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3 Giants players whose 2023 performance is sneakily important

Besides the obvious names, there are other players whose fly under the radar but will be critical

Washington Commanders v New York Giants
Azeez Ojulari
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Pick your favorite New York Giants player who is critical to the team’s success. Presumably, the names will be Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, and some of the other players who have been invested in through pivotal draft capital and salary cap dollars. But those are not the only players who make a team, and rosters need others to step up to varying degrees.

Last season, Darius Slayton and Isaiah Hodgins were two of the players outside the usual names whose success propelled the Giants forward. While contributions are welcome everywhere, who are three players who might be less talked about but are sneakily important to the Giants’ success?

Azeez Ojulari

Kayvon Thibodeaux is the flashy name along the edge, but the health and play of his partner on the other side are just as critical. Azeez Ojulari’s eight sacks in his rookie season belied some inconsistency in generating pressure. His 9.7% pressure rate in 2021 was actually very similar to Thibodeaux’s in 2022 (9.8%). Ojulari’s efficiency actually improved in 2022, as his rate improved significantly to 13.7%, but he only managed to record 140 pass rushes due to injury. His 3.9% sack rate was more than double the 1.8% rate he posted as a rookie.

Pro Football Focus viewed his sophomore season as more successful than his first in the pass rush department. His grade improved from 56.9 to 64.0, and his pass rush win rate rose from 9.9% to 15.6%. Again, though, the sample size was too small to significantly help the Giants, as Ojulari played in just seven regular-season games and was a limited participant in the playoffs.

The Giants desperately need Ojulari to stay healthy and sustain a higher efficiency rate. They have very little edge depth, especially in the pass rush department. Getting pressure is the biggest key in Wink Martindale’s pressuring offense. The team did not invest in the edge rusher position beyond re-signing Oshane Ximines and bringing in a couple of undrafted rookies. They’re banking on Ojulari bringing significant contributions.

The player opposite Xavier McKinney

Xavier McKinney gets all the hype and fanfare in the Giants’ secondary, which is why he doesn’t fit the premise of this article. McKinney is obviously critical to the Giants’ defensive success. However, the spot opposite him at safety receives much less scrutiny. Still, with Julian Love gone, a big enforcer in the run game and versatile player must be replaced.

Bobby McCain is likely to be the starter on the depth chart entering training camp considering his experience in the league. However, McCain actually played more snaps at slot corner (404) than deep safety (353) last season, and he played only 195 snaps in the box. Love, meanwhile, played 494 snaps at deep safety, 154 at slot corner, and 271 in the box, in addition to 50 on the defensive line and 37 at wide corner.

Note: I am referring to what Pro Football Focus calls the free safety position as deep safety since their differentiation is not based on the “official” free or strong safety position but on whether the safety is playing high or in the box. Therefore, “free” safety in this sense means that the safety was playing high, whether in a one-high or two-high look.

McCain did play more than 800 snaps at deep safety the prior season, but that was McKinney’s primary role in the Giants’ defense last season, as he played nearly 72% of his snaps there. The Giants tend to play more single-high safety due to their blitzing defense, which means that there will be more box snaps available for safeties than other teams might have in today’s two-high-heavy league.

That being said, McCain did put up a 72.6 coverage grade with Washington in 2021 when he played primarily deep. He also had a 69.5 grade in coverage last season when splitting his time between deep safety, slot corner, and the box. That’s an aspect of his game that can help from whichever spot he plays.

However, McCain struggled mightily as a run defender last season, posting a 33.9 Pro Football Focus grade in that area. He was not nearly as bad as that for most of the rest of his career, mostly grading out in the 60s, but it’s still not his biggest strength.

That’s where Jason Pinnock could take over some of his snaps at strong safety. Pinnock played 459 defensive snaps for the Giants last season, and 309 came at deep safety. His coverage grade was just 53.0, but his run defense grade was 76.6, and he also had a 67.8 tackling grade.

Although Pinnock’s 13.3% missed tackle rate ranked 52nd out of 72 qualified tackles, his rate was just 3.6% in the run game, which was fifth-best. His 2.8% stop rate ranked 30th and he forced a fumble. He also had 24 run defense tackles, meaning that he made the tackle on 13.3% of the run defense snaps he received, the highest rate among qualified safeties.

Pinnock is a converted cornerback, and 2022 was his first full season at the position. He had only played a few games there in his rookie year with the Jets. There is still plenty of room for him to grow into the spot, but he has likely earned some reps there.

Other Giants players who could take snaps opposite McKinney include Dane Belton and Nick McCloud. PFF did not think highly of Belton’s rookie season, giving him a 30.6 overall grade, including 28.9 in run defense and 40.0 in coverage. Although he allowed just a 56.6 passer rating when targeted, he gave up 12.1 yards and 7.0 YAC per reception. McCloud played 123 reps in the box last year and graded out at 67.0 overall, although he had a 48.5 grade in the one full game he started at strong safety against Dallas.

How the Giants play their safeties will be an interesting storyline both in training camp and once the season starts. However, regardless of whether it’s McCain, Pinnock, Belton, or McCloud, that spot will be very important for the Giants. Two of their biggest weaknesses defensively in 2022 were run defense and covering tight ends, both of which are often an important part of a box safety’s role. Replacing Love properly will be critical to ensure that the defense improves rather than going backward.

Slot receiver

I was simply going to put Parris Campbell into this category, but I think that would be an injustice to Wan’Dale Robinson. It remains to be seen how the Giants will utilize their many talented slot receivers. Still, Campbell is the presumed starter, while Robinson flashed some intriguing potential in a small sample size in 2022. Jalin Hyatt may also be in the conversation here, though his expected long-term future is on the outside. Even Darren Waller will likely receive some slot snaps.

Campbell’s 4.31 speed makes him an interesting option, although he was one of the NFL’s least efficient route-runners last season, posting just 1.03 yards per route run (ranked fourth-last among 72 qualified receivers). That may be partially attributable to the Colts’ pathetic quarterback situation, though. By contrast, Robinson had 1.76 yards per route run, the second-highest on the Giants behind only Darius Slayton.

Given Hyatt’s rawness as a route runner, I believe that Campbell and Robinson will have bigger roles at the beginning of the season. In that case, whichever one is playing the slot will be critical for the offense. Brian Daboll said that he prioritizes guys who can get open quickly. That’s the specific job of the slot. For a quarterback who likes to throw short, that slot is a security blanket on third down and a high-volume option.

Last year, the Giants did not have that true safety blanket in the slot. Richie James had a strong season statistically, nabbing 57 catches for 569 yards and four touchdowns. However, his 3.2 YAC per reception ranked just 50th out of 72 receivers, which is very low for a player with the eighth-lowest average depth of target at just 7.0. Campbell (6.5), Robinson (5.5), and Hyatt (7.3 at Tennessee) all had much higher YAC per reception totals, giving the Giants an added dimension at the position.

None of these three players were the kinds of first-down weapons that you would hope to have in the slot, though. Robinson had the highest first-down rate at 56.5%, while Campbell was at 50.7% and Hyatt at 55.2%. James was at a similar 50.9% last year. However, on third down, 81.2% of Campbell’s receptions went for a first down, while Robinson was at 87.5% compared to James’ 60%.

Perhaps I cheated a bit in this article by including positions rather than players. What do you think, Giants fans? Any other players whose performance is sneakily important?