine Bethea

NFL: New York Giants-Minicamp
Jabrill Peppers
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants re-imagined their safety position heading into 2019, with Jabrill Peppers replacing Landon Collins and Antoine Bethea taking over for Curtis Riley. What impact will that have on the Giants’ defense? Let’s take a look as we continue our position-by-position previews heading into training camp.

Projected Depth Chart

Starters: Jabrill Peppers, Antoine Bethea
Reserves: Michael Thomas, Sean Chandler, Tenny Adewusi, Kenny Ladler

Free Safety

Bethea, even at 35 and not the athlete he was when he posted a 4.39 40-yard dash and a 4.13 20-yard shuttle (73rd percentile) at the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine, represents a clear upgrade from Riley.

Truth is, though, the bar isn’t high.

Riley, a converted cornerback, ended up with the job because there wasn’t anyone else. Collins is not much better in the box than in the center field role Riley spent most of his time. Michael Thomas played free safety a fair amount during five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, but the Giants didn’t see that as the best way to use him. The only other real option was undrafted rookie Sean Chandler, and his 4.65 40-yard dash speed makes him less than an ideal candidate to be a single high center fielder.

Riley, as any Giants fan knows, wasn’t good. He led all safeties with 23 missed tackles. His Pro Football Focus tackling efficiency score of 3.9 (a missed tackle every 3.9 attempts) was worst in the league among starting safeties. Riley’s inability to tackle created a number of big plays for opposing offenses.

Riley did post the best passer rating against of NFL safeties at 39.5, allowing 13 receptions in 23 direct targets. Since he spent much of the season lined up in another zip code, 20 yards or so off the line of scrimmage, only four of 31 qualifying safeties ended up targeted less often.

Bethea brings 13 years of NFL experience to the Giants, including a 2017 season spent playing for Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher with the Arizona Cardinals. That season, Bethea had had five interceptions and nine passes defensed while playing 544 of 742 defensive snaps (73.3 percent) at free safety.

His knowledge of Bettcher’s defense and ability read and recognize what offenses want to do and get teammates aligned is something Riley, a first-time starter, simply couldn’t be expected to offer.

Bethea missed only five tackles last season, one every 8.1 attempts.

“He’s fine as a deep free safety, but he can still blitz well too,” said Seth Cox of SB Nation’s Cardinals web site, Revenge of the Birds. “He’s crafty more than anything at this stage of his career, but he’s also one of the hardest working guys in the room.”

Bethea has only missed significant time in one of his 13 seasons, playing just seven games that year. That’s good, because the Giants don’t really appear to have another true free safety on the roster. They also don’t really have a long-term replacement for Bethea, an obvious stop-gap, in place.

The Giants have said rookie fourth-round pick Julian Love has free safety skills, but they appear intent on allowing him to settle into the NFL at his natural cornerback spot for now. Unless they see Love as the answer, this is a position where they will likely be back in the market next offseason.

For now, though, as long as Bethea remains healthy the Giants should be better off than a year ago.

Strong Safety

Can Peppers replace the play-making and leadership that Collins, a defensive captain, three-time Pro Bowler in four seasons and a 2016 All-Pro brought to the Giants’ defense? This will be one of the most interesting story lines of the 2019 season, and perhaps beyond that.

The Giants moved on from Collins not because they didn’t see him as a good player. They just saw his coverage limitations (a 127.8 passer rating against last season, 60th among 61 qualifying safeties, per PFF) and understood the reality that he is a box safety/pseudo linebacker and decided they didn’t want to do what the Washington Redskins did. That, of course, was make him — by far — the game’s highest-paid safety with a six-year, $84 million deal that has an average annual value of $14 million per season.

Peppers, of course, was acquired along with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, for Odell Beckham Jr. He has a skillset similar to Collins’, though not the resume with only two years of experience. The Giants believe he will be better in coverage as he matures, though his 116.5 passer rating against last season was barely better than Collins’ 127.8.

The other critical piece is that Peppers, 23, is two years younger than Collins and, with two full seasons and a fifth-year option remaining on his rookie contract, is cost-controlled for the next three seasons.

Final thoughts

The Giants do hope that Bethea can help Peppers become one of the leaders of the secondary. Peppers showed with some good-natured trash talking of the offense, that he brings energy and passion.

One overlooked facet of this pairing is that Bettcher historically loves to bring pressure from the secondary. In 2018, Bethea’s pass rush productivity score of 17.9 (three sacks, 12 total pressures) led all safeties. Peppers was fifth with a sack and 12 pressures for a score of 9.7.