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Making the case 2023: Gary Brightwell vs. Jashaun Corbin at running back

Gary Brightwell was a backup running back/kickoff retuner a year ago. Can Corbin unseat him this year?

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

The New York Giants 2023 training camp is still weeks away, but we’re using that time to look ahead at their roster and anticipate some of the roster battles we could see. The Giants could be in for a very competitive training camp as players at nearly every position vie for a limited number of open roster spots.

This time we’ll be taking a look at the running back position and the battle brewing between Gary Brightwell and Jashaun Corbin. This will also likely also impact the Giants’ special teams and the return game.

For our purposes, we’ll assume that fifth-round pick Eric Gray will make the roster, which is probably a safe assumption. The bigger question is whether or not the Giants will keep four runners on the 53-man roster. They had four on their initial 53-man roster in 2022, but there is no guarantee that they’ll do so again. But if they do choose to keep four running backs, that last spot will come down to a competition between Brightwell and Corbin.

Let’s see how the two stack up.

Gary Brightwell

The Giants drafted Brightwell out of the University of Arizona in the sixth round (196th overall) of the 2021 NFL Draft. He was largely overlooked throughout the draft process, and while he showed solid vision and contact balance on tape, he had little of the explosive athleticism that tends to get folks excited.

Brightwell has primarily played special teams in his two years as a Giant. He’s had 490 snaps on special teams over the last two years (195 snaps in 2021, 295 snaps in 2022), compared to just 99 offensive snaps in two years.

Why should he make the roster?

A common theme among these pieces has been, and will be, the importance of special teams for players on the roster bubble. Brightwell’s best argument for making the roster is his importance on special teams. He played 58 percent of the special teams snaps as a rookie and saw his role expand to 63 percent of the special teams snaps last year.

He had four special teams tackles and 32 kickoff returns (26 regular season, six in the play-offs) last year. His 21.3 yards per return might not seem particularly impressive, Brightwell still ranked 10th in the NFL for yards per return for players with 25 or more kick-off returns.

(Granted, there were only 15 returners with 25 or more returns)

Brightwell flashed as a returner with a 47-yard return against the Baltimore Ravens, and saw his yards per return rise over the final third of the season. That could suggest upside for future growth as a return option as he enters his third season in the NFL. He also showed improved burst and agility in 2022 as compared to 2021. While Brightwell won’t be confused with an explosive playmaker, he still averaged 4.55 yards per carry in his 31 rushing attempts last year. That could make him a reasonable back-up runner should the situation demand it.

What could hold him back?

The biggest thing that could hold Brightwell back could be limited use on offense.

Having good core special teams players is important for any and every team. The hidden yardage gained and lost on special teams can be the fulcrum around which the game pivots, and special teams turnovers can literally be game-changing.

But Brian Daboll isn’t Joe Judge. The Giants will obviously have their specialists (kicker, punter, long snapper), but they’re unlikely to have many roster spots used purely by special teams players. Brightwell could lose the roster battle if Corbin proves to be a similar special teams player and a better option on offense. Brightwell had some impressive runs in 2022, but a full third of his rushing attempts and nearly half of his rushing yardage came in one game. That’s practically the definition of a small sample size.

Jashaun Corbin

The Giants signed Corbin as an undrafted free agent out of Florida State after the 2022 NFL Draft. He competed with Brightwell and Antonio Williams for a roster spot a year ago, and failed to make the initial 53-man roster. He flashed enough upside in last year’s preseason that Ed had him making the Giants’ initial 53-man roster in his projections.

Can he build on last year’s preseason and a win the competition this year?

Why should he make the roster?

While Corbin was an undrafted free agent, he was a four-star recruit for Texas A&M and it came as a surprise when he transferred to Florida State. He’s an experienced kickoff returner and averaged 25 yards per return in college, including 30 yards per return and a touchdown his freshman year.

Corbin saw his role as a runner blossom in his senior year at FSU, averaging 6.2 yards per carry on 143 attempts, with 7 touchdowns. He was also involved in the passing game at Florida State, averaging 5.9 yards per catch on 44 receptions in his two years at FSU.

He showed those skills in preseason last year, leading the team in total yardage. He led the team in kickoff return yardage, was second in rushing yardage, and third in receiving yards. Corbin certainly has upside as a kick returner, and the Giants have spent considerable resources adding multiple pass catchers. They clearly want to improve their passing attack for 2023, and Corbin could give them another solid option out of the backfield should things go sideways at the top of the depth chart.

What could hold him back?

While Corbin was the best pass catcher among the fringe running backs last year, he struggled the most actually running the ball.

Corbin averaged just 3.5 yards per carry last summer, which was well behind the 5.8 and 5.7 averaged by Antonio Williams and Gary Brightwell (respectively). Granted, if Corbin is the Giants’ primary runner during the regular season, they likely have bigger concerns than his per-carry average. However, it will be difficult for him to distinguish himself as a marked improvement over Brightwell if he isn’t running well against other teams’ fringe players.

As mentioned above, Brightwell has emerged as a core special teams player and wasn’t a liability when he was on the field with the offense. Corbin will likely need to prove himself as a match for Brightwell in one of those areas, and an undeniable upgrade in the other. Being a similar kickoff returner, a worse runner, and a marginally better receiver likely won’t be enough to with the job for Corbin.

If it’s close, the tie very well could go to the incumbent.