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Giants looking for rooking running back Eric Gray to impact return game

Gray doesn’t have a lot of experience returning, but the Giants are force-feeding him opportunities

NFL: Preseason-New York Giants at Detroit Lions
Eric Gray returning a punt Friday against the Detroit Lions.
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants want Eric Gray to be their punt and kickoff returner this season. They have made that abundantly clear.

The fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma and Tennessee handled six of seven potential returns Friday against the Detroit Lions in the Giants’ preseason opener, with veteran Jaydon Mickens getting one late-game kickoff return opportunity.

That is going to continue Friday night against the Carolina Panthers in the Giants’ second preseason game.

“We will get him reps returning as many kicks as we can,” head coach Brian Daboll said this week.

Gary Brightwell was 21st among 32 qualifiers in the NFL returning kickoffs last season with a 22.0 yards per return average. Richie James was 25th among 31 qualifiers with a 7.0 yards per return average on punts.

The Giants spent the offseason looking for ways to increase the number of explosive plays they generate. Getting more from their return game would be an underrated part of that.

Gray had two punt returns for 8 yards and a fair catch against the Lions, and three kickoff returns for 62 yards (20.7 yards per return). He had a 36-yard return negated by a holding penalty on undrafted free agent rookie Habakkuk Baldonado.

“He did a good job of fielding the ball,” said special teams coach Thomas McGaughey.

McGaughey did question one decision by the rookie when he left himself vulnerable by not signaling for a fair catch when he made a lunging catch on a punt.

“He’s a typical young returner, they have to understand situational football, as far as being able to protect himself with a fair catch like that last punt as he is running laterally. He probably should have just fair caught the ball, as opposed to trying to catch it and just trying to make a play,” McGaughey said. “You have just got to be smart because the most important thing is the ball. Eric has great power, quickness, really good short area quickness and he runs tough and he’s a good kid.”

Another learning experience for Gray was a short Detroit kickoff that he allowed to bounce, forcing the Giants to scramble to recover the live ball. With the new kickoff rule encouraging fair catches on kickoffs inside the 25-yard line, that type of kickoff might be one we see with regularity during the 2023 NFL season.

“Everybody has to see the ball kick, but I definitely have to communicate that and let those guys know that the ball is short. Ball is short. Get your head up and look for it,” Gray said this week. “You’re definitely gonna see those guys pooch those punts to try to make you return it instead of getting those high kicks that are fair catches.”

Gray had limited experience returning in college. He returned only nine punts, averaging 5.2 yards per return, and four kickoffs, averaging 18.0 yards per return.

The Giants are trying to get Gray as much work as they can. They are also trying to be fair to players like Mickens and Kalil Pimpleton, who are competing for roster spots.

“You have got to ramp [Gray] him up quick and the unfortunate part is, there is not a ton of opportunity to go around, especially if you get into a game to where you don’t get a lot of punt opportunities or the opportunities that you get are plus-area punts where the ball is going to be fair caught inside the 10. It’s tough,” McGaughey said. “We are going to ramp him up quickly, but again what we do out here is important. What we did in Detroit was important as far as the practices are concerned. Those things have to take care of themselves, but you are right, it’s something that we all have got to work to ensure that we understand what we are getting and those guys get their opportunities at the same time.”

With Saquon Barkley as the Giants’ No. 1 running back and Matt Breida as an established backup, Gray understands that he may not be touching the ball a lot on a weekly basis.

“You’ve got to take it one rep at a time. I’ve had some experience with doing that, taking it one rep at a time. Not worrying about the big play, letting it come to you, Gray said.

“You’ve just got to let it come to you. Don’t get frustrated, don’t get flustered, just gotta go out there and play every play.”