EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dane Belton recovered a fumble on his very first NFL play, indicating a knack for finding the football that continues to this day – literally; the second-year safety intercepted a pass in practice Monday morning.
Belton also had a pick in the Giants' preseason opener Friday night in Detroit, as did fellow safety Jason Pinnock. In his 2022 rookie season, Belton tied the since-departed Julian Love for the team lead with two interceptions.
The Giants, however, tied the Las Vegas Raiders with an NFL-low six picks and their 19 takeaways ranked 25th in the league. They would surely like to raise each of those totals this season. But is having a nose for the ball a natural trait or one that is acquired and can be developed through practice?
"I think it's both, for sure," Belton said. "Started playing receiver growing up and I think I have really good ball skills. Just going on that, once you switch up to defense, it's more about understanding offensive schemes and figuring out what plays you have an opportunity to get a takeaway in. You won't be able to make plays on everything, but you have to study and figure out where I can make plays in certain situations. It's really both. You're kind of born with it, but also, there's things you can do to help get to that point."
Catch up on all the action from Monday's training camp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
Like most of the Giants' first-teamers, Xavier McKinney did not play in Detroit as Pinnock and Belton started at safety. In 2021, McKinney led the Giants and all NFL safeties with five interceptions. He earned the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award after picking off two passes against the Raiders, including one he returned for a touchdown.
He concurs with Belton that being around the football is both a natural and learned ability.
"I think with the more film that you study, you can acquire it," McKinney said. "But some people don't really have to, they just go out there and play and get picks and always have their hands on the ball. I think it can be both, it just depends on the player and what you came up doing. I think we've got a mix of those two types of guys in our room."
McKinney counts Pinnock and Belton among those players. Pinnock was dominant early against the Lions. He intercepted a Nate Sudfeld pass on the game's first offensive play. On Detroit's second possession, he tackled rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs for a three-yard loss on first down and knocked down Sudfeld's pass for Sam LaPorta, another first-year pro, on fourth down.
In his first three seasons, McKinney had a strong bond with Love, who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks. He is developing a similar partnership with Pinnock, who will likely start next to him in the back of the defense.
"I think we complement (each other) great," McKinney said. "We can play both jobs. We can both play the right and the left safety, doesn't really matter. It's going to be special. I think as we continue to grow – obviously, we've still got to get through some things, just kind of figuring out some things, but I think so far it's been really good just to play alongside of him. As we practice more together, as we play games, we'll start to understand each other more and know what the other one likes to do, what we don't like to do, stuff like that so as we go, we'll figure it out and we'll be good."
McKinney has also seen progress in Belton, who played in 15 regular-season games with five starts and in both postseason games last year. He missed the season opener because of a clavicle injury he suffered in training camp. In his Week 2 debut vs. Carolina, Belton recovered Chuba Hubbard's fumble on the opening kickoff, which set up a Graham Gano field goal.
Belton also intercepted passes against Houston on Nov. 13 and at Philadelphia on Jan. 8.
"From the jump, I knew he was a special player," McKinney said. "I always try to push him, and I continue to push him now because I see what he has in him, I see the potential he has, and I see the ceiling he can touch. I really think he has no ceiling. He's a super smart player. He's a guy who has a knack for the ball, he's always around the ball. It's good to see him grow and I'm excited to see where he can get to, for sure."
Belton again displayed his ball skills in the second quarter in Detroit when he intercepted Sudfeld's deep pass for Jameson Williams and returned it 42 yards to the Giants' 14-yard line. On the next play, the Giants scored their only touchdown of the game on Tommy DeVito's pass to tight end Tommy Sweeney.
"They came out in a soft formation," Belton said. "I understood what the offense was doing, just based off their concepts, kind of drove the dig, just seeing the concepts and being in the right place at the right time. Last second, I saw the ball and stopped and caught it. It was a bit of an overthrow, tips and overthrows, they say you always got to get those, so being able to make a play and return it and set up the offense was awesome."
In practice today he did it all himself, intercepting a pass and racing untouched to the end zone.
"Just being able to understand where I fit in our scheme and being able to play off that and being able to play freely where I'm at in my position," Belton said. "Just being able to make a play. It wasn't really understanding of our offense, but just an understanding of football in general. Kind of what teams would try and do on third down, especially, being able to use all of that and make a play."
Belton and his secondary partners expect him to make many more this year.
"He's always been smart, but he's just going to get smarter," McKinney said. "He's just going to get better as he continues to play. As you build that game experience, you get better. That's the good thing about this game."
"I'm a lot further along understanding the scheme with one year under my belt," Belton said. "I can really start diving into the opponents and being healthy now to go out there and not think about my shoulder, collarbone, things like that. Being able to play fast, play physical, and just playing football the way I want to play."
And the way the Giants believe he can.
*Right tackle Evan Neal remains in the NFL concussion protocol but watched practice in a no-contact red jersey.
*Players not practicing were running back Gary Brightwell, wide receiver Collin Johnson, offensive linemen Devery Hamilton and Tyre Phillips, defensive lineman Ryder Anderson, linebacker Cam Brown and cornerback Nick McCloud.
*Second-year defensive tackle D.J. Davidson passed his physical and practiced for the first time this year. Davidson tore his ACL against Green Bay in London last Oct. 9. He was a fifth-round draft choice in 2022 who played in five games as a rookie.
*The Giants' next preseason game is Friday night at home vs. Carolina.