The one word that keeps coming up over and over again to describe the mindset new defensive coordinator James Bettcher wants his guys to play with is relentless.
A Giants' defense that allowed the second-fewest points per game in 2016 at 17.8 had its share of struggles last season, allowing a touchdown more per game than the previous year.
Enter Bettcher, Pat Shurmur's first hire as the 18th head coach in Giants franchise history. The 40-year-old spent the previous three seasons in the same position in Arizona, and guided a Cardinals defense that never finished lower than sixth in the NFL in team defense.
Bettcher's aggressive 3-4 defensive scheme should excite many players on that side of the ball, including safety Landon Collins, now a two-time Pro Bowler entering his fourth NFL season.
"Everybody can make plays, literally," Collins said during mandatory minicamp. "It's not to where it's keyed on one person making the play. It's overall, anybody can make the play. And we all can play fast. It's not very complex and we have everything set in stone. You just play fast."
Collins, the runner-up as the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the leader of the safeties corps, a group that features experienced newcomer Michael Thomas and a pair of young veterans in Andrew Adams and Darian Thompson. Undrafted rookie free agent Sean Chandler, a four-year starter at Temple University, and veterans Curtis Riley and Orion Stewart round out the unit.
Here's a closer look at the players residing in the Giants' safety room, coached by defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo and assistant defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend:
LANDON COLLINS: The Alabama product followed up his breakout 2016 season with another Pro-Bowl year in 2017. Collins was third in the NFL with 104 total tackles and added two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and eight passes defended to his stat sheet. Collins missed the Giants' season finale last year due to a forearm injury that required a pair of offseason surgeries. One of the leaders of the Giants' defense, Collins says he's nearing a full recovery, and expects to be good to go when training camp rolls along.
"I feel like we are on schedule," Collins said last month. "We kind of just kept it to ourselves about the whole process and stuff like that. We always knew it was going to take about four weeks, to be safe, six to eight. But it took about four weeks with the proper equipment that we needed. I'm very close. Just right now, we're just taking the precautions, not putting me into the team things, getting my arm caught or anything. We're right around the corner from the season, so we're not about to risk anything."
Count Bettcher among those most eager to see Collins back to full strength. Bettcher sees Collins' versatility as a crucial component to what he wants to do on defense.
"You might see a snap where he's down covering a tight end in the box, you might see a snap where he's in the half field playing deep or in the middle of the field playing deep or you might see snaps where he's blitzing off the edge," Bettcher said. "I think that's the versatility a guy like him lends and that's something that as you look and study defenses across the league and you talk to offensive guys of what gives them trouble, it's players that have that versatility -- that one snap they're down in the box and the next snap they're playing high. That kind of versatility gives offenses trouble."
ANDREW ADAMS: The University of Connecticut product signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Over the last two seasons, he's proven to be a valuable member of the safeties corps, playing 14 games his rookie season and all 16 contests last year. Adams recorded 34 total tackles in 2017 with a pair of passes defended, primarily manning the free safety position.
"First of all, I think the secondary is definitely picking up the new defense," Adams said, now entering his third season. "We love it, and the most important thing is everybody is able to play fast. We've just got to keep communicating, just keep nailing down the small things and the small details, and then everything will play itself out."
Adams added: "It's fun. That's what this business is – competition every year, competing at the highest level, which only makes you a better player. We're all family in the DB room, everybody is competing, and everybody is just looking to help the team win that championship trophy."
DARIAN THOMPSON: Thompson rebounded from an injury-plagued rookie season in 2016 to start all 16 games for the Giants last year. The Boise State product recorded 75 total tackles, which was good for third on the team. The 24-year-old recorded his first career interception in the Giants Week 5 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.
"I think Bettcher has a great scheme," Thompson said. "He brings a lot of energy as a coach. The guys on defense are learning how to play with each other and play around each other. We're starting to get the details down and we're having fun."
Added Thompson: "I love the competition. It's huge around here. Luckily for me I have a great group of guys that I'm competing with. We look forward to it, each and every one of us, each and every day. We're all here for each other. So whatever happens, happens."
MICHAEL THOMAS: Thomas signed with the Giants this spring after five years with the Miami Dolphins. Thomas' position coach for his entire tenure in Miami was Anarumo, who now holds that position in East Rutherford. Thomas has played in 56 regular-season games with 25 starts in six NFL seasons. Known as a special teams maven later in his career, Thomas played in 13 games with two starts in 2017, finishing with 16 tackles (nine solo), plus seven special teams tackles.
"I love this defense," Thomas said. "It has a lot of moving parts. A lot of the DBs love this defense. I am excited to move around and show them whatever they need. Safety, nickel, slot. It doesn't matter. I am ready to play, contribute and help this team win."
CURTIS RILEY: Riley came to the Giants as a free agent addition with the Giants this offseason. The White Plains, New York native spent his first three NFL seasons at corner for the Tennessee Titans, but is making the switch to safety as a member of the Giants.
"Curtis is a guy that, we all know he's played corner, so he's got really great feet and hips and range," Bettcher said. "And the thing I'm probably most proud of him about is how he's picked it up playing safety because that's a change, when you go from playing outside, to go inside. And some of the checks and the communication and one minute you're in the post, the next minute you're down, or you're playing in the half field, or you're blitzing off the edge and some of the different duties that our safeties have to handle here. He's done a really nice job with that. So, I'm excited for him, getting to training camp just like all these guys, and he's competing his butt off with a group of guys that I've really seen grow over these last two months."
SEAN CHANDLER: A four-year starter at Temple University, Chandler signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent soon after this year's draft. Chandler played both corner and safety for the Owls. Chandler was a bright spot at OTAs and minicamp, recording a pair of interceptions and racking up several pass breakups while even seeing an occasional rep with the first-team defense. The Camden native has overcome plenty of adversity just to reach the NFL, including a childhood where he moved in and out of six homeless shelters.
"Well, we are impressed by him already," Shurmur said after the Giants first OTA practice. "Certainly his background is well known and you're rooting and pulling for guys that have kind of become self-made in a lot of ways and he made a play out there today. He's like everybody else, he's trying to do everything right and do what he can to make our team better and he impressed us some today."
ORION STEWART: Stewart was an undrafted free agent in 2017. The Baylor product originally signed with the Denver Broncos, but also spent some time on the practice squad for the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins. He did not appear in a regular season game. Stewart has split reps with Adams during OTAs and minicamp, as the depth chart at safety remains in flux.