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Better or worse: How will Giants replace Julian Love at safety?

There are lots of possibilities, but no sure bet

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The New York Giants fielded a formidable safety duo throughout much of the 2022 season. The combination of captain, and green dot wearer, Xavier McKinney with Julian Love provided Big Blue with versatile defensive backs who possessed considerable functional bandwidth.

A bye-week hand injury sustained by McKinney stifled the upside of the defense, not only due to the loss of McKinney, but the loss of Love out of his flexible role. Without McKinney, the Giants leaned on rookie Dane Belton and special teams defender Jason Pinnock.

Belton reportedly reinjured his collarbone after the bye week, which limited his snaps, and Pinnock was adequate in relief of McKinney. New York ran more quarter and dollar personnel than any team, so Giants’ depth in the secondary became accustomed to seeing some snaps on Sunday before McKinney’s injury.

Two players who predominantly played in quarter and dollar personnel were Landon Collins, who was acting as a quasi-linebacker, and veteran Tony Jefferson. The former is a free agent, and the latter retired.

One of the bigger defensive questions heading into the offseason surrounded special teams’ and defensive captain Julian Love, who was set to be a free agent. The Giants ultimately allowed Love to pursue other options, and he signed a rather modest two-year $12-million contract with the Seattle Seahawks.

Key losses: Julian Love, Tony Jefferson, Landon Collins
Key additions: Bobby McCain, Gervarrius Owens

Why the Giants might be better

Losing Love could prove to be costly, although the market didn’t exactly reflect that sentiment. Still, the Giants had to find ways to replace Love. They looked in free agency, the draft, undrafted players, and within their roster.

GM Joe Schoen signed former Miami Dolphin and Washington Commander Bobby McCain. Giants’ fans may remember McCain as the defender who intercepted Jake Fromm twice in the infamous 22-7 Week 18 loss against Washington.

McCain is a 29-year-old undersized veteran who is a significant step down from Love in run support but does provide utility in coverage. McCain’s had 14 passes defended over the last three seasons, with five interceptions.

The Giants also added seventh-round rookie Gervarrius Owens (Houston) and UDFA Alex Cook (Washington) to the defense. Cook is more than likely destined for the practice squad, but Owens has a chance at the roster.

Owens played college football with the son of Giants’ special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey. Like McCain, Owens has good vision from depth. He seemed to understand route concepts, made several impressive plays on the football, and showed sufficient range to play in the NFL, but there’s a reason why he was available in the seventh round at pick 256.

Also, like McCain, run support isn’t Owens’ strong suit. McCain is a speed-bump tackler, meaning he can slow ball carriers down by merely getting in their way, but the physicality isn’t consistently present. Owens gets in the way, but he can be physical; he just really struggled, in college, with his angles and coming to balance before initiating contact.

Owens had a 15.1% missed tackle rate throughout his college career. His senior season was the worst; he missed 16 tackles for a 17.8% missed tackle rate - that must be cleaned up. Wink Martindale’s propensity to run defensive-back heavy personnel packages could ultimately work in favor of Owens, but the tackling still needs development.

Both Collins and Jefferson acted as linebackers in quarter defensive personnel. Those roles are up for grabs, and one might be seized by Nick McCloud, who trained at safety during spring practices. McCloud isn’t on the additions above, but he figures into this group and has a realistic shot at starting.

Even if McCloud doesn’t start, he’s going to see snaps in sub-packages. McCloud was an ace tackler for the Giants last year; he only missed two tackles - a 4.8% missed tackle rate. McCloud’s smart has good size/length and could replace fellow golden domer Julian Love.

The Giants could be better off without Love if the trio of McCain, Owens, and McCloud, as well as Belton, Pinnock, and Tre Hawkins III, can collectively replace the effectiveness of Love in different personnel packages. Although Love wasn’t expensive for Seattle, McCain only signed for one-year $1.4 million, and everyone else is on a cheap deal.

Why the Giants might be worse

Love played 1,133 defensive snaps in 2022, the only Giant defender to play more than 1,000. He also played 225 special teams snaps. In many ways, Love was the unheralded adhesive that helped keep two of the three phases of Giants’ football intact last season - a year where the Giants vastly out-performed their expectations. He is no longer a Giant.

The Giants decided to allow Love to walk and made non-trivial moves to replace him. I didn’t hate what the Giants did at safety this offseason; you can’t pay everyone, and sometimes there isn’t a great solution, only a tradeoff.

Losing Love - a versatile captain who understood the assignments of his teammates and wore many hats for several different coordinators throughout his time in New York, with just under 3,000 consistent snaps in his career - won’t be easy to overcome.

I don’t want to undersell Jefferson’s leadership and Collins’ physical nature in the box, but the defense’s experience last season under Martindale can mask the leadership loss, and the presence of Bobby Okereke may lead to less defensive personnel with no linebackers on the field, which would diminish the role Collins occupied in 2022.

Final thoughts

If we’re focusing solely on the position group, I’m siding with the worse side on this one. Losing a player like Love, who is a consummate professional who is intellectually in-tune with his responsibilities while being a good run support player with ball production, will be a hurdle to overcome.

However, the additions to the defensive line and cornerback room should help the Giants as a whole, which can help the safety room play well enough to allow Love to be an afterthought to a certain degree.

The Giants could be in a much worse position, opposite of McKinney. Belton, McCain, Pinnock, Owens, McCloud, and maybe a ‘cornerback’ like Hawkins III or Robinson isn’t a terrible lot to choose from. New York will use multiple safety packages, and all the safeties that make the team will find their way into the defense one way or another.