The news of the day, and week, is that the New York Giants have decided to move on from Eli Manning and install Daniel Jones as the team’s new starting quarterback.
But there are 51 other players on the roster besides Manning and Jones, and their play matters, too.
After a bad opening week game that saw the Giants’ defense look less like an obstacle put in place to keep the Dallas Cowboys out of the end zone and barely like a speed bump, the Giants had to make a change. That change was to promote rookie CB DeAndre Baker from a time-share with Antonio Hamilton to the full-time starting cornerback opposite Janoris Jenkins.
The Giants invested heavily in Baker, trading multiple picks to jump back into the first round and secure his selection at No. 30, rather than wait and hope he fell to them early in the second round. The Giants like Georgia defenders, and reportedly tried to trade up into the second round of the 2018 draft to select Lorenzo Carter — only to fail to secure a trade deal but have Carter fall to them in the third round.
And given the team’s extreme preference for familiarity in their players, it makes sense. Landon Collins, Dalvin Tomlinson, Lorenzo Carter, and the Giants coaching staff have all mentioned how similar James Bettcher’s defense is to the one run by Kirby Smart, the current Georgia head coach and former Alabama defensive coordinator.
The expectation was likely that by drafting a cornerback who is already broadly familiar with the Giants’ scheme (if not it’s exact wrinkles or verbiage) would help short-circuit the sharp learning curve associated with the cornerback position.
But while Baker was generally well regarded coming out of college — going two years without allowing a touchdown pass will do that — there were some lingering concerns about him.
The first is with his athleticism, or rather, his relative lack of athleticism. Put simply, DeAndre Baker is not a great — or even good — athlete for the cornerback position.
To put his relative athletic ability into a more sharp context, we have the RAS, a metric put together by Kent Lee Platt, who writes for our Detroit Lions focused SB Nation sister-site, Pride Of Detroit.
Platt’s RAS metric compares players against every player for whom he has data, going back decades. Of the 84 corners drafted since 1987 for whom Platt has combine results, Baker’s RAS ranks 80th.
The other concern about Baker is more nebulous, relating to his football character and off-field work ethic, as related by The Draft Network’s Jon Ledyard.
[I] Have been told by a few sources close to the program that Baker’s practice habits, work ethic and coachability are often not ideal. Could take a relatable coach to know how to handle/get the most out of him. Another source said he didn’t take Combine training seriously.
Ledyard was impressed by Baker’s tape and said so in his summary of the player, but again noted his concerns, saying:
If you’re looking for a press man corner, there are none more pro-ready than Baker in this class. His upside can’t match Greedy Williams’, but his technique and patience at the line of scrimmage are only outdone by his physicality. Baker has speed concerns and can get a bit grabby, but his ability to match all types of receivers off the line of scrimmage results in some impressive tape.
I do think Baker is a little bit scheme dependent as a press man corner, as he isn’t a great processor in zone and doesn’t play his best football in off-man. Keeping things simple for him in terms of assignments may be important, as Baker’s ball skills and length at the catch point show up more frequently in man coverage than anywhere else. I don’t think he’ll ever be a true no. 1 cornerback in the NFL, but he’s a sure starter who can help from day one if his character checks out.
Unfortunately, Baker’s play against the Buffalo Bills did not put these concerns to rest. The poor play of Baker, and the secondary as a whole, has invited criticism in the days following the Giants’ loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Let’s go back to the tape and get a better look at how the rookie played and see what conclusions we can draw.
2nd Quarter, 14:10
Third-and-10, NYG 26
Here we have the Bills facing a third-and-10 early in the second quarter with the score tied at 7.
It appears from the Giants’ adjustment to the Bills’ pre-snap motion, as well as how the Giants cover the Bills’ receivers after the snap, that they are playing a Cover 4 shell with all but their four pass rushers in zone coverage.
Baker is at the top of the screen, across from Cole Beasley who runs an out route while running back T.J. Yeldon runs a drag route from the slot.
Baker lines up with, roughly, an 8-yard cushion and only retreats a few steps after the snap. Baker is a bit high in his backpedal, but that doesn’t interfere with his break on the ball here.
But it is also clear that the Bills called this play intending to target Baker in coverage. QB Josh Allen stares Beasley’s route down, his head never moving. Baker, however, is a beat late in reacting and waits until after Allen has thrown the ball to drive on the receiver. So while his transition from backpedal to breaking on the ball is crisp with little wasted motion, he is still forced to take a tough angle and slips when Beasley loops back inside to try and pick up yards after the catch.
Baker slipping and winding up on the ground while his teammate made the tackle is a bad look. However, it was closer than it may have appeared. Between Allen staring the route down and waiting until after Beasley made his break, the opportunity was there for Baker to try and make a play on the ball or at least a tackle to save the first down.
2nd quarter, 8:08
First-and-20, Buffalo 35
Where our first play was a case of Baker needing to get to a point where he is able to think less and process information more quickly, this play is a straight coverage breakdown.
The Bills are backed up with a long 1st and 20 following a holding penalty on the previous play. The Giants Are lined up in a Cover 3 defense with Janoris Jenkins, Antoine Bethea, and Baker dividing the deep part of the field into three zones of coverage. Meanwhile the linebackers, box safety, and slot corner are each in man coverage underneath.
Ordinarily teams would attack a Cover 3 defense by running four verticals on the logic that three DBs can’t cover four receivers. But the Bills attack the defense by sending three receivers vertical with two shallow routes as a safety valves.
Beasley runs the vertical route through Baker’s zone, which he should have picked up. But for some reason Baker abandons his area of responsibility to help Bethea double team Dawson Knox up the seam, leaving Beasley wide open. Perhaps Baker assumed that Peppers was going to pick up and carry Beasley down the field, but Baker still had his eyes facing the offense and had to have seen Peppers pick up the out route, as well as Allen come back to Beasley’s route before Baker turned away.
This was just a bad play by the rookie, who will need to be more disciplined in the future, as well as show greater trust in his teammates.
3rd Quarter, 6:51
Second-and-8, Buffalo 28
For most of the game the Giants had Baker in off-man or zone coverage, usually lining up 8 to 10 yards away from the opposing wide receiver. There were even plays in which the rest of the defense was in tight coverage, but Baker would be well off the line of scrimmage.
This was one of the few (three or four, by my count) instances in which the Giants played Baker close to the line of scrimmage in man coverage.
Here we see Baker lined up in the slot, covering fellow Georgia alum, and former teammate, Isaiah McKenzie as the Bills come out in a 12-personnel package.
Baker starts the play in tight coverage but doesn’t get a jam at the line of scrimmage. McKenzie takes inside leverage as he gets into his deep crossing route, and as Bethea retreats to the deep middle part of the field, Baker transitions to a trail technique as McKenzie to try and be in position to undercut any deep passes.
The difference in McKenzie’s 4.4 speed and Baker’s 4.5 speed is apparent as he begins to get separation from Baker.
McKenzie then notices Allen is flushed out of the pocket and transitions into a scramble drill, working back toward the bottom of the screen to try and create an opportunity for his quarterback. Baker can’t keep up with the cut and McKenzie runs wide open. Fortunately for the Giants, either Allen doesn’t see the open receiver or the pressure is such that — even with his ridiculous arm talent — he can’t attempt a throw of that depth and across his body without a chance to set his feet.
Should the Giants be panicking over DeAndre Baker?
No, at least not yet. Even if Baker is familiar with the broad concepts and general shape of the Giants’ defensive scheme, there are adjustments to be made from college to the NFL. Offenses are faster and more complex, so defenses have to be as well. That is a big reason why cornerback has the sharpest learning curves of any position in the NFL. Plays like the first one detailed should get better with time as the game slows down for Baker.
Baker might be forced to walk a fine line in the NFL. He might have to be a press man corner so he has the opportunity to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt their routes to cover for his limited athleticism. However, we have seen multiple instances where his college physicality has translated to “grabby” play and pass interference penalties in the NFL as he is beaten and tries to disrupt receivers and recover.
Whether or not he can find that balance and walk that line will come down to coaching and his own development.
However, Giants fans (and the Giants themselves) should be concerned if the issues with work ethic, practice habits, and coachability expressed to Ledyard prove to have merit. But for now we will just have to be patient and watch for Baker’s development.