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Giants have a number of young players to watch as season winds down

Jarren Williams, Elerson Smith, other young players provide reasons to pay attention

LA Chargers NY Giants at SoFi
Jarren Williams (34) gave up this touchdown pass on Sunday to Josh Palmer of the Chargers.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The remainder of the New York Giants’ 2021 season is really about next year. It is about getting more information on the players — and, yes, the coaches — and figuring who the organization can and cannot go forward with in 2022.

As such, the focus for losing teams that have already fallen out of playoff contention always falls to young players. Let’s look at some intriguing young players on the Giants’ roster who will have opportunities over the season’s final four games to show they are players who should be in the Giants’ plans next season.

Jarren Williams

Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson didn’t know anything about Williams, an undrafted player with an FCS background, when the Giants added him to their 90-man roster in August of 2020. It didn’t take Henderson long to realize that “Well, we may have something here.”

With injuries and the league-wide COVID-19 outbreak ravaging their secondary, what the Giants have now in the 24-year-old Williams is a player who might start at cornerback Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.

That’s quite a rise for an undrafted second-year player. He spent most of the last two seasons on the practice squad after playing collegiately at St. Francis (Pa.) and then spending a season as a grad transfer at UAlbany.

Williams played 17 special teams snaps over the final two game of the season a year ago. As a practice squad elevation, Williams has played 48 defensive snaps and 28 on special teams the past two weeks.

“The thing I liked about seeing him play is he’s really, really physical. Really tough. Made some plays as a tackler, as a run-support guy that really impressed me, did some good things in coverage,” Henderson said.

“He had a few things he needs to clean up from that (Chargers) game, but the thing I like about him is his upside. He has the body that you can see him playing corner or he can play safety. He has the toughness. He has the toughness to play safety, he has the athleticism to play corner, versatile enough to go inside.

“I’m excited to continue to work with him and let him grow and get experience, and there’s nothing like real, live playing experience.”

With Jabrill Peppers, Darnay Holmes and Rodarius Williams (IR), Adoree’ Jackson (quad/COVID-19 Reserve list), Aaron Robinson (COVID-19 Reserve list) and perhaps Xavier McKinney (COVID-19 Reserve list as a close contact) unavailable there should be plenty of opportunity for Williams to gain that experience.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Williams wasn’t perfect last Sunday against Los Angeles. He surrendered three receptions in five targets, including a 12-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Palmer.

“There’s some things you coach somebody about but until they touch that stove and feel that oooh, that’s hot, you kinda don’t know,” Henderson said. “I think he got a few of those moments where he wasn’t really on the details of his assignment and ‘oooh, that’s hot.’ Hopefully he learns from that and grows from that. Next year this time we’re looking at this kid like, ‘wow, look how far he’s come.’ ”

Head coach Joe Judge said Williams is “still learning his craft.” Judge, though, is clearly intrigued.

“Jarren plays with the right mentality, he’s a physical player. He’s got a good skillset in terms of speed and burst and good short-area quickness,” Judge said. “He plays some perimeter corner for us, he plays the STAR inside at times, he’s a guy that maybe long-term wise will have some flexibility to go back and play some safety with his skillset.

“He’s a big, strong, physical guy. He plays more like a safety at the corner position if that makes sense, in terms of his physicality.”

You can never have enough good cornerbacks, or safeties, in today’s NFL. Williams has earned an opportunity to show the Giants he might be one. It will be fascinating to see if he can take advantage of it.

Elerson Smith

NFL: Player Headshots 2021
Elerson Smith
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

In three games and 55 defensive snaps, rookie edge defender Elerson Smith has barely made a dent on the stat sheet. He has one assisted tackle and two quarterback pressures.

Smith told Big Blue View in an exclusive interview this week that the stat line is not his concern.

“I feel I’m progressing and I’m doing what the coaches are asking me. The stats, I’m not really worried about that. If I just stay present and worry about my assignments the stats will come in time,” Smith said.

“That has nothing to do with wins and losses. I want to contribute to a winning team and I want to be able to help out in as many ways as I can. I guess you can look at the stat sheet for part of that, but that really doesn’t have much to do with actual football.”

Giants linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer said he was pleased with Smith’s development.

“He’s really progressing well,” Sherrer said on Thursday. “He’s kind of in a position where the more he plays the better he’s gonna get. And he’s learning a new position.”

In assessing the 6-foot-7, 255-pound Smith, one must keep in mind that it has been a long time since he has actually played football. Smith’s final season at Northern Iowa was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. He missed all of training camp and the first half of this season with a hamstring injury.

He admitted that it hasn’t been easy, both because of the time he missed and the jump from a small school to the NFL.

“Physically, it’s tough to define. I was in good shape coming back in cardiovascularly. Power-wise I was good but especially when you’re playing up front in the front seven you can’t really replicate that in the offseason,” Smith said. “You really just need to get the pads on and do it so it has been an adjustment going up a level. It’s the NFL for a reason, it’s not going to be a cakewalk for anybody.”

Smith played primarily as a down lineman at Northern Iowa. The Giants are using him as a standup edge defender, sometimes as a hand-in-the-ground defensive end and occasionally as an interior pass rusher.

“He’s a smart guy, he picks up on it,” Sherrer said. “It’s just trying to get him the reps so he can continue to grow.”

Sherrer added that the Giants think Smith has the ability to get bigger and stronger.

“As he does that, this guy’s like 6-6, 6-7, 250 pounds. He could easily gain 15 more pounds of strength and muscle and it would make him a completely different player,” Sherrer said. “I think he’s got a chance as a player to go out there and see it this year, but I think he’s going to continue to grow and progress over the next couple of years.”

Raymond Johnson III

The Giants signed only three undrafted free agents following the 2021 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive lineman out of Georgia Southern has quietly been part of the Giants’ defensive line rotation all season, playing double-digit snaps seven times. With Leonard Williams missing most of last Sunday’s game against the Chargers with an elbow injury, Johnson played a season-high 25 snaps.

On the season, Johnson has a sack, a quarterback hit and three tackles in 127 defensive snaps.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer said this week that Johnson is “a change-up guy” for the Giants, playing the role that would have gone to B.J. Hill before the Giants traded Hill to the Cincinnati Bengals for center Billy Price.

“He’s gonna be the type of guy, he’s not Leonard Williams, he’s not Dex (Dexter Lawrence), he’s not that size. There’s not a lot of people in the world that size, anyway. He’s a guy that’s a little bit under-sized but kinda plays with that twitch and can give us that inside and outside variation. That’s what we saw in this kid,” Spencer said.

“He has to exact his technique. He can’t miss a step. If Dex is off cue at all he’s still 6-5, 350, so his off cue can be corrected by physicality. Ray can’t be off cue, he’s gotta be on point every time.”

Jake Fromm

NFL: New York Giants at Miami Dolphins
Jake Fromm
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If Daniel Jones continues to miss time with his neck injury and Mike Glennon remains healthy, will From ever get a chance to play?

Judge was asked this week if he would like to evaluate Fromm, signed off the Buffalo Bills practice squad less than three weeks ago, in game action.

“There’s always a part of that. There’s always a part of wanting to evaluate everyone,” Judge said. “At the same time, you want to make sure you give your team the best chance for success. Based on how they practice and prepare and who we think gives our team the best chance to have success out there, that’s how we’ll play the players.”

Fromm has never taken an NFL regular-season snap after being selected in Round of the 2020 draft by the Bills. He has been a Giant for 17 days.

Quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski said Thursday that Fromm is “inching closer and closer” to having enough understanding that he would be ready to play in more than an emergency.

“It’s a pretty good challenge, but it’s part of the deal. It’s part of the profession,” Schuplinski said. “Jake’s certainly not the first and won’t be the last to do it. We do it at every position. It may be a little more difficult for a quarterback, just because so much is on your plate, and you really have to know so much at that position. I think he has a foundation in place even if it was from a previous system. It’s just a matter of relating that information to him and then him learning our terminology and doing it. It’s a challenge, for sure, but he’s done a good job with it.”

Fans always love the backup quarterback. In this case, the backup to the backup. We might not see Fromm Sunday against Dallas. If Jones does not return to action, though, we will probably see him at some point. It would be nice to get an idea of whether or not he has a chance to compete for a backup role in 2022.

Matt Peart

A couple of weeks ago, offensive line coach Rob Sale detailed why the 2020 second-round pick was sitting and watching mediocre at best veteran Nate Solder play right tackle. Sale said at the time that “Nate’s the better player” and that the Giants needed to see Peart play with more physicality.

Last Sunday against the Chargers, Peart returned to the rotation for the first time since left tackle Andrew Thomas rejoined the lineup Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played 32 snaps, five more than Solder.

Peart is not perfect, obviously. His performance has been roughly equal to Solder’s this season, and we know how the fan base feels about Solder.

Solder vs. Peart

Name Snaps played Overall PFF grade Run blocking Pass blocking Pass blocking efficiency
Name Snaps played Overall PFF grade Run blocking Pass blocking Pass blocking efficiency
Matt Peart 378 63.6 60.7 63.2 96.4
Nate Solder 780 57.4 63.1 51 96

While the Giants’ coaching staff has not seemed enamored with Peart, it remains true that the 24-year-old has a chance to be part of the team’s future while the 33-year-old Solder realistically does not. Let’s hope the Giants continue providing Peart with extended opportunities.

Darius Slayton

You might be surprised to see Slayton’s name here. He is, after all, a third-year player. Still, Slayton is only 24 years old and considering his disappointing 2021 season has much to prove over the final four games.

Slayton has regressed since being surprisingly productive as a rookie fifth-round pick in 2019, when he had 48 receptions, eight touchdowns and 740 receiving yards in 14 games (nine starts).

In 2020, he started 15 games. His numbers, though, weren’t as good. He had 50 catches and 751 yards with just three touchdowns. His yards per game dropped from 52.9 to 46.9 and his catch percentage dropped from 57.1 to 52.1.

This season, Slayton has regressed even further. He has just 21 receptions in 47 targets (44.7 percent catch rate. He is average 2.1 catches per game after averaging 3.4 and 3.1 his first two seasons. He is averaging just 28.0 yards per game. Most distressingly, Slayton’s drop rate continues to rise — 2.4 percent in 2019, 6.3 percent in 2020 and an alarming 12.8 percent this season.

Slayton has speed and game-breaking ability the Giants could use. He has to make more plays, though, to be part of the future.

“He’s had some opportunities but probably not the opportunities he’s had in the past. It’s up to him to take advantage of the opportunities he does have to make those plays,” said wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert. “The bottom line is when the ball comes your way you’ve gotta take advantage of it and make a play on it, regardless of if it’s a short ball, it’s a long ball, which he’s used to, regardless of the situation you have to take advantage of the opportunities that you have. That’s up to him to do that.”

Other names to watch

Second-round pick Azeez Ojulari has had a nice rookie season. Hopefully, that will continue. Rookie edge Quincy Roche has carved out a role and should continue to make himself part of the team’s future. Safety J.R. Reed, running back Gary Brightwell, and perhaps offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson are other players to keep an eye on as the seasons winds down.