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Position preview: Can the Giants’ cornerbacks get better in 2021?

The Giants made moves to improve their cornerback position, but will they pay off?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants defense was expected to be pretty good in 2020, but it was a definite surprise that they emerged as a top-10 unit in Patrick Graham’s first year.

The Giants invested in their defense over the course of the 2020 off-season, but it was Graham’s coverage scheming that helped the Giants’ defense make the jump from good to surprisingly good. At the core of Graham’s scheme were coverage concepts which revolved around nickel and dime packages and rotating coverages. Those concepts helped cover up deficiencies in the Giants’ roster, create a pass rush which notched 40 sacks, land the Giants sixth in the NFL in passing touchdowns surrendered.

With the secondary so key to the Giants’ defensive success, let’s check in on the cornerback depth chart and see how they stand as we get ready for the 2021 season.

90-man roster depth chart

LCB: James Bradberry, Isaac Yiadom, Madre Harper, Sam Beal, Aaron Robinson
RCB: Adoree Jackson, Darnay Holmes, Rodarius Williams, Jarren Williams

53-man roster depth chart

LCB: James Bradberry, Josh Jackson, Sam Beal
RCB: Adoree Jackson, Rodarius Williams
Slot: Darnay Holmes, Keion Crossen

PUP: Aaron Robinson (Core)

Where do the cornerbacks stand?

While we expected the Giants’ defensive front to be the strength of the team in 2020 — and it was their strongest unit — their defense was largely powered by the secondary. Patrick Graham’s defense had some false starts early in the season, but eventually found its footing with post-snap coverage rotations. The Giants’ coverage schemes forced quarterbacks to second-guess their reads, hold the ball and create opportunities for coverage sacks, or make ill-advised throws into coverage.

And for much of the season the Giants’ schemes worked. However, better offenses were eventually able to figure out the Giants’ tendencies and string together drives when they needed to. Recognizing that, the team once again invested in their cornerback group in the hopes of improving upon a strength.

The cornerback unit will once again be lead by James Bradberry. The Giants added Bradberry as a big free agent addition in 2020 and the move immediately paid dividends. Bradberry excelled in baiting quarterbacks into throwing to his receiver. He consistently gave the appearance of separation before closing down and playing the receivers hands to defend the pass or intercept the ball.

The biggest changes in the cornerback position came around Bradberry with the additions of Adoree’ Jackson, Josh Jackson, and Aaron Robinson.

Adoree’ Jackson was a surprise signing this past offseason after being a surprise cut by the Tennessee Titans. Adoree was drafted out of USC in the first round of the 2017 draft, but never lived up to his first round pedigree for the Titans. He is an excellent athlete, but that didn’t translate into excellent play for Tennessee. His best season was probably his sophomore year in 2018, in which he came up with two interceptions, 10 passes defensed, and allowed 55 percent completion. Since that year, Jackson’s career has been marred by injury and inconsistent play until his release. The Giants are clearly hoping to harness Jackson’s athleticism, which should give them more options for coverage schemes as compared to the relatively limited Isaac Yiadom, who started much of the 2020 season across from Bradberry.

Speaking of Yiadom, he remained relatively high on the Giants’ depth chart at the start of camp, but he was traded to the Green Bay Packers for former second-round pick Josh Jackson. Like Adoree’ Jackson, Josh Jackson never lived up to his draft pedigree, leading to the Packers parting ways with him. Jackson was promptly injured upon becoming a Giant and we didn’t get to see him in action during the preseason. He could be one of the first players off the bench in nickel or dime packages.

He has the reputation as a zone coverage specialist, excelling in Cover 2 or Cover 3 schemes. It’s possible that the Giants could make use of his skill set in hybrid coverages, using Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson to play man coverage while Josh Jackson plays a zone coverage. That could give him the opportunity to use his skills as a converted wide receiver and create turnovers as quarterbacks avoid tight coverage elsewhere.

We expected the slot corner position to be a battle between 2020 fourth-round pick Darnay Holmes and 2021 third rounder Aaron Robinson. While Holmes manned the slot well enough in 2020, Robinson brings greater athleticism and physicality to the position. Unfortunately, Robinson started training camp on the PUP list with a core muscle injury and will miss the first six weeks of the season (at least). That makes Holmes the Giants’ de facto starting slot corner — unless the team opts to move Adoree’ Jackson into the slot and start Josh Jackson outside.

Adoree’ Jackson has experience in the slot, having played there early in his career for Tennessee, and they could opt for that alignment if it gives them their best matchups.

Not mentioned in the depth chart is 2019 fourth round pick Julian Love, who does a little bit of everything in the Giants’ secondary. He was a cornerback for Notre Dame but has transitioned to safety for the Giants. That being said, he still plays the slot as well as outside corner on occasion, both adding depth at the position and helping to disguise coverages.

Finally we get to one of the surprises of training camp in Rodarius Williams. Drafted in the sixth round, Williams was largely expected to be a special teams player for the Giants. However, his training camp and preseason were marked by a string of highlight reel plays which helped him ascend the depth chart. His play in coverage was still something of an adventure and he appeared lost at times, but a knack for being around the ball let him stand out and catch the coaches’ eyes. Williams will still likely be a special teams player as a rookie, but he should be credited for making the most of the opportunities he found.

Will the Giants’ secondary be improved in 2021? That remains to be seen. The team should get kudos for recognizing that they can get better in coverage and moving to bring in new pieces. But it should also be recognized that they are taking risks in trying to improve. Both Adoree’ Jackson and Josh Jackson could be called busts for the teams that drafted them. Both players got good coaching on good defenses, but didn’t play up to expectations. Perhaps a change of scenery and scheme will let them play up to their draft pedigree. If so, the Giants could take the next step and get even better as a defense.

We’ll get our answers soon enough.