One of the strengths for the New York Giants heading into the 2021 season was the defensive backs. The corners and the safeties were the best overall position, coached by a well-respected leader in Jerome Henderson. New York had a trio of reliable safeties; Logan Ryan was the savvy leader, Jabrill Peppers was the enforcing burst of lightning moving downhill, and Xavier McKinney looked like he could become a very well-rounded safety.
McKinney may have exceeded expectations and could be a true single-high safety with range. Ryan took a step back from his stellar 2020 season but is still the torchbearer of defensive alignment on the back end. Unfortunately, Peppers ruptured his ACL and is a free agent.
The cornerback position added Adoree’ Jackson - a young man coverage cornerback who had a falling out with the Tennessee Titans. The Giants selected Aaron Robinson in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. These additions, combined with James Bradberry having a career 2020 season, made the cornerback room look like one of the best in the NFL.
The secondary didn’t necessarily disappoint in 2021, butit failed to live up to lofty expectations. Bradberry regressed from 2020, albeit he wasn’t bad; injuries to Robinson, Darnay Holmes, and rookie sixth-round pick Rodarius Williams forced undrafted players off the street into the lineup. To his credit, Jarren Williams played well down the season’s stretch for the Giants.
Nevertheless, a once robust secondary now has questions about its longevity. Bradberry is a potential cap casualty, and new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will look to add press man cornerbacks to fit his aggressive man-heavy philosophy. There should be a lot of great athletic testing from this group. Here are some names from the Combine to monitor who could interest the Giants.
The top three cornerbacks in the draft should all interest the Giants at pick No. 7. Those players are Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (Cincinnati), Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson), and Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU). When GM Joe Schoen was with the Buffalo Bills, the highest draft pick allocated to the secondary was Taron Johnson (Round 4) in 2018. Is there anything to read into there?
Well, the Bills had just signed Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde to form a dynamic duo at safety in the 2017 free agent cycle. Doug Whaley - the predecessor to Brandon Beane - selected Tre’Davious White during the 2017 NFL Draft, three days before he was relieved of his duties. Beane took over front office responsibilities a mere 10 days later.
Every draft that Beane and Schoen led in Buffalo featured later-round picks at cornerback, and a lot of them turned out to be good role players. Taron Johnson, Jaquon Johnson, Siran Neal, Dane Jackson, and Damar Hamlin have played roles in Leslie Frazier’s defense.
It’s just an observation and doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s interesting to note. Outside of the big three, here are names who the Giants should be monitoring at the NFL Combine.
Roger McCreary, Auburn
McCreary is one of the best pure-man coverage cornerbacks in the draft. He consistently aggressively worked through receivers’ catch points; he’s always in phase, is very fluid, and his track record against some of the best college football receivers is impressive. He was targeted four times against Alabama’s speedster Jameson Williams; he surrendered one catch on a slant for 9 yards.
McCreary more than likely would have been a first-round pick, but his arm length at the Senior Bowl will bother teams. He was 5-foot-11, 189 pounds, with 29¼-inch arms - that’s in the first percentile. He has shorter arms than Darnay Holmes, who is in the second percentile. McCreary should test well in Indianapolis, but some teams won’t consider him due to the lack of length. If he slides, he makes sense for New York.
Kyler Gordon, Washington
Gordon is going to have an excellent Combine. He has excellent size, long arms, and plays with a physical nature. Gordon, and his teammate Trent McDuffie, should both test well. They both come from a zone-heavy defense, but Gordon’t fluidity and movement suggest he can make a transition to more of a man coverage-based defense.
Kaiir Elam, Florida
I’m not sure how Elam will test, but he is a player to monitor at pick 36. The Combine could be significant for Elam, who is not discussed relative to some of the more high-profile corners in this draft. Questions about his deep speed can be answered with a good 40-yard-dash time.
He’s consistently in phase with receivers in short to intermediate parts of the field. He’s very good at playing through the catch point, and his profile seems to translate to a press-man system. I’ll be watching Elam intently at the Combine to see how he performs next to some of the other top corners in the class.
Tariq Woolen, UTSA
Woolen has impressive movement skills at 6-3, 205 pounds with 33½-inch arms. Concerns about the level of competition he faced were quelled at the Senior Bowl. He showed press discipline, fluid hips, and the ability to stay in phase on horizontal breaking routes. He reportedly ran a 4.34 40-yard-dash; if he does that at the Combine, he will continue to ascend and could be a surprise first-round pick.
Joshua Williams, Fayetteville State
The DII prospect showed up at the Senior Bowl and showed good press ability at the line of scrimmage. He seemed to understand angles timing, and his feet were better than I expected. Williams was 6-2, 193 pounds, with 32¼-inch arms. The Giants could take a cornerback early, which won’t prevent them from double-dipping on Day 3. Williams seems to have the potential to fit Martindale’s scheme, and he could be a Day 3 name to monitor.
Cam Taylor-Britt, Nebraska
Taylor-Britt is one of the more physical corners in the class. He measured 5-10, 200 pounds with just under 32-inch arms; he’s rocked up, quick in short areas, and uses his hands well at the line of scrimmage. Questions about his vertical speed led to assumptions about a transition to safety.
If he can run a fast 40 time, teams will be more apt to consider him at cornerback. I think he could make the transition to safety, which could entice Martindale. Taylor-Britt’s trigger downhill is quick and physical. He could be Martindale’s Brandon Stephens, a cornerback out of SMU that the Ravens drafted in the third round in last year’s draft.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
Kyle Hamilton is a unicorn at safety; that term is tossed around in a caviler manner, but Hamilton’s presence at 6-4, 220 pounds with the movement skills and athletic ability he possesses gives defensive coordinators so much freedom to be creative. Hamilton’s range on the back end is superb, and his ability to come down from a two-high shell and aggressively execute his run fit was evident on tape as well. He can play overhang, in the box, single-high, robber, and he’s a nuisance for the offense to scheme around. No safety in this class comes close to Hamilton, but some could still sneak into the first round.
Daxton Hill, Michigan
Hill is going to perform excellently at the Combine. He played a ton of overhang/nickelback for the Wolverines. His ability to go from zero to 100 was impressive, and he was excellent from a processing standpoint. Hill should slip into the first round, and the Combine shouldn’t hinder that potential reality because he should test through the roof in Indianapolis.
Jaquon Brisker, Penn State
Brisker opted out of the Senior Bowl, but he has good film and an excellent athletic baseline to position himself as a possible first-round pick. He has plenty of competent experience playing deep zones. He is versatile and was used in a variety of ways. He has the athletic capabilities and range to execute any role at the NFL level. His technique in man coverage could improve, and he does become a bit overly aggressive at times coming from depth.
Like Hill and the next player we will be discussing, Brisker is a heat-seeking missile who embraces contact. In the modern NFL, secondary pieces have to invite contact and play with a physical demeanor. Brisker is on Bruce Feldman’s freak list (along with Hamilton); he reportedly jumped 35’5” in the triple jump with a 10’7” broad jump.
Nick Cross, Maryland
If you’re looking for a defender who plays with reckless abandon and looks to uproot offensive players every chance he gets, that’s Cross. The Maryland defender is a quick-twitch physical presence with a long 6-1, 215-pound frame. He is a bit wild coming from depth, but he has excellent speed and explosiveness; he should do well at the Combine.
Jalen Pitre, Baylor
Pitre may not have the same athletic upside as Hill or Brisker, but I still expect him to test well. Pitre is quick and insanely versatile, executing just about every role a secondary has to offer. If he does test well, he can continue his steady climb towards the top end of Day 2.
J.T. Woods, Baylor
Woods is a tall, lean, safety who has excellent top speed. He came away with the game-sealing interception in the Senior Bowl. I wish he were more physical as a safety, but this a fluid back end asset who clocked a game-high 4.3 GPS speed, according to Senior Bowl Director Jim Nagy. Woods tied the FBS lead in interceptions, with six in 2021. He could be a target somewhere on Day 3 for depth with the hope that he gets stronger with an NFL training program.