Over two seasons New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman has poured quite a bit of his draft capital into an effort to upgrade the talent at cornerback. Gettleman used a 2018 Supplemental Draft pick on Sam Beal. He traded a pair of mid-round picks to move up for DeAndre Baker in 2019. In that same draft, he used a fourth-round pick on Julian Love and a sixth-round pick on Corey Ballentine.
Quite honestly, the attention to this position was absolutely necessary. There are, though, a couple of problems with turning to so many young players at cornerback. First, you have to choose the right young players. Second, cornerback with all of its complexities is a notoriously difficult position for young players. It’s going to be fraught with growing pains, and with the ugly mistakes that come with those.
The situation was exacerbated with the Giants released Janoris Jenkins after 13 games. Even without doing that, though, the Giants relied heavily on players Gettleman termed “pups.” Baker, Ballentine, Beal and second-year man Grant Haley. Love was moved to safety.
The results were predictably ugly, and the lack of progress in pass coverage was a big part of the reason defensive coordinator James Bettcher was likely out even if Pat Shurmur had been retained.
The Giants finished 31st in the league in pass coverage using Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metrics. They surrendered the sixth-most passing plays of 20 or more yards (67) and the second-most plays of 40 or more yards (15). Their passer rating against (101.4) was fifth-worst in the league.
Starters: DeAndre Baker, Sam Beal Corey Ballentine
Reserves: Grant Haley, Antonio Hamilton, Rashaan Gaulden
Futures contract: Derrick Baity
DeAndre Baker — Baker’s rookie season was undoubtedly not what the Giants had hoped for. Early struggles, a midseason admission that he was still uncertain of the playbook and some questions about his effort at times. All of that led to an ugly 130.9 passer rating against and eight touchdowns surrendered among the 50 completions he allowed. The Giants had hoped for better after moving back up into the first round to select him.
Still, there was a stretch of five games from Week 10 to Week 15 that offered a glimmer of potential. During that time period Baker allowed just seven completions and one touchdown in 23 targets.
After what the Giants invested in him, giving up on him this quickly wouldn’t seem to be an option. Let’s hope that a humbling season and a new coaching staff will help Baker realize the potential that made Gettleman go get him in the first place.
Sam Beal — After two seasons, we still need to see more of Beal to know what he really is. He missed his rookie season with a shoulder injury. He played only six games in 2019, missing the first half of the season with leg injuries. At only 177 pounds, he might be undersized to play on the outside. He ended the season with a passer rating against of 104.2, giving up 14 completions in 20 targets (70 percent).
Corey Ballentine — A sixth-round pick out of Division II Washburn, Ballentine impressed the Giants with his character in dealing with the draft-night shooting death of a friend. He impressed with his athleticism throughout the summer. Needing help at slot cornerback and looking for a way to get him on the field, the Giants moved Ballentine into the slot. It’s a role he had never played, and the conversion really wasn’t successful.
Often confused by what was being asked of him or simply overmatched by experienced slot receivers, Ballentine compiled a 131.2 passer rating against and an awful Pro Football Focus grade of 29.8 in pass defense. He gave up 31 completions in 43 targets (72.1 percent), including four touchdowns.
The view here is that I remain bullish on Ballentine’s talent. I think, though, he would be best served by moving back outside.
Grant Haley — At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, this former undrafted free agent is a high-effort player who is easy to root for. His physical run support, critical for a slot cornerback who is always up on the line of scrimmage, is a huge asset. The problem is that Haley doesn’t cover well. In two seasons, his passer rating against in 127.4 and he has given up 62 completions in 76 targets (81.6 percent). That’s the reason he lost his job to Ballentine.
Antonio Hamilton — Hamilton didn’t play a single defensive snap for the Giants in 2018. When injuries forced him onto the field defensively in 2019 we found out why. He’s an incredible special teams player, but he’s a liability at corner. Hamilton is a slender 6-foot, 190-pounder and it really isn’t his coverage that is problematic. It’s that his lack of strength and struggles to tackle, which don’t really show up as a punt gunner, become apparent in coverage. He missed three tackles in 13 attempts last season, and generally hung on for dear life while waiting for help on other open-field tackles.
Is this position a need in 2020?
Yes. How much, though, depends entirely on how new coach Joe Judge, new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and new defensive backs coach feel about the players already at their disposal.
Do they feel strongly enough about the need at that spot to use the fourth overall pick on Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, the clear No. 1 cornerback in the draft, if he is still there when the Giants select? My guess is the Giants would go in a different direction, but I’m not ruling out the possibility.
Do they feel like adding a player or players in the middle or end of the draft would be enough? Might they use some of their salary cap space to try and find at least one veteran player who could help the young group?
The latter is actually the scenario I would hope to see unfold, especially if that veteran happens to be a quality slot cornerback. We’ll see what the Giants think as the offseason unfolds.