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Position preview: For Giants, making special teams special a major emphasis

Roster is filled with special teams-first players

NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Giants at Browns
Cam Brown (47) has become a key special teams player for the Giants.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is not exactly a news flash that special teams are a priority for the New York Giants. A very high priority. With Joe Judge, a former special teams coach at Alabama and with the New England Patriots, it is a unit valued just as much as offense or defense.

As evidenced by the roster they will open the 2021 season with, players with exceptional special teams ability are prized by the Giants. Let’s take a look at where the Giants are on special teams entering the season.

Where they started

When training camp started here is what the Giants had on the roster:

Placekicker — Graham Gano, Ryan Santoso
Punter — Riley Dixon
Long-snapper — Casey Kreiter, Carson Tinker

The Giants also had questions at the critical punt gunner position, and a plethora of potential options for the kickoff and punt return jobs.

Where they are now

In terms of the kicking and snapping specialists, the Giants ended up right where they were last season, which is right where they were expected to be.

Current roster

Placekicker — Graham Gano
Punter — Riley Dixon
Long-snapper — Casey Kreiter

There was never a chance that Santoso was going to take the placekicking job away from Gano. Santoso is a player who has kicked around the league for a few seasons, but never attempted a field goal in a regular-season game. Gano is an 11-year veteran coming off a career-best season in which he made 31 of 32 field goals. Gano also has a shiny new three-year, $14 million contract that would have carried a $7.25 million dead money hit this season if the Giants had let him go. That was not going to happen.

Trading Santoso to the Carolina Panthers, for a conditional seventh-round pick that comes to the Giants if Santoso kicks in two regular-season games for Carolina, was a coup for New York.

Tinker, who was on the practice squad last season while Kreiter snapped successfully in every game, was also not going to take that job away from Kreiter.

I thought perhaps competition might at some point be brought in for punter Riley Dixon, but that never materialized.

So, it is status quo for the Giants in terms of their kicking game specialists.

Many other things on special teams, though, have changed. Let’s take a look.

Special teams-first players

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants
Nate Ebner
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last season, Nate Ebner was really the only player on the roster specifically because of special teams ability.

This season, there are several.

The Giants traded for Keion Crossen, a quality special teams player with the New England Patriots and Houston Texans. Crossen is a capable reserve cornerback, but it is his special teams work that has him in the league.

The Giants are carrying two fullbacks, an unusual roster alignment in an age when many teams don’t carry any. Cullen Gillaspia, though, is really not an offensive player. He is a special teamer who dabbled with playing fullback. In two seasons with Houston, he played 390 special teams snaps to just 20 on offense. With the Giants this preseason, he played 56 special teams snaps and just seven on offense.

Gary Brightwell was drafted in the sixth round. He was drafted, though, largely because of his special teams work at Arizona. He has been working with many of the Giants’ first-team units on special teams, and should play a significant role.

Edge defender Cam Brown is also trending toward that ‘special teams first’ label. He emerged an outstanding player on kickoff and punt coverage last season. This preseason, the Giants took the unusual step of making the 6-foot-5, 233-pound Brown a punt gunner. His combination of speed, power and length make him a potentially tremendous player in that role.

C.J. Board is another player who is on the roster largely because of his special teams ability. Board’s speed factors at punt gunner and on kickoff coverage. He can also return punts and kickoffs. That special teams ability is why he is on the roster and David Sills V and Dante Pettis are not.

“Obviously, Keion is a blazer, it jumps off the tape. Cam is learning the position and I think Cam has the potential to be an outstanding gunner,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “There are some things he still needs to work on, because it’s a new position for him. Anytime you put a young kid in a new spot, there’s going to be some growing pains. Once he starts to figure it out for what works for him, he’s going to be good.

“With Keion, we traded for him for a reason. He has a unique skill set, and he’s a blazer. Then, Cam on the other side is a big, strong, long, powerful guy who can run also. Teams will have to deal with those guys. Then, throwing in a C.J. Board and some of these other guys that we have and having to deal with speed on both sides. It’s always good for your punt team.”

What of Ebner? He remains a free agent, apparently having suffered an injury last season that was severe enough to keep him from trying out for the U.S. Olympic Rugby Team that competed in Tokyo. Judge has made it crystal clear that when Ebner is healthy, and he reportedly visited with the Giants recently, there will be a spot for him on the team.

McGaughey doesn’t know when Ebner will be back in the fold, but it’s clear he also wants him around.

“When he gets here, I’ll coach him. That’s kind of my deal with him. I love him to death. Nate is an outstanding leader and has been a great (special) teamer in this league for years,” mcGaughey said. “Anytime you can get a guy like that back in your building with that kind of leadership and that kind of experience, I can’t wait to get him back.”

Kickoff and punt return

The Giants have a number of options at both spots.

Jabrill Peppers could be Plan A at both spots to start the season. Peppers averaged a career-best 12.5 yards on 15 punt returns last season. For his career, he averages 8.6 yards per return. Peppers has only returned one kickoff in two seasons with the Giants, but averages 22.0 yards on 34 kickoff returns over his career.

Board could figure here. He returned one punt for six yards and two kickoffs for an average of 27.0 yards last season. in the preseason, he averaged 12.8 yards on four punt returns and 26.3 yards on four kickoff returns.

“He’s done nothing but get better as he’s been here since he walked in the door last year. That was a skill he had in college and he hadn’t done it a lot in the league, so we just knocked the dust off of it and he kind of jumped right back into it,” McGaughey said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s working his tail off at it. C.J. is one those kids who comes in a room and he won’t say two words and he just works. He’ll run all day long and he’ll continue to work at whatever you ask him to work at. He’s a pro, he’s becoming a really good pro.”

First-round pick Kadarius Toney could also be in play for both roles. Toney averaged 12.6 yards on punt returns and 22.1 yards on kickoff returns last season at Florida. The Giants will be looking for ways to get the ball into Toney’s hands, and this could be one way. Before he missed time in training camp, Toney was working as a punt returner. McGaughey said he may also figure into kickoff return.

“We’ve got a lot of options. We’ll see where (wide receiver) Kadarius (Toney) fits in, who knows,” McGaughey said. “We’ve just got a lot of options. We’ve got a lot of different guys we could put back there. We’ve got a lot of guys that have done it in the past, a lot of viable options. It’s always good to have options at that spot.”

Another option — when he comes off the injured reserve list — is John Ross. A successful collegiate kickoff returner, Ross was never given that opportunity with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Giants, intrigued by his incredible speed, were taking a hard look at him as a kickoff returner before he suffered a hamstring injury in training camp. When he gets healthy, he could get another look in that role.