The New York Giants started the 2021 season with one of the more complete safety groups. They signed savvy veteran Logan Ryan to a three-year $31 million contract, had the physical Jabrill Peppers heading into a contract year, and finally received a healthy Xavier McKinney with an entire off-season under his belt. The trio had the trifecta of experience/leadership, physicality, and range.
Julian Love operated as the fourth safety in the group. His presence completed an already impressive safety room. Love was a college cornerback at Notre Dame, and he played corner towards the tail end of 2020 for the Giants (in the Cleveland and second Dallas matchup). Love’s ability to play man and zone coverage, along with his tackling prowess, gave the Giants the versatility to use him wherever they needed. Love played corner, middle of the field closed single high, deep-half (in cover two and cover six), in the slot, and the box. Love was a Swiss-Army knife for Graham in the secondary and could be a full-time starter on most teams.
This safety group was the competent backend of a budding defense led by Patrick Graham. Let’s look at the safeties as we continue our position-by-position reviews of the Giants.
2021 in review
Starters: Xavier McKinney, Logan Ryan
Backups: Julian Love, J.R. Reed, Steven Parker
IR: Jabrill Peppers, Nate Ebner
Practice squad: Dwayne Johnson Jr.
The 2021 Giants vastly underperformed their expectations. Even by the Vegas preseason win metric of 7, the Giants failed to come close, finishing the season 4-13. Unfortunately, Peppers suffered a season-ending a ruptured ACL and high ankle sprain in the Giants’ Week 7 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Peppers snaps were scaled back before the injury - he only played 19 against the Saints and 30 in week one against Denver. Nevertheless, he was a foundational player on the defense. His loss propelled Love into an expanded role. Graham praised Love as a “jack of all trades,” and he also used him in that manner. Love played 211 snaps in the slot, 182 at traditional safety, 140 in the box, 43 on the “defensive line,” and 35 outside at cornerback. He is a sure tackling player who can wear many hats and one that should help the next defensive coordinator.
Ryan signed his extension and didn’t particularly have a great season. Ryan had 6 passes defended and allowed 3 touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed the highest completion percentage in 2021, and his coverage grade was the worst of his career. He will be 31-years-old next year, and one may presume his skills are deteriorating.
However, Ryan’s intellect is underrated; his ability to ensure the backend coverage adjusts with the pre-snap offensive movement is essential. Ryan also does a good job in trap coverage situations when robbing the seam of a number two receiver - his timing, patience, and feel for this gave the Giants better opportunities to create turnovers. He’s still a physical alley defender who flies into the B-Gap with good tackling mechanics. Ryan still has two years left on his deal; I hope he can reassert himself as a good safety in the league, as we witnessed in 2020, rather than the average one we saw in 2021.
If there’s one player on the Giants’ defense to be excited about, it’s Xavier McKinney. The second-year safety exceeded expectations in his first full season, recording 5 interceptions, 4 passes defended and being the 13th highest graded safety in terms of coverage, per PFF. If any Giant deserved a Pro Bowl nod, it was McKinney.
The range displayed by McKinney will allow the next defensive coordinator to call single high looks where he can rely on McKinney’s ability to assist corners in perceived one-on-one matchups. It’s rare to find a safety who has sideline to sideline ability - that’s not just a speed trait, but a mental and agile one. McKinney is one of the better building blocks on the Giants roster.
Steven Parker played 24 snaps for New York down the season’s stretch. He was mainly a special team player who appeared in eight games for the Giants. He had a pass defended against Philadelphia and a few physical tackles throughout the season.
J.R. Reed played 56 defensive snaps through two games for the Giants. Like Parker, he had a few splash plays that popped on film; a few big open-field tackles, but he was primarily used on special teams through the back half of the season. Both Parker and Reed are free agents in 2022.
Ryan, McKinney, and Love form a solid trio of safeties if Ryan’s play doesn’t regress. The nature of Peppers’ injury was entirely too unfortunate; getting injured in a contract year is rough. Can the Giants resign him to a small, prove-it deal? Sure, but this will be an entirely different coaching staff, so the link isn’t necessarily there. I wouldn’t mind seeing Peppers return, but the Giants have a lot of holes to fix with little money to plug them.
Peppers, Reed, Parker, Johnson, and Ebner are all free agents in 2022. I didn’t mind what I saw from Reed and Parker. Reed seemed buried on a deep depth chart with the Rams, and he made some contributions for the Giants in 2021. He’s not the biggest, most imposing player, but I wouldn’t mind small deals for him or Parker. But again, a different coaching staff will have a different vision, and that vision may not include many players on a losing 4-13 team.
The Giants have their top three-set, but they’ll need to add depth to the position. Ryan, McKinney, and Love should all play significant snaps, so a competent fourth safety should be added in case of injury. Safety is one of the sturdier positions on the roster, so I’m interested to see how the new general manager can add depth to this position group with all the other issues plaguing the New York Giants.