When the New York Giants claimed Jason Pinnock off waivers last offseason, Giants fans were likely unaware of who he was. However, as a New York Jets writer, I knew. Pinnock was a Jets camp darling, a player fans were clamoring to keep. The Jets most likely released him in the hope that they could sneak him onto the practice squad and develop him there; they had to make the choice between Pinnock and Tony Adams, and they thought Adams was more likely to be claimed. GM Joe Schoen pounced.
The Jets drafted Pinnock in the fifth round (pick No. 171) of the 2021 draft. They tend to target highly athletic defensive players, and Pinnock was no exception, posting a 9.78 RAS, including a 98th percentile 1.46 10-yard split time (the kind of short-area quickness the Giants seem to covet in their players). At an even 6 feet, 205 pounds, and boasting 32⅜-inch arms, he has a good size profile for a defensive back.
Pinnock came out of Pitt as a cornerback but transitioned to safety. In his rookie year, he did not play a single defensive snap before Week 9 and never had more than 13 until Week 16.
However, over the last three games of the season, Pinnock played a starter’s diet of snaps. Pro Football Focus gave him grades of 80.1, 68.5, and 73.2, and his combined 78.7 grade over that time was the sixth-best out of 67 qualified safeties. That came largely on the back of a 90.4 run defense grade that was 10 points higher than the next-highest safety. His 68.3 coverage grade was 20th.
What the Giants saw from him was enough for them to put in a waiver claim. Initially brought in as a special teams player, Pinnock saw only one defensive snap through the first eight games of the season. However, after Xavier McKinney’s unfortunate injury during the bye week, Pinnock got his opportunity. He received a large number of snaps in six of the Giants’ final nine games of the season, including five starts. He played sparingly in the two playoff games, though, upon McKinney’s return.
Heading into 2023, Pinnock appeared to be one of several candidates to start opposite McKinney. Free agent signee Bobby McCain, converted cornerback Nick McCloud, and second-year man Dane Belton were also heavily in the mix. However, after about a week of camp, it became clear that Pinnock had seized the job. He’s listed as the starting strong safety on the unofficial depth chart and has been taking the first-team reps there. After his performance against the Lions in the preseason game, his starting spot appears solidified.
How did Pinnock win the competition so quickly? What do the Giants like about him? Can he solidify the backend of the defense?
Pinnock’s 2022 numbers are somewhat uneven. His 61.3 overall PFF grade ranked 61st out of 84 safeties, including a 73rd-ranked 53.0 coverage grade. His strongest grade was in run defense (76.6), ranking 21st. His tackling grade was middling, ranking 41st at 67.8. He actually saw the second-most pass rush snaps among those 78 safeties despite playing the second-fewest total snaps, but his 61.8 grade was nothing special (35th).
From Pinnock’s 236 total run defense snaps in his two NFL seasons, it appears to be his strength. He did reasonably well in that department as a college cornerback, grading between 69.4 and 73.6 as a run defender in his three years at Pitt. One thing that showed up a couple of times on film is that when he reads a misdirection play from deep, not only will he close ground quickly, but he will also quickly call out the play to alert his teammates.
Still, Pinnock doesn’t always do the greatest job on run defense when he’s playing deep; he gets sucked up into the wrong gap rather than staying patient as the last line of defense.
Additionally, Pinnock’s tackling grades in college were quite poor, as he had a 17.4% miss rate in his final two seasons. Though he had no missed tackles in 2021, he missed six in 2022 at a 13.3% rate, which ranked 55th among safeties. He seems to be shaky as a tackler.
However, Pinnock’s primary area of struggle is coverage. The conversion from cornerback to safety can take time, and Pinnock had very little experience in that area before joining the Giants. Even his 68.3 coverage grade from that three-game span with the Jets was misleading, as his film showed some significant lapses in addition to his strengths.
In 2022, Pinnock allowed 9 of 13 receptions (69.2%) for 161 yards, the 10th-most yards allowed by a qualified safety despite playing the fewest coverage snaps among qualifiers. His 17.9 yards per reception surrendered was the third-worst rate, as was his 137.0 targeted passer rating. In fact, Pinnock’s longest reception allowed was 61 yards; if that is removed from his numbers, he still allowed 12.5 yards per reception on the other eight catches, which would have been worse than average. His 12.4 yards per target was the fourth-worst among safeties, and his 0.7 yards per cover snap ranked in the 40th percentile.
With numbers like these, how did Pinnock win the safety spot so quickly? Weren’t McCain or McCloud potentially better options?
Wink Martindale’s defense is often referred to as positionless, meaning that players take on various roles depending on the particular look. Pass rushers come from everywhere, which means that other players must replace them in coverage.
It’s possible, though, that Pinnock was playing somewhat out of position in 2022. He played a lot of deep safety, even more than McKinney before his injury. That mirrors what he did with the Jets, as well, where 66.3% of his snaps were at deep safety in his three starts.
Here’s how Pinnock’s snap distribution lined up compared to McKinney and Julian Love in 2022.
- McKinney: 557 defensive snaps - 57.6% deep, 21.7% box, 8.3% slot, 10.1% D-line, 1.8% outside corner, 0.5% other
- Love: 1,011 defensive snaps - 48.9% deep, 26.8% box, 15.2% slot, 4.9% D-line, 3.7% outside corner, 0.4% other
- Pinnock: 459 defensive snaps - 67.3% deep, 17.6% box, 5.4% slot, 8.1% D-line, 1.5% outside corner, 0% other
It’s interesting that McKinney took a lower rate of deep snaps than Pinnock did. In 2021, McKinney’s breakout season, he played 71.2% of his snaps deep and just 13.1% in the box. Still, Martindale seemed to play McKinney closer to the line of scrimmage more often, mixing things up between Love and McKinney. When Pinnock was out there, though, Martindale kept him in the deep part of the field.
That would seem to be to Pinnock’s detriment, especially considering the yardage he allowed. Here are his numbers as the nearest defender in single-high and two-high coverages while lined up deep, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
- Deep safety in single high: 81 coverage snaps, 4 of 5 completions (80%), 55 yards, 1 pass defensed (PD), 112.5 targeted passer rating, 15.4% completion percentage over expected (CPOE), 0.74 EPA/target, 11.0 YPA
- Deep safety in two high: 67 coverage snaps, 1 of 2 completions (50%), 61 yards, 1 PD, 95.8 rating, 22.1% CPOE, 1.70 EPA/target, 30.5 YPA
Obviously, it’s a small sample size, but the numbers aren’t great. By comparison, McKinney allowed 3 of 8 targets for 47 yards, one pass defensed, a 57.8 targeted passer rating, -5.1% CPOE, -0.038 EPA/target, and 7.0 YPA on 103 snaps as the deep safety in a single-high look. If the Giants were to choose between the two, it makes far more sense for them to have McKinney play deep and Pinnock closer to the line of scrimmage. Even Belton had better numbers in that area on 42 snaps.
Pinnock also didn’t do great covering tight ends in 2022. Here are the Next Gen Stats numbers for the Giants’ safeties who are still on the roster.
- Pinnock: 39 snaps, 3 of 3 receptions (100%), 25 yards, 1 TD, 141.0 rating, 0.977 EPA/target, 8.3 YPA
- McKinney: 60 snaps, 3 of 6 receptions (50%), 43 yards, 73.6 rating, 0.250 EPA/target, 7.2 YPA
- Belton: 38 snaps, 5 of 8 receptions (62.5%), 46 yards, 1 PD, 78.1 rating, 0.263 EPA/target, 5.8 YPA
On the other hand, one statistic could explain why the Giants liked Pinnock deep (other than simply necessity). PFF has a metric called “forced incompletions” (FI), which they define as pass breakups, interceptions, and tight coverage. Defenders with higher FI rates are generally considered more active on the ball. Pinnock had three forced incompletions on 13 targets, a 23% rate that was the highest among all 78 safeties. In 2021, he had one FI on three targets for a 33% rate.
That said, McKinney ranked 13th with a 17% FI rate (three on 18 targets). Still, in 2021, he ranked 35th out of 85 safeties with an 11% rate. Both Pinnock’s and McKinney’s 2022 marks are at least partially the result of a small sample size and are not necessarily replicable.
Then again, forced incompletions are not the be-all and end-all of coverage. Among the top 10 safeties in coverage grade, FI rates ranged from 3% to 18%. Still, to a certain extent, the number gives an idea of how often the player is in a good position to play the ball. (I’d feel more comfortable if it excluded interceptions, which can often be fluky and have little to do with the quality of coverage.)
How the Giants actually utilize Pinnock in 2023 will be interesting. If they use him in the box more often, then it’s easier for me to understand why he won the battle so quickly. If they plan on using him in more of a hybrid role, though, I’m surprised that McCloud didn’t push him more. Then again, if McCloud is just converting there now while Pinnock is two years ahead, perhaps that alone would explain it. McCain’s 33.9 run defense grade from 2022 could scare the Giants from starting him if they have more reliable options in that area.
An interesting statistic for Pinnock is that he has three forced fumbles in his two NFL seasons — two in 2021 and another in 2022. The one in 2022 was as the ball carrier was going out of bounds, but a hard hit jarred the ball out, nonetheless. While forcing fumbles is never a consistent stat, there appear to be specific players with a knack for it.
Eddie Jackson has nine forced fumbles in his career and has had at least one in five of his six NFL seasons. Vonn Bell has 15 forced fumbles in seven seasons, posting at least one each year, at least two in each of the past four campaigns, and three each in 2020-21. Derwin James has five over the last two years after posting none in his first two seasons. Antoine Winfield Jr., Jevon Holland, Logan Ryan, Damontae Kazee, Xavier Woods, and Minkah Fitzpatrick are other players who tend to get their hands on the ball.
Perhaps this goes along with Pinnock’s forced incompletion rate. Several of those players are also near the top of the leaderboard in FI%, and they tend to have good run defense grades, as well. Safeties who are more active toward the ball have more opportunities to knock it out. Maybe that’s something that goes along with Pinnock’s profile.
Or maybe it’s just luck. Most things associated with fumbles are considered fluky, except from a running back’s or edge rusher’s perspective. But it’s another thing to keep an eye on: does Pinnock have a nose for the football?
Pinnock was decent as a blitzer in 2022. He had 10 pressures and 1.5 sacks on 43 rushes. Among 24 safeties with at least 25 pass rush snaps, Pinnock ranked 12th with a 23.3% pressure rate and ninth with a 9.3% rate of sacks plus quarterback hits. His 61.8 PFF pass rush grade was 16th. Still, the sample size is so small that it’s hard to make much out of it. McKinney’s pass rush grade was 58.9.
One way or another, Pinnock will see plenty of blitz snaps relative to most other safeties. That’s just what Martindale does. Considering that McKinney wasn’t more effective at it, it likely makes more sense to have Pinnock line up closer to the line of scrimmage and at least fake the blitz.
That being said, Martindale should mix it up more with Pinnock when he’s on or near the line of scrimmage. In 2022, when Pinnock was aligned within a couple of yards of the ball, he blitzed most of the time. Offensive lines were clearly cognizant of it, as Pinnock was picked up by tackles a lot, giving him little chance to affect the quarterback. This is a sampling of many of those reps from Pinnock’s first six games played defensively; if I noticed it from cursorily watching the film, it’s obvious that opponents knew to account for Pinnock if he was in the box.
With a little bit more disguise and interspersing responsibilities, Pinnock’s long arms (81st percentile) can give him a rare level of reach for a blitzing defensive back. It shows up on this play.
In 2022, Pinnock was not called for any penalties on defense. He did have one defensive holding in 2021, giving him one career penalty on 661 defensive snaps. The median for safeties in 2022 was one every 560 snaps, so Pinnock has been ahead of the curve in that area thus far.
Considering that Pinnock continued to play special teams in 2022 even when he played more significant defensive snaps, it’s possible that he will play there at least somewhat in 2023. He has two special teams penalties in his career, one each in 2021-22. The penalty in 2021 was for unnecessary roughness, which sometimes can be a discipline issue. In 2022, it was for going (voluntarily) out of bounds on a Giants punt.
Pinnock also had two missed tackles against one tackle on special teams in 2022, which led to his 54.5 PFF grade in that area. He had 193 total special teams snaps spread between kick returns, kick coverage, punt returns, punt coverage (where he played gunner at times), and field goal blocks. In 2021, he had one tackle and one miss on 104 specials snaps spread among those same areas.
Pinnock’s snaps as a gunner were not entirely consistent but had some bright spots. He showed signs of being able to get downfield quickly but also took some bad angles, similar to what you see from him in coverage. His long strides eat up space quickly, and he has a pretty large tackle radius. On returns, he puts in a halfhearted blocking effort at times.
Compared to Love
Many Giants fans were frustrated that the team did not re-sign Love, a defensive captain. The two-year, $12 million deal with $5.98 million guaranteed that Love received from Seattle seemed like a reasonable price for such a player. However, it’s possible that the Giants really liked Pinnock and were ready to give him every opportunity to win the job. Meanwhile, they may have signed McCain as insurance in case Pinnock didn’t stand out.
Here is a head-to-head comparison between Pinnock and Love (percentile ranking in parentheses).
Julian Love vs. Jason Pinnock 2022
|Category||Julian Love||Jason Pinnock|
|Category||Julian Love||Jason Pinnock|
|Total defensive snaps||1006||459|
|PFF grade||70.0 (64)||61.3 (27)|
|Run defense snaps||403||181|
|Run defense grade||63.4 (41)||76.6 (77)|
|Tackling grade||87.5 (91)||67.8 (53)|
|Missed tackle rate||5.5% (90)||13.3% (48)|
|Coverage grade||71.5 (73)||53.0 (17)|
|Yards per route run||0.7 (40)||0.7 (40)|
|Yards per target||7.8 (61)||12.4 (6)|
|Man coverage snaps||259||89|
|Man coverage grade||73.7 (95)||58.5 (43)|
|Zone coverage snaps||245||104|
|Zone coverage grade||64.5 (50)||45.3 (5)|
|Pass rush snaps||22||43|
|Pass rush grade||69.8||61.8|
On the surface, it appears that Love was a significantly better player than Pinnock. However, if Pinnock was playing outside his ideal position, it’s possible that it affected his performance. It remains to be seen how the Giants will utilize him in 2023 with McKinney opposite him.
I’m not attempting to say that Pinnock is or will be a better player than Love. However, it could be that the Giants saw enough of what they liked from Pinnock to entrust him with a larger role, especially with a salary cap crunch. Furthermore, although Pinnock’s pass rush grade wasn’t great, Martindale clearly felt more comfortable using him in that role than he did Love. For a defense that blitzes from everywhere, that’s an important factor.
Preseason vs. Lions
Pinnock was the Giants’ stud of the first preseason game. On just five defensive snaps (one run defense, one pass rush, three coverage), he had an interception, a tackle for loss, and a key fourth-down pass breakup. Though his interception was on an exceptionally poor throw by Nate Sudfeld and was likely impacted by Tomon Fox’s pressure, he did what he was asked in reading Sudfeld’s eyes and undercutting the route.
Pinnock’s run stuff was a similar scenario: he came unblocked on a blitz and wrapped up the running back for a 3-yard loss. Still, he did his job.
The rep that showed up the most on film was his fourth down play. Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta appeared to have leverage for the first down on a crosser, but Pinnock made a dive at the right time and got his hand in just enough to force the incompletion (although Pro Football Focus did not credit him with a pass breakup, he did receive that credit in the box score).
Pinnock did not play any special teams snaps against the Lions. Overall, he acquitted himself well defensively and likely confirmed his starting role.
When a player stands out in training camp with a one-handed interception and follows it up with a strong showing in the preseason, it’s easy for the hype train to get out of control. Pinnock certainly has intriguing physical skills that make it evident why Martindale would like him. Still, he’s a young, converted safety who has basically half a season of play at the position under his belt. It would be wise to temper expectations somewhat.
I think that the biggest key for the season will be utilizing him in a way that emphasizes his strengths. He seems better closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can take direct angles to the ball, attack more, blitz, and get his hands on the receiver in coverage.
It remains to be seen what actually happens, though. Perhaps if the Giants have a slot corner emerge, they can move McKinney back to his natural deep safety role more full-time and let Pinnock play down. Or maybe Martindale will use both safeties all over the field, as is his wont, and Pinnock will improve with more experience playing deep. This should be an interesting storyline to monitor heading into the regular season.