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For New York Giants 2021 rookie class, it’s been a slow start

Major contributions seem unlikely during early portion of season

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Kadarius Toney warming up before a practice vs. the Cleveland Browns.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

This has not been a good summer for the New York Giants rookie class. The excitement of the 2021 NFL Draft wore off long ago, with injury and illness making it look as though the Giants will go into the regular season likely expecting little early-season contribution from many of their draft choices.

“There’s a number of young guys that, look, it’s unfortunate, but there’s a number of young guys that we haven’t been able to get them as many reps as we really want to this training camp to really get them ready for the season. As a young player especially, you can’t lay back on getting years of experience,” said head coach Joe Judge. “No one just jumps out there because they have ability or talent and is going to play in Week 1 or Week 2 or whenever they get out there, like they’re going to play in Week 8, Week 10, year two, year three. They’re going to keep on progressing as a player.”

Judge refused to bite on the idea that it is already a lost year for some of the rookies.

“A redshirt year doesn’t exist in this league. It’s our responsibility to get those guys ready, however they can. The one thing about this year you’ve got to keep in mind is it’s a longer season than it’s been in the past,” Judge said. “Look, last year (Safety) Xavier McKinney, it was unfortunate we lost him at training camp, he didn’t have any preseason games. He missed a chunk of the season on the front end, but we got him back on the back end. As I explained, we’re going to ramp him up and build him up and not kind of trying to take him from zero to 100 right away. But he did become a productive player for us and by the end of the year, he was obviously playing a lot more and a lot more productively because we allowed him the opportunity really to learn and gain that experience little by little as we go.

“So, it won’t be too much different with all of these young players you’re going to see. We’re not going to take them, just throw them in there and say, ‘hey, now go handle a full game.’ You’re going to bring them in on a specific plan, let them execute and focus on that, keep their windows small and then growing it a little as you go.”

Let’s go play-by-player through the 2021 rookie class.

Kadarius Toney

(Round 1, No. 20 overall)

Strange. That, I think, is the best way to describe the beginning of Kadarius Toney’s NFL career.

Ill-fitting cleats. Skipping OTAs. Starting training camp on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Coming off that list, being ramped up to full practice at a snail’s pace, going through a couple of full practices, then virtually disappearing for the last couple of weeks for reasons that have not been fully explained. Or, more accurately, explained at all.

Judge’s stock answer when he is asked about Toney is pretty much the one he gave Thursday when asked about the first-round pick:

“I’m not going to get into anybody’s individual medical right there, but this guy is getting better every day. He’s working with our trainers and doing everything they ask him to do, so I’m pleased with the progress he’s making. He’s doing everything we ask him to.”

Well, umm, OK.

Thing is, none of what has happened thus far means drafting Toney was a mistake, or that he will be a bust. It could turn out that way. Or, the weirdness of the spring and summer could be just a footnote to an excellent career.

Remember that Odell Beckham Jr. guy? His rookie season turned out pretty well despite the fact that he missed most of training camp and the first four games with a hamstring injury. Beckham managed to become the fourth rookie in NFL history to have at least 1,300 receiving yards in a season, and the only rookie to have at least 90 receptions and 10 receiving touchdowns in a season.

Not too shabby.

I am not predicting that kind of instant success for Toney. He is a different player, and the Giants are in a different circumstance where they shouldn’t need to force him to become the centerpiece of their offense right away.

I’m just saying that a couple of big splash plays, an electric punt return or taking a bubble screen to the house for a game-changing score, will change the narrative. Will that happen? Don’t know. You’re wrong, though, to have already judged Toney a failure.

Here is what GM Dave Gettleman said recently when asked if he was frustrated with Toney’s lack of practice time.

“It’s that way with any young player. You want them on the field. The COVID-19 piece is real, it affects everybody very differently and that’s been a bit of a stop and start. He’ll get there, he’s working his fanny off, getting healthy,” Gettleman said. “He’s had that stop and start and it doesn’t make us any less than enthused about him. The kid’s got tremendous talent and he’s been great inside with his rehab. He’s been terrific in the classroom. He’s engaged and the kid wants to be out there. He’s a competitor.

“I treat contracts like injuries; contracts gets done when they’re supposed to get done, guys get healthy when they’re supposed to get healthy, and he’ll be out there and we trust our medical staff.”

Azeez Ojulari

(Round 2, No. 50 overall)

Early in training camp it looked like the second-round pick might be headed toward a starting role opposite Lorenzo Carter.

“[Azeez has] shown a lot of flashes of really being the guy that we expected him to be when we drafted him. I think staying healthy he’s got a chance to have a good season,” said linebackers coac Kevin Sherrer during the first week of August. “He’s going to have the ability to ascend as he understands the league and the guys that he’s going to be facing week in and week out. I do see some things … over a period of time he’s going to have the ability to do that [be an impact player].”

Head coach Joe Judge appeared on a couple of occasions to hint that perhaps Ojulari’s conditioning wasn’t up to NFL muster. Still, he appeared to be doing well and was reportedly having an impactful couple of practices against the Cleveland Browns.

Ojulari, though, suffered what Judge only called a “nick” in those practices against Cleveland. He did not play in the second preseason game against the Browns, and only participated in individual and walk-thru portions of practice during the past week.

Ojulari should be a big contributor this season. It is fair to wonder at this point, however, how much he will be able to offer right away.

Aaron Robinson

(Round 3, No. 71 overall)

Dealing with a core muscle injury, Robinson has not practiced since rookie minicamp. He is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. Media at Quest Diagnostics Training Center on Friday saw Robinson running sprints on the sideline, the most physical activity he has done in public this summer.

Robinson was expected to compete with second-year man Darnay Holmes for the slot cornerback role. It is, though, far too late for Robinson to earn early-season snaps in the secondary.

It would seem logical for the Giants to leave Robinson on PUP until cuts are made, then transfer him to the regular-season PUP list. If they did that, Robinson would be eligible to return after missing the first six games of the season.

One intriguing suggestion I have seen elsewhere. If Robinson is healthy enough that he wouldn’t need the full six weeks, could the Giants bring him off PUP, add him to the 53-man roster, then put him on IR? That sort of manipulation would mean Robinson would be eligible to play after three games on IR rather than the six being on PUP would require.

Elerson Smith

(Round 5, No. 116 overall)

The 6-foot-6, 262-pound edge defender out of Northern Iowa was the Giants’ first pick on Day 3 of the draft. A pure projection play based on long-range potential. Especially after Smith did not play in 2020 when the conference Northern Iowa played in cancelled its season and Smith used that time to transform his body, adding roughly 30 pounds, the Giants could not have expected him to be a huge factor this season.

Major contributor in 2021 or not, Smith is a young player who needs all the reps he can get. Which makes the fact that he has basically missed all of training camp frustrating.

Smith apparently injured a hamstring at some point during the rookie practices in the days before the official start of training camp. He was removed from the PUP list in mid-August, but in the 2½ weeks since that time has has barely done more than participate in walk-thru practices.

Unless something changes dramatically with his health in the coming days, Smith figures to make the initial roster and then be placed on injured reserve. That means he would not be eligible to return to the active roster until Week 4.

Gary Brightwell

(Round 6, No. 196 overall)

The Giants drafted Brightwell to add depth to the running back room and, primarily, to play special teams. He was slowed by an injury early in camp, but has been practicing consistently for the past couple of weeks. The Giants like what they see enough that Brightwell has been running with the first group on several of the special teams units. He has also been getting some first-team practice reps with Daniel Jones as the Giants try to assess whether they can trust him in the backfield at this early stage of his career.

I have been projecting that Brightwell will make the roster as a core special teams player, but that is not a sure thing. Whether Brightwell makes the 53-man roster or gets waived as the Giants try to pass him through to the practice squad will be one of the interesting decisions to come by Tuesday afternoon.

New York Jets v New York Giants
Rodarius Williams returns a fumble vs. the Jets.
Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Rodarius Williams

(Round 6, No. 201 overall)

Williams has had the best preseason of anyone in the rookie class, and if the injury to Adoree’ Jackson lingers into the regular season has an opportunity to be a major contributor right from the start.

Early in camp, Williams begged the coaching staff for opportunities to go up against the Giants’ front-line receivers. He got them and has made the most of them. On Thursday, the day after Jackson was carted off with an ankle sprain, it was Williams occupying Jackson’s spot with the Giants’ first-team defense.

Here is Jackson talking about Williams a couple of weeks ago:

“I like his game, what he brings, his enthusiasm, his competitiveness. He’s a dog out there, man. Every day at practice, I say, ‘you know who I came to see.’ I come to see him work, see him play. Like, I watch him and everything that he does. I’m just trying to improve, and see what he does, and I try to add it to my game, so I appreciate having him. It keeps everybody on edge. So, he’s talented player, he’s special. I just like seeing him go out there and competing ... He doesn’t waver, he doesn’t change, and he does what’s got him here and it’s working, so I like that about him.”

Undrafted free agents

There were only three UDFAs signed. Let’s look at them.

Brett Heggie (OL) — Heggie had a big opportunity at center early in training camp with Jonotthan Harrison injured and Joe Looney retiring. Since the Giants signed veteran guard-center Ted Larsen, Heggie seems to have been getting the majority of his reps at guard. He could be headed to the practice squad.

Jake Burton (OL) — A collegiate tackle, he has been used at both right guard (30 snaps) and right tackle (7 snaps) in two preseason games. Like Heggie, he seems like a practice squad candidate.

Raymond Johnson III (DL) — Johnson has a sack and six quarterback pressures in two preseason games. There is a chance Johnson could make the 53-man roster, but that would likely entail the Giants deciding to move on from 2018 third-round pick B.J. Hill. Most likely, the Giants try to get him to the practice squad.