Corey Ballentine’s rookie season in the NFL was a mess any way you look at it — emotionally, physically and on the field.
A sixth-round pick by the New York Giants a year ago, Ballentine was shot in the buttocks the night he was drafted in a tragic event that took the life of his friend and Washburn teammate Dwane Simmons.
Ballentine missed practice time in the spring to recover from the gunshot wound. Emotionally? Who knows if Ballentine was ever able to concentrate fully on football in 2019 as he grieved the loss of his friend.
On the field? After an impressive training camp as a boundary corner Ballentine found playing time scarce until the desperate Giants decided to try him in the slot — a position he had never played. That didn’t go well as an overmatched Ballentine surrendered a passer rating against of 131.2, surrendering four touchdowns without an interception.
Things are different in 2020.
With Patrick Graham running the defense, Ballentine is back on the outside. With DeAndre Baker on the Commissioner’s Exempt List and Sam Beal having opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ballentine is relatively unchallenged as a likely starter opposite James Bradberry.
“I’m just kind of going with it, I’m happy to play wherever they want me to play, wherever I’m needed,” Ballentine said this week. “That’s really all it is. I’m still trying to grow as a player myself and be the best I can be. I’m not super worried about the depth chart or anything else.”
Ballentine admitted that he is in a better place entering his second season than he was a year ago.
“I like where I’m at mentally, l like where I’m at physically. I knew kind of what I was getting into this year because I went through last year so I knew what to expect going into training camp. I prepared myself in the offseason for that,” Ballentine said. “I’m really just prepared to take whatever is thrown at me. I know we have a whole new coaching staff so there’s challenges there. Getting to know them, getting to know their play styles and their call styles and how they want us to operate as a team and as players and our technique and things like that.
“I’m just learning and going with the flow and really trying to do the best I can. I’m comfortable, I feel like I am thinking a little bit less. I’m just going out there and playing which is good for me. I’m enjoying myself.”
The Giants hope to continue to watch Ballentine — hopefully — blossom into a quality boundary cornerback.
Now, let’s look at some other defensive backs who have seen their stock rise or fall during the first two weeks of training camp.
Julian Love — The second-year man out of Notre Dame figured to be part on an oft-used three safety package with Jabrill Peppers and Xavier McKinney this season. With news of McKinney’s broken foot, that makes Love the Giants’ starting free safety. Fortunately, Love played well last season, has looked solid in training camp, and is deserving of being on thye field.
“My mindset at all times is wherever they want me, I’m going to play,” Love said earlier in the week. “I’ve bounced around positions my whole life in the defensive backfield. It’s no different now. No matter where I’m at or how old I am, I’m always ready to play whatever. I’m excited to do that. I just want to be a ball player, that’s what it comes down to.”
Montre Hartage — The 23-year-old was in Miami last season, where he worked with current Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and appeared in four games. The Giants picked him up after the Dolphins cut him. Hartage is a bit like a poor man’s version of Love. He can play cornerback and free safety, with the Giants using him mostly at safety. McKinney’s loss could make Hartage a key backup, perhaps even the third safety if the Giants still want to utilize three-safety packages.
“He has experience in this system, so that’s big. He has experience with the system, experience with Pat (Graham) last year in Miami. He’s a reliable guy,” said defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson. “He’s one of those guys that just always does the right thing. He’s where he’s supposed to be, he executes. He’s just really steady and reliable.”
Jarren Williams — Picked up in early August, this undrafted free agent has quickly found himself getting reps at times with the Giants’ first-team defense. That’s a big deal for a kid who spent last season playing as a grad transfer for UAlbany, an FCS school. He has the Giants’ attention.
“He’s one of those guys that has shown some ability. Like you, I didn’t know a lot about him coming into this,” Henderson said. “He showed up and I was like, ‘Well, we may have something here.’ He’s competing hard, he has good athleticism, he has good size. He has a chance to develop hopefully into something and we’ll see where it goes. But he’s done a good job of at least grabbing people’s attention.”
Xavier McKinney — Man, I hate putting him here. I certainly don’t think any less of him because he got hurt. Still, he’s gone from a key Week 1 player to a rehabbing rookie who is likely to miss most, if not all, of the season. That stinks!
Chris Williamson — We have seen very little of the seventh-round pick out of Minnesota over the first couple of weeks of training camp. Now we know why. Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said on Wednesday that Williamson has been dealing with some “little tweaks” that have kept him out of much of the live work.
Williamson has gotten some work in recent days. Provided he is healthy enough, McKinney’s injury might give Williamson a chance to get more on-field work, especially since he has been seeing time at safety.
Grant Haley — Over the past two seasons we have gotten a pretty good read on what Haley is. He’s a guy who plays hard, tackles well, seems to know his assignments and be an excellent teammate. He just struggles to cover, which is a fairly big issue for a slot cornerback. In this training camp, Haley’s struggles have been obvious. Problem is he hasn’t been struggling to cover Sterling Shepard or Golden Tate. He has been struggling to cover David Sills V and other young players who might not even make the roster.