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What We Heard: Azeez Ojulari wants to be an 'all-down player'


The final full week of training camp is underway.

With the end in sight, the Giants will be faced with some roster decisions in the coming days as they gear up for the start of the season.

Coach Brian Daboll and assistant general manager Brandon Brown met with the media prior to practice, while outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari and tackle Evan Neal spoke to reporters later in the day.

Here is what we heard Monday.

1. Brown: 'Acquire, develop, retain'

Brown was direct about what the goal is for the front office when it comes to constructing a full roster.

"Obviously, we've elevated the talent overall of the team, but we're going to canvass everything," Brown told reporters. "At the end of the day, when you look at it, it's going to be acquire, develop, retain. That's what we want to do. It's acquiring the best talent, developing the best talent and retaining the best talent."

The process of trimming the roster to 53 players looks a little different this summer. Due to a rule change, this year features only one roster cutdown day to get from 90 players to 53, a change from previous seasons when there were several cut days. No matter how teams across the league approach next Tuesday's roster deadline, the assistant GM said the Giants will be prepared for any and all scenarios.

"If there's guys that are playing well out there, there's nothing that's going to be a surprise to us whether it's a guy that's at the cutdown, whether it's a guy who's traded in the next two weeks, we will be doing our due diligence throughout the process," said Brown. "So, whether teams decide to cut prematurely to call it a benchmark of 80 before they get down to 53, we'll be prepared. There's no curveballs or surprises on our end."

Catch up on all the action from Monday's training camp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.

2. Ojulari: 'I want to be an all-down player'

One defender that could play a crucial role in the unit's success this season is outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari. After setting the official franchise rookie sack record with eight in 2021, Ojulari was limited to just seven games (five starts) last season. However, the 23-year-old was impactful when out there, picking up 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in his limited action. Ojulari's goal for the 2023 campaign is to be out there helping the team as much as he can.

"I want to be an all-down player, coming out there and dominating whenever I'm out there," said Ojulari. "Just do my job to the best of my ability. Whatever I can do to set the edge, help the team, stop the run, tackle for losses, just making an impact out there."

With Ojulari healthy and joining the likes of Kayvon Thibodeaux, Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, among others, there is feeling of optimism surrounding the defense. According to the former Georgia Bulldog, there is no limit to what Wink Martindale's unit could achieve this year.

"We're still working," the outside linebacker told reporters. "We can't wait to show everyone throughout the season what we've got and we're just going to keep our heads down and keep working. Sky's the limit, man. Just keep working."

3. Hawkins, RIley earning their roles

One of the biggest storylines this summer has been the performance of cornerback Tre Hawkins III. The rookie out of Old Dominion has burst onto the scene with a strong training camp. Hawkins has earned significant playing time with the starting defense, playing opposite fellow rookie Deonte Banks while veteran Adoree' Jackson works out of the slot. While Daboll is far from ready to declare Hawkins a starter, the head coach did acknowledge that the rookie has earned his reps.

"He's had a good camp; he has been consistent, which is what you look for," Daboll said about the sixth-round pick. "The consistency, the discipline that you need to improve every day. It's not always perfect, there is a lot of things that he can do better but he's had the right approach to his job of improving each day, to being consistent. Again, there is plenty of plays out here I know he wishes he would have back, but he has the right mindset of what you are looking for in a young player...

"I'd say whoever ends up being the best 11 or 13 or 14, I mean there is a lot of different positions on both sides of the ball. Whoever is out there is the ones that earn it. Still a few weeks away from here, but let's just keep on grinding away, getting better and earning what we get."

"Nothing has been too big for him," Brown added. "Every time there's been a platform, he's answered the bell. So, I think more guys like him that fit our profile, and then they have the mental toughness, play with short term memory. They're getting coached the same way. It doesn't matter how we acquire them. Once they're here, it's an even playing field. Dabs says, again, you earn your playing time based on merit, and Tre's nothing more than an example of that."

Speaking of rookies earning their playing time, defensive tackle Jordon Riley is another first-year player making waves this summer. The seventh-round pick has also played well this summer, which has led to him earning some reps with the first-team defense. Riley's hard work has not gone unnoticed by his veteran teammates.

"He's coming in head down working every day, focused, locked in…" Ojulari said. "If you're out there playing hard every day, you're going to gain some type of respect from your teammates, coaches, and everyone, putting it all on the line at practice. When you get an opportunity on Sunday, Saturday, whenever we play, it's just great to show what you've got."

4. 'More speed, explosiveness' this year

When the 2022 campaign wrapped up, general manager Joe Schoen was upfront with the media about the areas of the roster in which the Giants had to improve. Being quicker on both sides of the ball was one of the top priorities, and many of the team's offseason acquisitions reflected this.

"I just think you look at the team where we are now from where we were, call it, last year ending training camp, just adding more speed, explosiveness on both sides of the ball and just competition every day," Brown said.

One of the players brought in to help with the offense's explosiveness was wide receiver Jalin Hyatt. The third-round pick had routinely been making big plays in practice over the last few weeks and saw it translate to a game on Friday. Hyatt reeled in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor against the Panthers and finished with four receptions.

"I think with Jalin, it's doing your due diligence," Brown said about process that led to the Giants trading up for the rookie receiver. "It's knowing what he was asked to do at Tennessee. It's us having those extra conversations with his position coach at Tennessee, talking to the coaching staff at Tennessee, knowing what their system called for because what he's doing for us, he has more talent in his body than the role he was asked to play at Tennessee. So, you look at the skillset, did he have bend, balance and burst? Can he get out of breaks? Was he asked to run a limited route tree at Tennessee versus what he can do for us? I think us going that, call it, full circle of doing all our due diligence and finding the evidence, it was a great process."

5. Neal picking up tips from Thomas

After being sidelined with a concussion, tackle Evan Neal cleared the protocol towards the end of last week and made his preseason debut against the Panthers. The 22-year-old looked strong throughout the first few weeks of training camp, and it showed against Carolina. Neal was on the field for 28 pass block snaps and allowed just one total pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Despite the encouraging results, Neal is keeping his focus simple heading into the season.

"I feel like I have gotten better, but like I said I still have a lot more work to go, it's still preseason," the second-year tackle said after practice Monday. "We are just going to see as the year goes on. I'm going to continue to work on my craft, continue to get better every day and see how good I get."

Neal doesn't have to look far to find a story about a lineman making a big jump in Year 2. The leap left tackle Andrew Thomas made from his first to second season, and again from his second to third seasons, has been well-documented. Neal told reporters that he has not hesitated from leaning on the All-Pro.

"I'm in Andrew's ear all the time, just talking ball, just chopping it up," said Neal. "He's a great resource to have in the room for sure. I am thankful for him. I feel like all the guys in the room are thankful for having AT."


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