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Giants’ edge Elerson Smith off to fast start in first real NFL training camp

Hamstring injury wrecked Smith’s first season with the Giants

NFL: New York Giants Training Camp
Elerson Smith practicing a drill during training camp.
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Elerson Smith flew around the right tackle. He overwhelmed helpless running back Sandro Platzgummer, who had no chance in a practice without pads. Quarterback Davis Webb, red non-contact jersey and all, took off running during Wednesday’s first practice of New York Giants training camp.

“He [Webb] mighta gotten a good look on that one,” Smith joked after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s got wheels.”

In a real game, with a quarterback he could hit, that was probably a sack for Smith.

Thursday, Smith made left tackle Devery Hamilton’s life miserable. He burst past Hamilton easily on a couple of plays, flushing harried quarterbacks out of the pocket. To be fair, Hamilton couldn’t block undrafted free agent Tomon Fox on Thursday, either.

This, though, is about Smith. Not Hamilton.

Point is, the 24-year-old 2021 fourth-round pick is off to a good start in this training camp. That’s significant because it’s an opportunity he did not get during his rookie season.

Smith suffered a hamstring injury during rookie practices the week before last year’s training camp officially opened. He did not do any significant practicing during training camp, only participating lightly in a couple of walk-throughs. He began the season on Injured Reserve, played in eight games after being activated, and then finished the year back on IR with a neck injury.

“This is all I’m here to do, so I’m very excited for that,” Smith told Big Blue View on Wednesday during an exclusive interview. “Last year I didn’t even get a day of training camp. I think this will be a big time for me, just for the fact that I have a lot of days where I can get better.

“We were talking about it today, take one step forward. Just do that every day. I think training camp’s a perfect time to work on your craft and get acclimated and I’m excited for it.”

Smith ended up playing 107 defensive snaps last season, accumulating just eight tackles (two solo), a forced fumble and a pair of quarterback hits.

I asked Smith how difficult it was coming back after missing so much time, especially as a rookie.

“It’s tough coming back in the middle of the season because you don’t get the live reps that you need in practice,” Smith said. “But, you know, it’s the NFL for a reason and I’m here for a reason, so we try to work with what we’ve got and that’s what we had to do last year. Now we’ve got a lot more opportunities to get better.”

Smith is incredibly soft spoken, answering questions politely in a voice barely above a whisper. At 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, perhaps that makes him somewhat of a gentle giant.

Smith admitted he had to work during the year not to think about what might have been had he remained healthy through training camp.

“It’s hard. Sometimes we can fall down that thought pattern, but you want to stay present and just work with the opportunity you have in front of you,” Smith said. “Mine last year was coming in in Week 8 and getting the reps I did and I tried to make the most out of each rep and that’s what we’re gonna do this next season, too.”

The Giants suddenly find themselves with a talented, young group of potentially excellent edge rushers. There is No. 5 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, 2021 second-round pick Azeez Ojulari, veteran Jihad Ward, Quincy Roche and 2019 third-round pick Oshane Ximines.

Where does Smith fit?

“I just try and take it day-by-day, rep-by-rep,” he said. “There’s so many different things, different distractions that could take away from your game I don’t want to have to worry about that.”

If Smith continues to harass quarterbacks throughout training camp and the preseason, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will find a way to employ this long, athletic, position versatile pass rusher as part of his “pressure breaks pipes” philosophy.

“I’m excited to play in this defense,” Smith said. “Wink’s obviously a lot more aggressive. He wants to get after the quarterback, and that’s what I like to do. That’s what I’m training to do this season.”

Martindale had success as coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens in developing several linebackers not drafted in Round 1 into good players. Za’Darius Smith was a 2015 fourth-round pick, Matt Judon a 2016 fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State and Tyus Bowser a 2017 second-round pick.

“We reflected this offseason on the previous outside linebackers who have been in this scheme before and they’ve had a lot of success,” Smith said. “That’s another reason for us to trust the process with Wink, especially as outside ‘backers because we know there’s a lot of success there.

“From Judon to Za’Darius Smith to Tyus Bowser, who all in recent years have been doing well for themselves.”

Could Smith be next in line? It is far too soon to jump to conclusions — two days of work without pads on doesn’t mean a whole lot in the big picture. Still, Smith’s play the past two days has hinted at why the Giants’ previous regime drafted him as a developmental pass rusher.

Only time will tell if Smith can turn his impressive start into something more meaningful, for both himself and the Giants.