The biggest liability for the 2019 New York Giants’ uninspiring defense was the nickel defender position. The team initially bestowed the role to 2018 undrafted rookie free agent, Grant Haley. The former Nittany Lion was excellent in run support, one of the best pound-for-pound tacklers on the team, but was susceptible in coverage from the intermediate to deep parts of the field.
Corey Ballentine assumed the primary role as a nickel cornerback in Week 9 against the Dallas Cowboys, but he too struggled and was exposed against Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago Bears. Ballentine’s natural fit seems to be on the boundary, but the square peg was forced into the round hole in 2019.
Down the stretch of the season, former Notre Dame outside cornerback Julian Love showed that he was more than capable of covering slot receivers. Love played 129 snaps in the slot with 176 as a “box” defender, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s an excellent option as an Apex defender and as a light linebacker, but I don’t see the 2020 Giants’ defense, under Patrick Graham, pigeon-holing Love into one role; he’s entirely too versatile.
The Giants didn’t spend their second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft on Xavier McKinney and elect to pick up Jabrill Peppers’ fifth-year option for nothing. The safeties will be used in slot coverage, in the box, in man coverage on tight ends, running backs, and receivers. The versatile skillsets of Peppers, McKinney, and Love should be used creatively and unpredictably depending on opponent and situation. With that said, let’s see who may have the first crack at nickel duties, a job that I feel will be more of a committee approach.
Front runner: Combination of safeties
Graham should have several options on how to utilize coverage while not impeding the run defense’s effectiveness. These hybrid type defenders who can play in the box and cover downfield are the buzz in the NFL and the Giants have three of them in Peppers, Love, and McKinney. The Giants couldn’t pass on the value of McKinney in the second round and it should give Graham a lot of options on how to employ the defense.
Holmes won’t be a stranger to the nickel position, but I can see the Giants wanting to employ defenses that have three safeties. In a Cover 1, for example, Love can be deep, McKinney can be the APEX defender to the boundary, with Peppers inside the box next to Martinez in 11 personnel. In this scenario, Holmes can play nickel to the field on the number 2 receiver, and the Giants can function with six defensive backs, one true linebacker, and four defensive linemen (including EDGE).
12 personnel has been employed effectively by successful teams like the 49ers, Ravens, and the Eagles. In those cases, it doesn’t make much sense to play with six defensive backs because theoretically, the defense may be at a disadvantage against the run. Three competent, versatile, defenders who can execute run fits and play in coverage will give the Giants an ability to match with certain offensive personnel packages. New York can play five defensive backs, two true linebackers, and four defensive linemen with one of the defensive backs (Love, Peppers, or McKinney) playing in the box. The defense can also substitute a linebacker for another defensive lineman which would be common as well if the safeties can leverage their responsibility against the run.
The predominant personnel package that offenses use is 11 personnel and I can easily see the Giants rolling with the three safeties, especially if the other team employs a “big slot” type of offensive weapon. If the opposing team has smaller, shiftier, players that line up in the slot, then I think someone like Holmes may be utilized due to his skillset being more aligned with the quickness of those types of receivers. Either way, the Giants will see a lot of big slot with a safety manning the position, and we’ll also see Holmes in there. Situations will dictate.
Potential candidate: Darnay Holmes
I’ve been in favor of throwing Holmes’ name into the undecided second starting cornerback conversation, albeit he should be a distant third given his lack of length. Lack of height is one thing, but 29 ½-inch arms are short. Nevertheless, the 2018 UCLA tape of Holmes showed a player that had excellent quickness, agility, overall athletic ability, and solid technique while playing on the boundary. The question becomes - does that translate to the nickel position?
Holmes didn’t run the 3-Cone drill at the combine, an exercise that measures short-area quickness and agility, but his 2018 tape seems to suggest that he’s capable of handling the responsibility of having a receiver with a two-way go out of the slot. In 2019, Holmes was hampered with an injury he suffered in training camp, so the tape must be contextualized with that information, but this fact may have worked to the betterment of the Giants snagging him in the fourth round.
I can easily see Holmes playing a significant role in the slot when it warrants. There may be defensive formations with 1-4-6 on third down. Just spitballing, but Leonard Williams at the 1-technique, Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, Kyler Fackrell, and Blake Martinez as roving second-level defenders, and Ballentine (or Beal), Bradberry, Holmes, McKinney, Peppers, and Love on the field as back end defenders, with the caveat that one of the three safeties is in the box.
There will be other situations, say third and manageable (third-and-5). Where the Giants may want to go a little bigger and roll with a 2-4-5; Williams and Dexter Lawrence (or Dalvin Tomlinson), along with the same combination of second-level defenders (EDGE/LBs), and then use one of the safeties as the nickel defender, depending on the offensive personnel. Having that safety either as a force defender or alley defender should theoretically help the Giants if the offense decides to run the football. The Giants have options this season at the nickel position and I think they’ll be a nice combination of Holmes and one of the three safeties being utilized in that area of the field.
Underdog: Chris Williamson
The lack of training camp will hurt players like Chris Williamson, a seventh-round draft pick who was relying on practice time to make a significant enough impression to earn snaps. Coach Joe Judge has emphasized competition, and that should be to the benefit of Williamson, but things are still up in the air with the COVID-19 situation. I’m sure back-end roster players were looking forward to shining in the preseason, like Victor Cruz did years ago, but that’s not going to happen.
Williamson was a Florida transfer who was tried initially as a boundary cornerback by the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He struggled a bit recovering from ailments suffered during his time in Gainesville, and his play on the field wasn’t great on the outside. Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck moved him to the nickel spot during his 2019 senior season and Williamson had a much better time there.
He was a willing tackler, who could get a bit reckless, but he was much better in coverage out of the nickel spot. Although he was overlooked by the Reese’s Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine, Giants GM Dave Gettleman saw enough in him to select him in the draft. He’s a solid athlete, with a good build, and some versatility. It would be much better for him if he was able to have an open competition for the nickel spot, but he still may have a chance to make the roster due to special teams. This may lead him to have an opportunity down the road if injuries affect the Giants. He’s not a scrub, but he has an uphill climb.
I believe the nickel position will be more dictated by the offensive personnel on the field. Football is a game of matchups and the Giants have three safeties who can do a lot of different things within the box, while deep, and in the nickel, especially McKinney and Love. Peppers is an excellent Alley defender who will also play in the box, but I think McKinney and Love will be featured, at times, in the nickel position and as APEX defenders tasked to “cover” the second eligible receiver (cover is in quotations because it could be used as a disguise for blitzes as well).
There will be other situations where Holmes will see the field as well; 2x2 formations and thrid-and-long scenarios may result in the Giants putting Holmes on the field over one of the safeties, especially if the Giants are facing a quicker receiver out of the slot. If the receiver is a tight end or “big slot” then it’s much more likely that McKinney or Love may handle that coverage assignment.
Dravon Askew-Henry and Grant Haley are two players that should be capable of playing slot reps, but it’s not certain that they’ll earn a roster spot. Haley didn’t see many snaps down the stretch of the 2019 season, and Askew-Henry faces a lot of competition to make the roster. Haley’s tackling ability should help him earn a spot on specials while also possibly earning reps on defense if the Giants want to go into nickel packages in running situations, yet we saw play-action shots be used against the Giants to take advantage of that same plan from James Bettcher in 2019.
New York’s secondary is in a much better place than it was in last season. The additions of McKinney and Holmes should help fortify their biggest 2019 liability, while also creating more competition across the board at the second positions. The presence of these players should allow Graham to be more creative, despite already losing a starting element to the secondary in DeAndre Baker for the foreseeable future. This secondary is young, versatile, hopefully hungry, and should be ready for the 2020 season.