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4 questions about New York Giants’ special teams entering 2023

Jamie Gillan’s consistency, impact of kickoff rule, more

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Jamie Gillan
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When we think about doing an offseason preview of special teams for the New York Giants, it is difficult if not impossible to preview the various units. We have no idea who will be on them.

What we can do is look at some of the obvious questions the Giants face on special teams for 2023. Here are four such questions.

Can punter Jamie Gillan be more consistent?

The Giants re-signed the left-footed Gillan to a two-year, $4 million contract ($1 million guaranteed) despite ‘The Scottish Hammer’ having been inconsistent during the 2022 season, his first with the Giants.

Gillan, who had 48 prior games of NFL experience over three seasons with the Cleveland Browns, averaged a career-high 46.8 yards per punt in 2022. Some of his ancillary numbers, though, were not as impressive.

Among punters with at least 15 punts, Gillan was 21st of 35 qualifiers with 34.6% of his punts down inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. His touchback rate of 11.1% was 29th of 35 qualifiers, costing the Giants valuable yardage. With Gillan punting, the Giants were 24th in the league in net yards per punt at 40.4.

The Giants like Gillan’s talent. Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey has pointed out in the past that Jeff Feagles, one of the most consistent punters in Giants’ history, didn’t really refine his craft until well into his 22-year career.

McGaughey said late last season that he thought Gillan was “trending more in the right direction as far as hang and distance.”

The Giants have seen enough to believe that will continue.

How many special teams-first players make the roster?

NFL roster spots are valuable commodities. There are only 53 of them, with 46 players (48 with practice squad elevations) active on game days. Players with positional versatility are valuable because of the limited number of players.

It is difficult for teams to keep many end-of-the-roster offensive or defensive players who cannot contribute to special teams.

Conversely. how many ‘special teams first’ players can a team afford to keep? If those players cannot at least do a competent job if called upon to play offense or defense, they also become difficult to roster.

Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin are special teams first players, listed as linebackers. Coughlin played only six defensive snaps last season. Brown played only three. That’s especially damning considering how much the Giants searched for linebacker help throughout the season.

Can they continue to roster one or both players if they don’t view them as legitimate NFL linebackers?

Running back Gary Brightwell has played only 99 offensive snaps in two seasons, compared to 490 on special teams. Wide receiver Jeff Smith, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has only 34 receptions in four years and is thought to have been signed more for his value as a potential punt gunner.

Both Brightwell and Smith have flashed some offensive play-making ability, though, so that should work in their favor.

Rookie defensive backs Tre Hawkins III and Gervarrious Owens are also likely to be special teams first players as rookies.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Gary Brightwell
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Who will the primary returners be?

Richie James, the primary punt returner in 2022, is now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. His work last season returning punts left something to be desired, anyway, as his 7.0 yards per return average was 25th among 31 players with at least 15 punt returns.

Gary Brightwell, the primary kickoff returner in 2022, is competing for a roster spot once again. The NFL may be de-emphasizing the kickoff return, but it would be nice if the Giants had a more dangerous option than Brightwell handling the job when returns do happen. Brightwell averaged 22.0 yards per return last season, 21st among 32 qualifiers with at least 15 kickoff returns.

The Giants have a lot of options at each spot.

Punt return

Jamison Crowder, Jaydon Mickens, Darnay Holmes, Adoree’ Jackson, Eric Gray, Kalil Pimpleton, and Jalin Hyatt are among the possibilities.

Crowder has a career average of 8.2 yards on 95 punt returns. He averaged 11.1 yards on nine returns for the Buffalo Bills in 2022.

Mickens has a career average of 8.4 yards on 72 returns.

Those are the two most accomplished punt returners, but also two players who might not make the 53-man roster. No one wants to see Holmes or Jackson fielding punts in game action. Gray had nine collegiate punt returns but averaged only 5.2 yards per return and it isn’t a strength for him.

Pimpleton averaged 19.0 yards with two touchdowns on 16 returns for Central Michigan in 2021. He is capable of filling the role, but like the veterans Crowder and Mickens his path to the roster seems difficult.

The wild card is Hyatt. The rookie third-round pick did not do any returning at Tennessee, but the Giants have been working the speedster as a punt returner. Can he catch punts in traffic? Can he be trusted with the judgment calls required of a punt returner? Can he make initial defenders miss, enabling him to use his speed? How will his ball security be? All unknown.

Kickoff return

If it isn’t Brightwell, who special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey continually backed for the kickoff return job a year ago, then who?

Mickens has averaged 23.2 yards on 35 career returns. Crowder has only three career kickoff returns. Holmes has only five. Crowder has only three kickoff returns in his NFL career. Pimpleton returned only two kickoffs as a collegian. Gray had only four collegiate kickoff returns, all for Oklahoma in 2021. Jashaun Corbin might be an option, but he has to make the team first.

How will the Giants approach the new kickoff rule?

The NFL continued its slow march toward what seems like the inevitable extinction of the kickoff by implementing a fair catch rule that will allow kickoffs that don’t reach the end zone to be fair caught and placed at the 25-yard line.

It is a rule that seemingly makes no one who coaches or plays the game happy. It probably shouldn’t make fans happy, either, since it further reduces the possibility of actually seeing what can be one of the most exciting — and sometimes game-changing — plays in the sport.

Will teams just choose to blast kickoffs into the end zone? Will they sky-kick and force a decision on whether or not to fair catch? Could they increase the usage of the squib kick to force returns? Will teams returning the ball simply settle for the fair catch or touchback and just take the ball at the 25 whenever possible?

“We’re always looking for angles as coaches, right?,” McGaughey said this spring. “We’re always trying to find competitive advantages. We’ll always try and find those. So, we’re looking at certain things that we could possibly do, and we’ll see what happens.”

McGaughey admitted that the rule change is “uncharted territory” for players and coaches.

“It’s something that we haven’t seen before in our league, and it’s always going to be something that’s going to pop up within a new rule change that they didn’t foresee,” McGaughey said. “ So, it’s one of those deals where you’ve got to play the games to see what happens.

“The rule itself is just something we’ll just have to get used to. It’s like any other rule change. You just make the adjustments and just keep moving forward. I’m going to keep coaching the guys the same way. It’s not going to change. We’re going to coach up the fundamentals and the techniques, the schematics will be the same, and we’ll just go from there. You just make the adjustments and see what happens.”