- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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This one's by request, after Twitter follower @justinwillfail asked for an analysis of the New York Giants' secondary situation. Yes, of course I take requests. Why wouldn't I? Hope you enjoy it, Justin.
The Giants' secondary was clearly an issue in 2012. Although only two teams in the league had more interceptions than the Giants' 21, no team allowed more yards per pass than the Giants' 8.1. Only five teams allowed a higher opponents' completion percentage than the Giants' 63.9. Only three teams allowed more than the Giants' 60 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Only one allowed more than their 13 pass plays of 40 yards or longer.
To address their issues on the back end in the offseason, the Giants did ... well, they did very little, actually. They let the chronically injured Kenny Phillips leave via free agency and elevated Stevie Brown, who had eight interceptions last year, to Phillips' starting safety role alongside Antrel Rolle. They return both starting cornerbacks, Corey Webster and Prince Amukamara, as well as promising nickel corner Jayron Hosley. For depth at safety, they brought in former Steeler Ryan Mundy. For depth at corner, they brought back old friend Aaron Ross. And Terrell Thomas is in camp as well, looking good as he attempts his recovery from a third ACL surgery.
If everybody stays healthy and plays to his pedigree (including Thomas, who was a starting corner for the Giants three years ago), there is surprising depth at both positions. Here's a bit of a breakdown of each:
Cornerback: Webster had a big year in 2011, and the Giants won the NFC East and the Super Bowl. Webster struggled badly in 2012 (Pro Football Focus ranked him 111th in coverage out of the 113 cornerbacks who played at least 25 percent of their teams' snaps) and the Giants missed the playoffs. While it bears mentioning that they had the same 9-7 regular-season record in both of those seasons, the point is that a big play here or there can be enough to swing your season the right or wrong way. Had Webster been burned less, perhaps the Giants win a 10th or 11th game and get into the playoffs for a second straight year. Webster had to take a pay cut in order to stay, and the team does not believe he's washed up at age 31.
"We expect Corey to have a bounce-back year," GM Jerry Reese said during a recent training camp practice.
But the guy about whom Reese really raved was Amukamara, who was the team's best corner in 2012 and has looked strong in camp this year. The 2011 first-round pick struggled with injuries in his first two seasons but is healthy now and has big plans for the way in which he's used going forward.
"I just want the coaches to either let me and Corey just play right/left, or 'OK, Prince, you go in and get that assignment to shadow this receiver or whatever,'" Amukamara said. "I think when you get that assignment, it just shows that the coaches trust you enough to be on that island, quote/unquote, with that receiver. I'm just trying to build that trust in them. I know they're confident in Corey, but just that they're confident enough in me that they would say, 'Prince and Corey, you guys can just play right/left regardless of where the receivers line up.'"
Amukamara wants to be good enough to be considered a No. 1 cornerback, and he believes the best-case scenario for the Giants would be that he and Webster could both be trusted to be that. Amukamara's trajectory is encouraging, but much depends on Webster's ability to play the way he did in 2011.
Hosley is a physical second-year corner whom they like in the slot. Ross was a disappointment in Jacksonville last year, and if they needed him to start as they did in 2011 there would likely be some drop-off, but the Giants believe there are certain packages in which he can help them. He's good in blitz packages, and not bad in run support, so there's likely a role of some sort for Ross. Thomas is the wild card, because they can't possibly know whether he'll actually make it back from his latest knee surgery. So far, so good on that, but there's no way to know whether he'll be able to contribute, or at what position if he is. Reese spoke early in the offseason about possibly using him at safety. Speaking of which...
Safety: The key player is Rolle, who's entering his fourth year with the Giants and is the only safety they have with significant experience playing the dual roles the Giants need their safeties to play in this defense. Last season, after Phillips went down, Brown played the post safety position almost exclusively while Rolle moved up and played in the box. But the defense works best when the two safeties can switch off, as Rolle and Phillips did so well before Phillips' knee problems started keeping him off the field. Rolle said Brown has been working in camp to develop into a better-rounded safety who can handle all of the responsibilities required of him.
"We already know that he's a ballhawk and he can go get the ball and do something with it once he gets it," Rolle said. "Now he's showing us that he can play in the box and definitely be a versatile safety."
The ankle injury Rolle suffered in practice Monday is alarming because it would be nearly impossible for the Giants to replace him. No other safety on their roster approaches him in terms of experience or leadership ability. But even in terms of bodies, they're a bit light here. Mundy is a serviceable player with some NFL experience, but he struggles in run support. Will Hill is suspended for the first four games of the season. Tyler Sash hasn't shown much, and Cooper Taylor is a rookie whose long-term position isn't even clear.
The Giants need Brown to develop, Amukamara to stay healthy and Webster to rediscover his 2011 magic. But the most important thing they need in the secondary is a healthy Rolle organizing it all on the back end. And quite frankly, the Giants believe that whatever problems they had in the secondary last year can be fixed by improving further up toward the line.
"We've got some talent back there, and it has to jell, but it really doesn't matter what the secondary does if we don't rush the passer," Reese said. "We've got to rush the passer better."
That's an organizational philosophy, right there. The Giants' 2012 sack total of 33 was unacceptably low. If it comes back up into the high 40s, the secondary's going to have a much better chance to look good this time around.