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Giants position battles: Who will earn the second cornerback spot?

If it’s not DeAndre Baker, there are several options

New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Few New York Giants’ fans would have expected a starting cornerback slot to be open heading into the 2020 season, but the vacancy light is quite bright. The DeAndre Baker situation seems to oscillate by day and the cringe situation is uncertain, which leaves the Giants in a precarious spot with their second cornerback position. The former first-round pick could end up on the commissioner’s exempt list or eventually in jail, so the situation is difficult to grasp.

Luckily for New York, the team signed James Bradberry in the offseason, but who will be starting opposite of the former Dave Gettleman second-round pick? There are a few different options on the roster, but none with significant starting experience. New York has recently added an influx of players to their secondary; players that range from the college ranks, other NFL teams, and even the XFL.

In a league that is trending towards speed and the passing attack, it’s no wonder the Giants have put a priority on players who can cover. Head coach Joe Judge’s former team, the Patriots, have long prioritized defensive backs over pass rushers. The 2020 Giants seem to be heading in that direction as well. Since 2018, the Giants have drafted Sam Beal (third round supplemental pick), DeAndre Baker, Julian Love, Corey Ballentine, Xavier McKinney, Darnay Holmes, and Chris Williamson. They’ve also added Jabrill Peppers via trade and Bradberry, Dravon Askew-Henry, and Grant Haley in free agency (Haley as a 2018 undrafted free agent). The inundation of secondary pieces is by design and should work to the benefit of the Giants, but not all of these players have starting outside corner ability. Let’s dive into some of these players and see who may have the best chance of starting opposite of Bradberry.

Front runner: Sam Beal

Beal will be the frontrunner for this job by default. He has a higher draft pedigree, but it hasn’t worked out quite yet. Beal had a rough start to his injury-laden career; he landed on injured reserve in both of his NFL seasons while missing his entire rookie season, but he finally earned some snaps beginning in Week 10 of the 2019 campaign.

Beal almost exclusively played boundary cornerback. He was targeted 20 times, surrendering 14 receptions (70 percent completion rate). He wasn’t overly sticky at the top of routes, nor was he great with his reactionary quickness in coverage, but he did make some impressive open-field tackles in the Miami game; one that resulted in a safety. Beal showed quick diagnosing and attacking skills while making the aggressive play.

The big concern for Beal coming out of Western Michigan was his size. He’s a 6-foot-1, 177-pound, cornerback with a thin frame. This has been a problem so far in his NFL career, but there was a reason why many teams were high on Beal. He showed good man coverage ability in college while displaying good ball skills with 10 passes defensed and 2 interceptions in his last season.

Many people thought the selection of Beal was a wise move by Gettleman, due to the lack of talent in the Giants’ secondary at the time and the fact that Beal was supposedly already moving up draft boards. The sample size is small, but Beal hasn’t shown a lot in terms of staying in phase. Hopefully, with a healthy year ahead of him, we can see the potential manifest itself, but he’ll have to beat out the next player for the starting role, and that shouldn’t be too easy.

Potential candidate: Corey Ballentine

Beal will likely get the first crack at the job, but if Ballentine outshines him he should get the job no questions asked. On the night he was selected by the Giants, Ballentine was shot near his campus and his best friend, Dwane Simmons, was killed. An incredibly unfortunate set of circumstances surrounded Ballentine as training camp opened, and his start to the 2019 offseason was impeded. It took an incredible amount of resolve from Ballentine, and he was able to make the Giants’ roster while seeing significant snaps down the stretch of the season in the slot.

At Washburn, Ballentine played almost always on the boundary, so tasking him to play the slot, in place of a vulnerable Grant Haley, wasn’t an easy assignment. Ballentine was trying to adjust to the NFL, with most of his training camp and preseason stripped away from him while he was recovering from a gunshot wound and grieving the death of his best friend.

Ballentine ended up playing 279 snaps in the slot and only 10 of them out wide in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. His decisiveness wasn’t up to speed at the top of receivers breaks and he became an easy target for receivers to create separation against. It wasn’t an athletic issue, in my estimation, it was much more mental. The elite explosiveness that he tested at the combine was actually on display a lot in his rookie season, especially when it came to making aggressive tackles.

The young player combined burst, speed, and solid tackling fundamentals to record several quality tackles in his rookie season. In the slot, Ballentine was targeted 43 times, surrendering 31 catches (72.1 percent). But it’s much more difficult to cover receivers in the slot, with all that space, than it is to cover someone on the boundary.

Ballentine has good length and is more accustomed to playing outside on the boundary. He has the athletic ability to cover deep horizontal routes in man coverage, but he needs to be a bit more decisive sifting through the nuance of not biting on double moves and when to react to actual breaks. He has the athletic tools, and solid size, so I feel he can adapt with more practice and reps. The question of how many practice/reps will he receive in the COVID-19 era is still a reality, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Ballentine won the starting job over Beal.

Underdog: Darnay Holmes

The debate between Beal and Ballentine for the starting spot opposite Bradberry is the question of the day, but why is no one discussing Holmes in this manner? He strictly played boundary corner at UCLA and did so at a high level in 2018; supposedly, he was suffering a lower-body injury in 2019 that he suffered in training camp which led to the poor stats and the embarrassing Washington State game.

Holmes combines very good athletic ability and coverage skills, with solid mental processing for the position. Height bias is the obvious conclusion when it comes to Holmes, but the dire situation that the Giants find themselves in, with an often-injured Beal and inexperienced Ballentine as the only true competition, should propel Holmes at least into the discussion, no?

There have been several successful outside cornerbacks that are similar in stature to Holmes: Brent Grimes, Alterraun Verner, Malcolm Butler, Byron Murphy (still up for debate on success level), Antonie Winfield, and Kareem Jackson all come to mind. Sure, a few of those players were moved to safety, but at one time they were smaller outside corners, so why not Holmes.

I believe his name should be discussed in the conversation, but my main reservation with Holmes on the outside isn’t just height, but it’s length. Holmes has a 29 ½-inch reach (smaller than all the cornerbacks discussed above) with a dismal 69 ¾-inch wingspan. For reference, Beal, who is significantly taller yet much lighter than Holmes (177 to 195), has 31-inch arms with a 73-inch wingspan.

The length hurts him for sure, but I wouldn’t rule it out. He has experience in a Power-5 conference, is an incredible athlete, and he had 17 passes defensed and 8 interceptions in his three seasons with the Bruins. At the end of the day, Holmes’s name should be thrown into the competition, and it will be, but the measurables will never be on his side, so I can’t imagine he beats out Beal and Ballentine for the starting outside spot without an injury.

Final thoughts

Most Giants’ fans didn’t envision the second cornerback spot to be an issue going into 2020, but here we are! The spot should be one of the hottest training camp battles entering the season. Beal and Ballentine should both be given ample opportunity to separate themselves from one another, but I do think Holmes could be a severe underdog in the race as well.

Baker’s remaining time with the Giants is unknown and the team has poured assets into the secondary over the last few seasons. Even safeties like Dravon Askew-Henry and Julian Love may be considered for this role because of their past experiences, but it mainly should come down to Beal and Ballentine. This should be an entertaining aspect of training camp to watch; let’s just hope both players end up looking good and the decision is made tough in that manner, rather than the other way.

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