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Giants position review: Julian Love’s free agency complicates the picture

Will the Giants need to replace one of their captains?

New York Giants v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Two of the New York Giants' captains were safeties by trade, albeit Wink Martindale consistently stressed that his defense is position-less. Both Xavier McKinney and Julian Love were honored with captainship. The latter comported himself well in the final year of his contract, whereas the former struggled through adversity.

Nevertheless, the two were pivotal to Martindale’s success. The Giants ran more quarter personnel (7+ defensive backs on the field) than any other team.

Martindale employed seven, sometimes even eight, defensive backs on the field at once to maximize speed and because the Giants' linebacker position was unreliable. Third-year former second-round pick Xavier McKinney was bestowed the green dot - a responsibility granted to trustworthy players to communicate defensive calls from the coach. McKinney was the player hearing Martindale’s calls at the start of every play.

In Patrick Graham’s system, Blake Martinez wore the green dot before his injury. Logan Ryan assumed that responsibility after Martinez’s injury. Ryan was released for minimal cap savings in March of 2022.

The new coaching staff gave McKinney the green dot, for Martindale’s defenses don’t always require linebackers. Shortly after that, Big Blue, and the linebacker parted ways amicably.

Martindale also brought in Tony Jefferson from the Ravens. The Giants drafted rookie safety Dane Belton in the fourth round out of Iowa, and Joe Schoen signed Jason Pinnock off the Jets’ waivers after final cuts. The safety group was young, with possible budding stars and one veteran who was very familiar with the system.

2022 in review

The roster

Starters: Xavier McKinney, Julian Love
Backups: Dane Belton, Jason Pinnock, Tony Jefferson
Practice squad: Trenton Thompson

NOTE: Landon Collins is considered a linebacker for this series. That’s how the Giants classified him, and 135 of his 171 total defensive snaps were in the box or on the defensive line.

McKinney assimilated into Martindale’s defense with ease. He was used a lot near the line of scrimmage, and his number was called on several blitzes resulting in pressures, hits, and passes defended at the line of scrimmage.

He finished the season with four passes defended, 42 tackles, only four missed tackles and zero interceptions. We saw the big play potential through certain parts of 2021 (Philadelphia 1.0, Las Vegas); however, aside from the pivotal Travis Etienne forced fumble in Week 7, those plays were few and far between.

McKinney’s season is unfortunately defined by the bye-week hand injury he sustained while vacationing in Cabo. The talented young safety missed eight weeks of the season but was able to return in Week 17 before resting in Week 18 in preparation for the playoffs.

Questions in Joe Schoen’s press conference inquired about the team’s opinion of their young captain, and Schoen quickly put those questions to bed.

McKinney is just 24 years old. His football IQ is excellent, and he’s got a versatile skill set that he’s still mastering his craft. I believe the future is bright for McKinney in New York, albeit that was a rough speed bump in year three.

I have admired Love since his time at Notre Dame, where he played cornerback. Every coaching staff he played for has utilized his diverse skill set in a variety of ways: cornerback, safety, near the line of scrimmage, in the box, and in the slot. I have a lot of respect for players like him.

Love was good in his original role before assuming more responsibility after McKinney suffered his injury. He can execute any assignment he’s tasked with, and his comprehension of the game is an underrated trait he possesses. He’s good at everything and very versatile, but maybe not a master from a physical standpoint.

I love his temperament and selflessness in run support. He finished the year with 91 tackles, two interceptions, and four passes defended while operating as a special teams ace. Love is a free agent at the end of the season, and the future isn’t yet determined for the Giants’ captain.

Pinnock played 209 snaps on special teams and added 473 defensive snaps. He assumed a much bigger role in the defense after McKinney’s injury during the bye week. The 23-year-old could be a more sure tackler, but I appreciated his size, length, and overall athletic ability.

I understand why the Giants added him to this aggressive defense - he had eleven pressures and two sacks on the season. Pinnock is under contract through 2024, and I’m fine with allowing him to compete for a roster spot next season.

Tony Jefferson had a valuable role in the Giants’ quarter personnel package. He played 193 snaps, most of them in quarter. Jefferson and Landon Collins were the “linebackers” in Martindale’s quarter package and were involved in coverage, run support, and exotic blitz looks.

Jefferson suffered a foot injury against the Packers in London and did not see the field again until Week 13 versus Washington. He was physical but would, at times, lose some coverage assignments. The 30-year-old is set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Rookie Dane Belton suffered a broken collarbone in training camp that held him out of Week 1. Belton had a golden opportunity to seize after McKinney’s injury, but he had a poor run fit against Houston that led to a 44-yard Dameon Pierce run cut his snaps almost in half against Detroit in the subsequent week.

After the Detroit game in Week 12, Belton only saw the field for 15 snaps (playoffs included, Week 18 excluded due to the starter’s resting). He played in 400 defensive snaps on the season.

Belton wasn’t quite ready to assume a full-time role in his rookie season. Still, I love his ability to bait quarterbacks in zone coverage, which was the primary trait that allowed him to intercept five passes during his final season at Iowa.

Belton ended the season with two interceptions but narrowly missed three more. A pass was just out of his reach in his inaugural NFL game against the Carolina Panthers in Week 2. Two Lamar Jackson passes were almost interceptions by Belton, with one of them bouncing off his hands in the end zone.

Belton does a good job understanding route concepts and timing his jump right as the quarterback is releasing the football. This natural feel can assist him in any zone coverage, and Belton is athletic enough to play man coverage, albeit that’s a work in progress. Belton also must fix his run fits coming from depth. The ability to turn the football over is valuable, and Belton understands the nuances of baiting quarterbacks into mistakes.

2023 outlook

McKinney will start as a captain and presumably the green dot wearer. The retention of Love is the primary question with this position group. The Giants have to make decisions on other in-house free agents like quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. They also have to worry about future contracts to left tackle Andrew Thomas, defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and McKinney.

The market may price Love out of the Giants’ range of comfortability. Schoen more than likely has a number that he won’t concede, and Love could garner more on the open market. We’ll have to wait and see.

If Love isn’t retained, the Giants would look to add talent to the safety group; I’d imagine Belton would receive the first shot at starting opposite McKinney, with Pinnock receiving an opportunity to compete for the third safety spot. If Jefferson wants to continue playing, he could come back on a veteran minimum deal.

The Giants currently have eleven picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. It would be wise to invest some capital into the safety room since the defense relied so heavily on quarter personnel. There needs to be talent added to this safety group, which is a statement that can apply to every positional group on the defense.