EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The defense James Bettcher now coaches is vastly different than the unit he inherited when he became the Giants’ defensive coordinator last year. He is excited about his players’ potential and capabilities.
“I am hoping it can be an aggressive, attacking defense that dictates,” Bettcher said today in his first public comments of the offseason. “As I look at where it is at today and moving to tomorrow, I believe that is what it can be.”
Bettcher’s lineup underwent a significant overhaul this offseason. The Giants have two new starting safeties in Jabrill Peppers (trade acquisition) and Antoine Bethea (free agency). Markus Golden, like Beathea a former Arizona Cardinal, is expected to be one of the team’s best pass rushers. Seven of the team’s 10 draft choices were defensive players, including a pair of first-rounders in tackle Dexter Lawrence and cornerback DeAndre Baker.
“We brought in ascending, young, talented players to add to the mix of guys that we have here,” Bettcher said. “At this point in time, once you get past the draft guys and go into year two, no one is a rookie anymore. There are two jobs at hand. The number one job as a coach is to get your players better. That is my job and our position coach’s jobs, get guys better. Number two, you are not a young player anymore and you still need to get better, so our players have a job. They need to come to work and work every day. We are going to have that mindset. We are going to back that mindset as a defense day after day and that is how we are going to continue to build something special on defense.”
Of course, the arrival of new players inevitably results in the departure of those who had contributed to the team.
“All those guys (who are no longer here), I love them, I do,” Bettcher said. “Those guys know that. Part of the NFL is that sometimes, guys move on. We all know that. I wish those guys the best except for when they are playing us. The truth is that O.V. (Olivier Vernon) did not have a resume until he built it. (Second-year linebacker) Lorenzo Carter has to build his resume, Markus Golden has to continue building his resume. That is the only way that happens. O.V. was not just day one, came into the league and was a dynamic pass rusher, he had to build that. The only way the guys get a chance to do that is on the field getting snaps. Getting their butt coached off and taking it.”
Bettcher will do that with a group of newcomers that are not all new to him. He coached both Bethea and Golden during his three-year stint as the Cardinals’ coordinator. The former is a 14-year veteran who has played in 206 regular season and postseason games.
“(Bethea is) a guy who is one of the highest character players I have ever been around, smart, intelligent and an unbelievable leader,” Bettcher said. “As you have an opportunity to wrap your hands around him and embrace him a little bit, you will see what I am talking about with him. I was talking to him the other day and I was joking with him, telling him that as time goes on, I get more gray hair. As time goes on, he gets younger. That is just when you see his play, that is what it has been. The years in the league has progressed for him. He has played fast and played young. That what impresses me about him.”
In 2016, Golden had 12.5 sacks while playing in all 16 games in Bettcher’s defense. He has since played in only 15 games and added 2.5 sacks, largely because of a torn ACL he suffered on Oct. 1, 2017. Bettcher is confident Golden will reclaim his status as a consistent quarterback tormentor.
“Don’t ever forget that before (the injury) he was one of the best pass rushers in this league,” Bettcher said. “People had to plan for him. I know that because I was one of the guys calling the plays for him on defense. I saw what he was able to do when he was healthy and running around. I love how he is moving right now, and I love his work. He is a guy that is going to play exceptionally hard. As I sat here a year ago and talked to you about one of the identifying qualities we needed our defense to look like, (it) was to look relentless, work relentless and play relentless. I think that is probably the epitome of Markus.”
Bettcher is also plotting how to integrate his first-round defenders, Lawrence and Baker, into the defensive mix. The former, a two-time national champion at Clemson, is listed as 6-4 and 342 pounds. And he is nimble on his feet.
"One of the biggest humans that I have ever seen, moves as quick as he can move,” Bettcher said. “A (340)-pound guy that is going to come in and compete, help us be the type of run defense that we want to be. Also, don’t forget the guy ran about five-flat at 345 pounds. That does not happen very often. A lot of people got to see him move at rookie minicamp. We are excited to have him.”
Baker, who played at Georgia, joined Notre Dame’s Julian Love and Washburn’s Corey Ballentine as cornerbacks selected by the Giants in this draft. Baker won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back (Love was one of the three finalists). The team also has Sam Beal, who was chosen in the supplemental draft last year but didn’t play because of a shoulder injury.
“The thing I would say about Baker is that he played in a very, very tough league,” Bettcher said. “We all know how long it was before he gave up a touchdown pass. He competed and covered some of the best players that have come out of that league on offense. His tape speaks for itself. One of the best, if not the best, tackling corners in the draft, period. Excited to have him. He did an outstanding job at camp this past week.”
Bettcher is careful not to focus on the players that left or the talent that has arrived, but instead on the looming battles for roster spots and playing time at all three levels of the defense.
“I just think it speaks to competition,” he said. “I don’t know if that means you are super talented or not talented or the reason you have competition is because you are not talented or vice versa. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I don’t think that is a narrative at all. I think that is a great thing, not a good thing.”
View photos from the second practice of rookie minicamp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center