Dave Gettleman and the New York Giants selected Julian Love, a versatile boundary cornerback out of Notre Dame, in the fourthth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. At the time of the draft, the boundary corners on the roster consisted of veteran Janoris Jenkins, 2018 third-round supplement draft selection Sam Beal, and fellow 2019 pick DeAndre Baker, a first-round selection. The Giants coaching staff viewed Love as more than just an outside corner.
The Giants cross trained Love at safety in training camp, and it became an endeavor for the young player to see the field outside of special teams early in 2019. Love earned defensive action after the Week 11 bye.; Jabrill Peppers suffered a season-ending back injury the same week, which conflated Love’s ability to see the field and earn action, especially near the line of scrimmage.
Love is a safety, but played 176 snaps in the box, 129 as a slot corner, and 77 as a free safety last season, while being adept near the line of scrimmage. His versatility became an integral part of James Bettcher’s defense down the stretch of 2019. It figures to be a third of the three-headed monster of Love, Jabrill Peppers, and Xavier McKinney’s adaptable playing styles that can be utilized creatively by new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
When given the opportunity, Love showed a lot of decisiveness and diagnosing ability in the box. The NFL is incredibly versatile and the days of the 245-pound linebackers with limited athletic upside are obsolete. Defenders shouldn’t be compartmentalized into these easily “understood” categories. Players like McKinney, Peppers, and Love are more second-level defenders than traditional safeties. Their ability to attack in run support is vital and it’ll allow the defense to be in speedier sub-packages, while not impeding the unit’s ability to stop the run. Graham attempted this in Miami, but the personnel struggled to handle the tasks. A player like Love, who is 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, doesn’t exactly play like he’s any sort of liability in the box. He uses quickness, leverage, and angles to defeat the blocking attempts from wide receivers and tight ends.
Let’s look at some film.
Bettcher would trust Love (No. 24) on the edge, so he swings off the backside of Oshane Ximinies (53) who is the end man on the line of scrimmage, against an overloaded side of 12 personnel. Zach Ertz (83) is tasked to wash Love down the line of scrimmage and create a seal on the edge, but once Love sees Carson Wentz (11) turn to hand off, he shoots the 7 hole, forces a tough inside angle for Ertz to attack, dips his outside shoulder away from the blocking attempt, bends through contact, and easily evades the block to put himself in a position to make a tackle against Miles Sanders (26). Once in a position to attack, Love aims low, wraps up, and doesn’t allow Sanders to get around the edge. This is a very nice play from a defender who was a cornerback less than a year before this game, and then was trained as a safety.
We have a similar look above; an off-balanced line in a BIG tackle situation, only it’s a wide receiver and a tackle instead of two tight ends. Love swing to that side and beats the block of Steven Sims Jr. (15), while also tightly turning the corner around Sims to assist in making a tackle against the great Adrian Peterson (26).
His effectiveness in the box isn’t just with turning tight corners against poor blocking attempts. He also puts himself in excellent position to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, while using a quick first step, diagnosing skills, and good athletic traits to disrupt and shoot rushing lanes. Bettcher would blitz him off the edge frequently because he was so quick and it would lead to plays like the one we see above. It’s not always a designed blitz, though; there are times when Love’s mental processing really shows just by how he reads his run and pass keys. This could lead to issues against play-action passes that are sold really well, but Love showed a natural ability to identify and attack off the edge.
Bettcher also trusted him as the force/contain defender on the edge. This is an important job, and not every defensive back gets entrusted with this responsibility, due to the risk of having an undersized defender containing the run, but we can see how Love was able to perform executing the task above. Dalvin Tomlinson (94) does a great job pushing the center into the backfield and forcing him outside to Love, and Love does a good job getting low, squaring the target up, and tackling him to the deck.
Love can also do a good job coming downhill to execute his run fits from a deep safety position. He played 14 snaps as a free safety against Chicago and made this nice play in the middle of the field, while also coming down with a Mitchell Trubisky interception. Tarik Cohen (29) wiggles his way around the double team on Dexter Lawrence (97) to green grass. Love comes downhill in a solid manner to make a low tackle on the smaller running back. Love spent more time on the edge and in the slot then he did from the deep middle, but he’s shown quality signs for the position.
One of the things I love the most about Love in coverage is his ability to close width in a timely manner. The Giants show a three-deep safety look pre-snap in the middle of the field. Love’s stacked on David Mayo (55), who doesn’t change assignments after the motion, leaving DeAndre Baker (27) outside covering space and Love out of position to cover a quick hitch/out. Watch how fast Love is able to accelerate to the catch point to ensure that the tight end doesn’t pick up any more yardage. Love’s ability to accelerate and burst out of a still stance is indicative of a really good athlete.
Love easily chases down Wentz here from about 5 yards outside the opposite hash. His speed & burst, that I feel like is not praised enough, is put on display here and we can see his closing burst in coverage, too.
This is just a simple dump off to the flat in man coverage. Offenses look to attack this because it’s high risk, high reward. An offensive player is running to open space, with the defender assigned in man inside of the leverage of the offensive player. Typically, the receiver can just catch the ball in stride and make the defender miss. Love’s initial acceleration and angle are just too good to allow the ball-carrier to avoid the tackling attempt. This is very good open field tackling.
Love was effective against most out routes and was not really embarrassed in coverage. He showed an ability to cover deep horizontal crosses, which are typically the hardest route to stay in phase with in man coverage. Above, he surrenders the catch, but he’s right in the hip pocket of the receiver. He’s able to close width before the subtle break and stay inside, yet tight, to the receivers inside hip on the crossing route. The throw was solid and the catch was really good, but the covering skills were still solid. Love just needed to do a better job getting his head around to knock the pass away in this rep.
What does all this mean for 2020? The Giants invested a second-round pick on McKinney, a versatile safety from Alabama, and the fifth-year option of Jabrill Peppers was enacted. I don’t think any of that will hinder Love’s ability to find the field and contribute on defense. Patrick Graham’s defense has been synonymous with the word multiple. He deviates a bit more than the average from the traditional assignments of simply saying player A is a safety, therefore he plays in the deep levels of the field. The NFL has been trending in this direction, but Graham did quite a bit of this in Miami last season.
What Graham is actually looking for are smart players who can handle different responsibilities from similar defensive looks in an effort to befuddle offenses. Players like Montre Hartage (a corner turned “safety”), Bobby McCain (a corner turned “safety”), and Steven Parker were all tasked with playing at all levels of the field. They would be more fluid with their alignments, try not tip their hand on coverage responsibilities, and would disguise their intentions on who had primary run duties. In order to do that, the defense must have versatile players that can cover in space, like a traditional safety, man cover slot receivers, like a traditional cornerback, and have the strength, diagnosing ability, and wherewithal actually be effective in run support.
These types of players have been pervading the NFL in the last 10 years, but acquiring multiple players who can do this at a high enough level to succeed is demanding. The Giants may have found a three headed monster that can do this effectively; Peppers, McKinney, and Love can all play in the box, while not being liabilities in coverage. Are they perfect - no, but they’re smart enough, physical enough, and athletic enough to assist Patrick Graham in his quest to have a capable defense. Julian Love showed a lot of promise in his rookie season, and from what we saw I only expect him to continue to ascend as a second-level defender.