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Giants’ rookie report card: From Andrew Thomas to Niko Lalos

How did the rookies perform for the Giants?

New York Giants v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The 2020 season is now over and the New York Giants finished with a 6-10 record. Winning six games shouldn’t be applauded, but there seems to be direction with this Joe Judge team. The team was competitive in just about every game, and there were a ton of rookies who made significant contributions. The Giants were the youngest team in the league and they had eight rookies play more than 90 snaps (non-special teams). This was Dave Gettleman’s third draft as the general manager of the team, so let’s go through each pick and see how they performed in their rookie campaigns:

OT Andrew Thomas

Round 1, Pick 4

It was a rough start for the first tackle selected in the 2020 NFL draft. Through the first five games of the season, Thomas surrendered 28 pressures and 5 sacks. He was consistently beaten by inside counter moves and he had a nasty tendency to overcompensate his sets against speed, giving pass rushers the space to attack inside. There was a lot of debate about the other three tackles, the Jets Mekhi Becton, the Browns Jedrick Wills, and the Buccaneers Tristan Wirfs, and how well they appeared to be performing at a much higher level than Thomas.

Those early struggles cast a negative light on Thomas’ play, but he started playing much better after the Week 7 loss on Thursday Night Football to Philadelphia. In the nine games following that loss, Thomas only allowed 21 pressures. He fixed his inside vulnerabilities, used his hands much more effectively, and played with better balance and center of gravity, albeit that still isn’t consistently perfect. Outside of the Arizona game, where he gave up 7 pressures and 2 sacks, his end of the season was exceptional. The entire Giants line struggled against the Cardinals as well, so it wasn’t just Thomas’ struggles.

Despite the encouraging end to the season, Thomas still finished with one more pressures allowed than Nate Solder’s 2019 effort, but one less sack. Thomas had 57 pressures, 3 penalties, and 10 sacks allowed. He ranked 78th among tackles overall, 107th as a pass protector, and 65th as a run blocker, according to Pro Football Focus. His effectiveness as a down blocker in Jason Garrett’s power/gap system is evident on tape, and he was solid at the second level and in space when he did pull. After the close loss to Tampa Bay, Thomas said this:

“Still a lot of work to do. I think I’m making progressions every week. Small steps every day, but I’m continuing to work on getting better ... It’s just focusing on my technique. Trying to make it muscle memory, so I don’t have to think about it. There will be some plays where I might slip up with my hand placement or my footwork in my set. Just trying to nail all those things in so I do it every time.”

We saw Thomas’s progress at the end of the season and he looked much more like the player the Giants hoped he would be when they selected him fourth overall. He still has progress to make and there’s room for refinement. I expect Thomas to come into 2021 with a better mindset, understanding of NFL speed, and a more effective approach on how to succeed at this level.

S Xavier McKinney

Round 2, Pick 36

McKinney broke his foot in training camp and did not appear on the field until Week 12 against the Bengals. It wasn’t until Week 14, when fellow rookie Darnay Holmes suffered a knee injury, that McKinney saw significant snaps as he helped man the slot. He was targeted six times by Kyler Murray in that game, surrendering four catches for 14 yards.

In his short time seeing the field, Patrick Graham used McKinney in a variety of ways; he played 21 snaps on the defensive line as a blitzer, 26 snaps as a Big Nickel/Big Dime in the box, 82 snaps as a nickel corner, two snaps as a wide corner, and 80 snaps as a free safety. The snaps at free safety were diverse; there were times when he dropped to robber (which was typically Logan Ryan’s role) and there were plenty of snaps where McKinney was the middle of the field closed safety in Cover 3 coverages.

McKinney looked very comfortable in Week 17 against Dallas, which is a very encouraging sign for his development. He played 74 of the 83 snaps and recorded five impressive solo tackles and an interception to just about seal the victory. He also had another interception called back. He looked adept in man coverage on vertical and horizontal routes, and his processing looked quick and decisive. A lot of people may have forgotten about McKinney because of the injury, but he is primed for a true breakout 2021 season alongside Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers in Patrick Graham’s second season as the coordinator.

OT Matt Peart

Round 3, Pick 99

The Giants were a bit unconventional with how they deployed their offensive line. There was a lot of criticism that surrounded Joe Judge’s decision to have a rotation, but I didn’t hate it; the youth movement with the unit, as a whole, made the decision easier to utilize a rotation. However, that was stopped by Judge in Week 17 and Peart was a victim of that decision.

Peart was the opposite of Andrew Thomas - he ended the season on a very poor note, but started the season exceeding expectations. Peart gave up a brutal sack in the Week 16 game against Baltimore and was the right tackle on three consecutive sacks the Giants gave up on the right side of the line of scrimmage. Does that mean Peart’s a bust? Absolutely not.

Peart only gave up 9 pressures and 2 sacks in 84 pass-blocking reps. He started the first game against Washington, which was his best game. He surpassed my yYear 1 expectation; I loved the selection of Peart, who is long, very athletic, but a bit raw. I thought he’d lack the necessary strength to be an every snap player in Year 1, and I didn’t expect him to be all that effective as a run blocker, but he flashed in that area of play.

Peart used his size well, understood advantageous angles, and played with a lower pad level than I expected as a run blocker. His foot quickness was as good as advertised, but the consistency to which he maximized that trait was not. His sets could be a bit wonky and he did a marginal job protecting that outside shoulder towards the end of the season. He didn’t use his length or punch to the best of his ability, and he allowed his chest to be a bit exposed at times.

All of that can be corrected through coaching and experience. Despite those negative traits I listed, I still come away thinking positively about Peart. Struggles are going to happen, especially with a more raw player, but there’s so much potential with Peart and he was able to flash some of that potential as a rookie, which is more than I expected when the Giants selected him. The future can be bright for Peart. We just need him to be a bit more consistent.

CB Darnay Holmes

Round 4, Pick 110

One of the biggest concerns with the Giants defense heading into 2020 was the nickel cornerback. Incumbent starter Grant Haley was an impressive run defender who was a liability in coverage, and the Corey Ballentine experiment failed. Holmes immediately upgraded the position.

The position was new for Holmes because he was the No. 1 boundary receiver for the UCLA Bruins, but he played well for the Giants. He’s quick, solid in man coverage, very aggressive as a tackler, and was good in zone. The slot is an incredibly difficult position to play; Holmes surrendered 41 catches on 52 targets for 406 yards (9.9 YPC) with 3 passes defended, and 1 interception. He was also penalized 5 times.

The upgrade from Holmes to Haley helped solidify Patrick Graham’s defense. Allowing 79 percent of passes to be completed doesn’t seem great, but I come away intrigued with Holmes and happy with how he performed in his rookie campaign. He was also a big part of the Giants’ five-man pressure package. Holmes was dinged up a lot down the stretch of the season, but he figures to be a big part of what this Giants defense wants to do in the future, and I feel good about that.

OG Shane Lemieux

Round 5, Pick 150

Will Hernandez found himself on the Reserve/COVID-19 List in Week 8, and wasn’t able to win the job back because of the play of Shane Lemieux. The much-maligned offensive line started to stabilize in that game against the Buccaneers. I don’t believe that was solely a product of Lemieux’s presence, but I do feel Lemieux gave the Giants a more physical identity in terms of running the football.

Lemieux was a good run blocker and executed his traps and pulls quickly while doing a good job locating the unblocked defender and clearing space for the power/gap runs. Joe Judge attempted to use Hernandez in the rotation after he returned to the lineup, but Hernandez didn’t play an offensive snap in Week 17.

I do feel Lemieux is a bit better as a run blocker than Hernandez, but Lemieux is not the same type of pass protector. Lemieux played 504 snaps, 299 of them were in pass protection, and he surrendered 25 pressures and 5 sacks. He gave up the 25th most pressures among all guards who saw action, and he only saw about half of the snaps as some of these other guards.

Lemieux was beaten far too often right off the snap in pass protection. He struggled with initial power moves, his short arms left him vulnerable, and he did not do a great job handling counters. Even with the struggles in pass protection, at pick 150 he still proves to be a solid selection. He fits the identity of what Judge wants in his offensive line. With that said, he has to improve in pass protection. If he fails to do so, then the Giants will continue to have an inconsistent, and, at times, compromised pocket for Daniel Jones.

LB Cam Brown

Round 6, Pick 183

The selection of Cam Brown was always going to be an excellent choice for special teams, but the former Nittany Lion was eventually able to earn snaps as an EDGE rusher. The Giants were thin at EDGE when they had a healthy Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, and Kyler Fackrell. All three of those players missed several games, Carter and Ximines missed most of the season. Brown filled in and played 94 defensive snaps.

Brown had 7 pressures in 70 pass-rushing snaps for the Giants. He had 3 hits and 4 hurries on the season. His length and lateral quickness helped mask his inexperience at the position. For a sixth-round pick who was new to the position, Brown was solid. However, he still lacks strength, pass-rushing moves, and isn’t very flexible. Brown will continue to be a core special teamer while being used in pass-rushing sub-packages. He’ll have to get stronger at the point of attack to earn more defensive snaps.

LB Carter Coughlin

Round 7, Pick 218

Similar to Brown, Coughlin started on special teams and ingratiated himself into the lineup because of several injuries and hard work. He said this earlier in the season:

“It starts off with you getting an opportunity and you need to make the most of it. For all of us, it started on special teams. We take pride in that, especially as a New York Giant, the way we execute on special teams, the way we work as a special teams unit ... You make the most there, then the coaches trust you and kind of sugar you into a little defense and see how you do there and make the most of that. Then it continues to increase.”

Coughlin is a high-effort player with an exceptional first step. He’s undersized for an edge rusher and has short arms, but the competitive toughness is elite. Coughlin was a very good pass rusher for Minnesota and he played off-ball linebacker. The versatility is intriguing and I feel acquiring him in the seventh round will prove to be a solid move for New York.

Coughlin allows the Giants to play their Cover 3 system and either bring Coughlin or drop him into the flat - he has the movement skills to do that to the field. But, much like Brown, Coughlin lacks strength at the point of attack and struggles to set the edge - that will be an issue moving forward for Coughlin.

Coughlin did have 11 pressures, recorded 1 sack, and had 9 hurries. He was a big part of how the Giants defeated Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in week 13. If Coughlin can improve his strength, he could earn a bigger role in the defense. But until then, he won’t be consistently trusted to set the edge.

LB T.J. Brunson

Round 7, Pick 238

Brunson played special teams in five games for the Giants. He played some defensive snaps in the Giants’ second win against the Washington Football Team. He is clearly behind Coughlin, Brown, and Tae Crowder on the depth chart. He may have an uphill battle to earn a roster spot next season if he doesn’t make a significant jump in training camp next year.

CB Chris Williamson

Round 7, Pick 247

Williamson was working as a safety in training camp and was relegated to the practice squad during the season. The Giants released Williamson from the practice squad at the beginning of December and the Atlanta Falcons signed him to their practice squad.

LB Tae Crowder

Round 7, Pick 255

Mr. Irrelevant wasn’t irrelevant for the Giants. Crowder 403 defensive snaps and was an upgrade over Devante Downs and David Mayo at weakside linebacker. He showed quickness and a solid ability to scrape over the top of two gapping defensive linemen to fill holes at an adequate rate. He had 40 solo tackles, 18 STOPS (a stat PFF uses to indicate negative offensive plays), and six pressures on 34 pass-rushing plays.

Crowder exceeded expectations, but still has a lot of room for improvement, which is entirely understandable. His awareness in zone and understanding of route concepts was marginal, and his tackling mechanics can certainly be improved. Nevertheless, this was the last pick in the draft and Crowder played significant snaps on a very respectable defense.

The Giants may look to improve that second linebacker spot next to Blake Martinez. If that’s the case, Crowder will be a solid rotational piece that can be trusted as a starter. There’s a lot of room for growth with Crowder who is only 23 and has already shown promise. His game-changing fumble recovery for a touchdown that helped seal a victory against Washington is probably the highlight of his season, and that was right before he missed a few games due to injury. This was a good find this late in the draft by Dave Gettleman.

EDGE Niko Lalos

Undrafted, Dartmouth

Lalos saw his first action in Week 12 against the Bengals. In that game, he recorded an interception, had a pressure, and helped hold up Drew Sample so Logan Ryan could force a fumble late in the fourth quarter. He did all of that in 9 defensive snaps. He followed that performance up by playing 26 snaps (most of the season) against the Seahawks where he secured a loose fumble. Lalos had 2 pressures on 33 pass-rushing plays. He doesn’t have any go-to moves yet, and he’s not overly athletic, but he’s not a total liability.

Relatively unknown Ivy League players typically don’t have big impacts - it’s a bit rarer, but the state of the Giants EDGE position allowed Lalos to compete, and he didn’t disappoint. He found himself in the right place at the right time, and he wasn’t bad at setting the edge. He’ll compete for a roster spot next year, but may ultimately end up on the practice squad. If he does make the roster, it’ll be because of his special teams’ upside.

WR Austin Mack

Undrafted, Ohio State

Mack was able to earn a roster spot over Derrick Dillon and his former college teammate Binjimen Victor, and he didn’t disappoint for an undrafted free agent. He played 192 offensive snaps, was a good blocking wide receiver and recorded 7 catches for 91 yards on 12 targets. He’s a big target with solid speed, tracking ability, and route running.

The drop against Baltimore was frustrating, but he had some big plays that helped set up Giants touchdowns, which were a bit rare in 2020. The Giants are going to be in the market for a wide receiver which may be to the detriment of Mack’s playing time with the Giants. However, he will still be a practice squad player with the potential to jump to the active roster if injuries happen.

Final thoughts

The 2020 Giants draft class performed well in their rookie seasons. Andrew Thomas’ progression and comfortability at the end of the season provided solace to the early season struggles. The opportunity cost of not selecting Wirfs and Wills will forever be linked with Thomas. If he continues the positive trajectory, then those comparisons should be quelled. McKinney’s future seems very bright. If Peart is a hit, then Gettleman found two starting tackles in the top 99 picks of this draft; that would be considered a home run.

I’m a big fan of what Darnay Holmes has done this season, especially considering how bad the play was at that position in 2019. This coaching regime seems to favor Lemieux’s play over Hernandez’s which is more of an indictment on Gettleman’s 2018 second-round pick, but I also don’t think Lemieux should be understated; he just needs to improve his pass protection.

The Giants received a good return on investment from Brown, Coughlin, and Tae Crowder - three late picks that ostensibly had low expectations. They also were able to get contributions from offensive and defensive undrafted free agents. This draft class will ultimately be judged by Andrew Thomas’ long term ability, but there were significant contributions with most of the draft class in year one, and that’s with McKinney missing the majority of the season with an injury. The future could be bright for several of these selections here in New York.