With the calendar flipped to July, Giants.com asks 20 important questions heading into the team's 2020 training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
For the next 20 days, a member of the Giants.com crew will answer one question about the roster, coaching staff, schedule, and much more.
No. 5: How has Joe Judge put his stamp on the team so far?
Dan Salomone: "Earn it." Those two words jumped out to me during Joe Judge's introductory press conference in January, and everything has branched off that philosophy. By now, you've heard all about his ties to Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, so it's no surprise where that influence came from. There's no magic scheme or new gimmick that will get the Giants back on track. Judge isn't reinventing the wheel; he is stressing the fundamentals on a daily basis – in the classroom, on the practice field, and then in games. That was the biggest lesson he learned from his wildly successful mentors.
"You don't build the Empire State Building by washing the windows," Judge said. "You build it with the foundation and work it on up."
Tactically, Judge is building a team that can morph week to week. He wants to have the flexibility to adjust the game plan and maximize the Giants' strengths versus the opponent's weaknesses. One week, he will run the ball 50 times; in another, he will pass it 50 times. Of course, you need the right personnel to do it. What the Giants did in the draft and free agency clearly reflects the value he places on versatility.
This has been an off-season like no other for a first-year head coach. Judge has said from the beginning of the virtual program that the advantage goes to the most prepared team going forward. While trying to leave no stone unturned, he knew the biggest challenge to working remotely would be the team-building element. For that, he set up trivia challenges for everyone to get to know each other and their surroundings.
"We kind of took some lessons from really watching my kids do virtual school and some guys from around the country on what they were doing at different colleges and different pro programs," Judge said in a remote interview with the Voice of the Giants Bob Papa as the team wrapped up its off-season program. "I was watching my kids use the Kahoot! app, and we found out a couple of colleges were using the same thing. Really, it started through player development and went across the offense and defense, as well, in terms of having some daily competitions and weekly competitions. We subdivided the teams into different groups and made it competitive, played for some prizes. We were able to ask questions about things related to getting to know your teammate or getting to know the area, organizational history or maybe something directly tied into offense or defense.
"It was fun. It changes it up a little bit. It gets guys interacting. When you first start the meetings, everyone will come in with a muted screen the first couple of weeks. It was very quiet. Then over time, they got more comfortable. Really, the best part of the day was you'd click on a few minutes before the meetings start and you'd hear the players cutting up on each other, kind of calling out who needs a haircut, who's been doing what. That was really the best time, hearing the guys interacting like they would in the locker room. We wanted to let that grow as organically as we could throughout the Spring."
John Schmeelk: Saquon Barkley is the easy answer. He is the most physically gifted played on the roster and may take it to the house any time he touches the ball. He could lead the NFL in 20-yard rushes and yards from scrimmage. Barkley is also an accomplished route runner, and can do more than just turn screens and dump-offs into big plays. I expect to see him on downfield passing routes - whether they are wheel, circle or option routes to get him isolated on slower defensive players. I expect Barkley, who must avoid the injuries that plagued him in his sophomore campaign, to be the focal point of a run-heavy offense in 2020.
I also want to give an honorable mention to Golden Tate. He was extremely productive after returning from last year's four-game suspension. It doesn't look like the veteran has lost much of his athleticism, even though he will turn 32 in August. Tate can still create separation and win on every level of the defense. He is still one of the best receivers in the NFL running after the catch. I think he will lead the team in receptions and become Daniel Jones' go-to receiver.
View photos of all skill position players on the Giants' 90-man roster.
Lance Medow: Following the draft, the team signed two wide receivers from Ohio State - Austin Mack (6-2) and Binjimen Victor (6-4), who bring length and size to the room. The Giants already have a great deal of versatility with their top three wideouts - Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton - but if there's one facet missing, it's size. That's why I think Mack and Victor could surprise many and compete for roster spots.
Both rookie receivers are coming off career years at OSU, mainly because their playing time increased after having to patiently wait for opportunities. Mack has a knack for working the sidelines and came through with some nifty grabs last season as he posted career highs in receptions (27), receiving yards (361) and touchdowns (3), but Victor's even a bit more intriguing because he can assume the role of a skyscraper for Daniel Jones. Victor hauled in 17 touchdowns over the last three seasons, primarily serving as a red zone target. The Buckeyes constantly turned to him when they were in scoring position and more often than not, he won jump balls against various corners.
It's easy to classify Victor as a typical tall, red zone receiver, but don't overlook his subtle speed and stride. On several occasions, the Buckeyes found ways to get Victor into open space and his ability to collect yardage after the catch and elude defenders can go unnoticed. Last October against Michigan State, he turned a short pass up the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. The Buckeyes also targeted him deep downfield. I think Victor could serve as the perfect complement to the main receiving corps and provide more options for Jones.
View photos of every undrafted free agent signed by the Giants.
Dan Salomone: First, let's recap the 10-man draft class:
- Georgia OT Andrew Thomas, Round 1, Pick 4
- Alabama S Xavier McKinney, Round 2, Pick 36
- UConn OT Matt Peart, Round 3, Pick 99
- UCLA CB Darnay Holmes, Round 4, Pick 110
- Oregon G Shane Lemieux, Round 5, Pick 150
- Penn State LB Cam Brown, Round 6, Pick 183
- Minnesota LB Carter Coughlin, Round 7, Pick 218
- South Carolina LB TJ Brunson, Round 7, Pick 238
- Minnesota CB Chris Williamson, Round 7, Pick 247
- Georgia LB Tae Crowder, Round 7, Pick 255
Let's break it down by position, starting with fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas. The tackle was the highest-drafted offensive lineman by the Giants since Ohio State's John Hicks was selected third overall in 1974. The Giants had an opening at right tackle after Mike Remmers, the starter in 2019, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Thomas will also get a look on the left side, where Nate Solder started every game the last two seasons. The Giants also signed veteran Cameron Fleming, who has experience at both tackle positions, in addition to close ties to parts of the coaching staff from their time together in Dallas.
"The good thing about all of our tackles is they play on both sides," coach Joe Judge said. "If you look across the board, everyone on our depth chart right now has played on the right and the left. Everyone is going to come in on Day 1 and compete and as they shake out, whether that demonstrates being a starter at whatever position, that's where they'll fall. We went into this with several players we thought had the ability to go on both sides, right or left. We made a decision that we're going to let training camp figure that out."
The Giants didn't end there in the draft. They used three of their top five picks on the offensive line. Matt Peart, a “skinny” 6-foot-7, 318-pound tackle, started all 48 games in his four-year career at UConn – 24 at right tackle in his first two seasons and 24 at left tackle in his final two years. As Judge put it, Peart is not a "developmental" player; he is "developing." He has a lot of upside that intrigues the front office and coaching staff. Guard Shane Lemieux, meanwhile, will cross-train center. Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler are the incumbents at guard, but the center competition will be one to watch all summer - with Spencer Pulley the proven veteran at the position.
Onto the secondary. After drafting Xavier McKinney, the Giants picked up the fifth-year option on the rookie contract of fellow safety Jabrill Peppers, virtually ensuring he will be with the team through the 2021 season.
NFL teams are permitted to exercise the fifth-year option on first-round draft choices after they have played three years. When a player has his option exercised, his rookie contract is extended by one year and guaranteed. The player is protected against injury, but isn't eligible to enter unrestricted free agency until after the conclusion of the fifth season.
McKinney, who had a first-round value on the Giants' draft board, first caught Judge's attention a few years ago while scouting a Spring practice at Alabama for the Patriots. McKinney can play low, cover tight ends, and he's a good tackler. Meanwhile, chess master Darnay Holmes is competing for the nickel role, and Chris Williamson has some safety-corner flexibility, as well.
The linebackers. This is one of the team's most intriguing linebacker corps in recent memory. The Giants went heavy at the position on Day 3 of the draft, after signing tackling machine Blake Martinez (unofficially 155 total stops in 2019) and Kyler Fackrell (10.5 sacks in 2018) from Green Bay.
"I think it says a lot more about how our defensive scheme fits together," Judge said of assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. "That we are going to play with a lot of linebackers throughout the game. You build your defense to build two thirds of your team, that's really your defense and your kicking game for covering kicks. These guys have a lot of impact across the board right there."
John Schmeelk: Since we haven't seen any team practices, thanks to OTAs and minicamps taking place remotely, it is very difficult to tell where the coaching staff stands each position. Therefore, this is going to be a longer list than usual.
It appears to be a three-way battle for two starting spots between veteran Nate Solder, newcomer Cameron Fleming and fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas. Solder hasn't played right tackle since he was a rookie. Thomas played right tackle three seasons ago as a sophomore, but has played on the left side the last two seasons. Fleming has played the right and left side over the course of his career, but has spent most of his recent seasons on the left (backing up Tyron Smith in Dallas). If I had to guess, with Solder more comfortable on the left side, he winds up there - with Thomas winning the right tackle spot. Nick Gates and third-round choice Matt Peart are dark horses in this competition.
Fifth-year pro Spencer Pulley is the only player on the roster with starting experience at center, with 26 starts over the last three seasons with the Chargers and Giants. His main competition will be from rookie guard Shane Lemieux, who never played center in a game at Oregon, but worked there at practice. Nick Gates, a 2018 undrafted free agent, is a potential candidate despite not having played there with the Giants. He started games at right guard and right tackle last season. Finally, there's Jon Halapio, who is unsigned and recovering from an achilles injury he suffered late last December. The Giants have indicated he could be re-signed and enter the fray, if he is healthy. Only because of his experience, Pulley would have to be considered the leader in the clubhouse.
Edge Rusher/3-4 Outside Linebacker
The Giants are returning one of their starters at this position in Lorenzo Carter. He will have to compete with newly arrived Kyler Fackrell and second-year edge rusher Oshane Ximines. There is also a chance that Markus Golden, the team's sack leader from last season, returns given his unrestricted free agent tag. The question for this group is: Who can consistently set the edge and, more importantly, win with some level of consistency against offensive tackles while going after the quarterback. If Golden doesn't re-sign, Carter and Fackrell (10.5 sacks in 2018), seem like logical choices here. I expect this battle to be close and for all of them to rotate, regardless of who starts. Rookies Carter Coughlin and Cameron Brown are the dark horses.
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
If the Giants play a base 3-4 defense, they need a second inside linebacker to play next to Blake Martinez. They also will probably need a second off-ball linebacker on passing downs. They could use safety Jabrill Peppers in this role, but it's uncertain if that's being considered. Ryan Connelly is entering his second year and coming back from a torn achilles tendon injury and David Mayo was strong against the run last year. Rookies TJ Brunson, Tae Crowder, and 2019 undrafted free agent Josiah Tauaefa could also play themselves into some reps. There's also a possibility Cam Brown or Carter Coughlin move inside to claim one of these roles. Mayo is a reasonable choice on run downs, but the second off-ball linebacker in passing situations is wide open.
James Bradberry is secure in his starting spot on one side, but who plays opposite him? The Giants have invested multiple draft picks at the position in the last few years and each of them - DeAndre Baker, Sam Beal, and Corey Ballentine - will have a chance. Baker is dealing with off-the-field issues, and coming off an up-and-down rookie season as last year's third first-round pick. Beal (shoulder, hamstring) has been unable to stay healthy over his first two seasons after being drafted in the third round of the 2018 supplemental draft. Ballentine struggled playing inside as a rookie but didn't have much of an opportunity to play outside, where he excelled in college and during training camp. One sleeper to watch is Montre Hartage, who was an undrafted free agent with the 2019 Dolphins and bounced between their roster and practice squad under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. This could be the most important position battle of them all.
Grant Haley, a 2018 undrafted free agent, is the incumbent, with 12 starts at nickel in his first two seasons. Corey Ballentine started two games at the end of last year but had never played inside prior to arriving with the Giants. In April, the Giants drafted Darnay Holmes, an extremely athletic 5-9 corner from UCLA in the fourth round. His athletic package profiles as someone who should succeed playing inside, where he excelled at the Senior Bowl. It would not surprise me if the rookie figures out a way to win this battle by the end of camp or a few games into the regular season. There's also a possibility that second-year pro Julian Love gets time at slot corner, a position he sometimes played in college. Seventh-round pick Chris Williamson is an under-the-radar player who could compete here.
I feel fairly confident that Jabrill Peppers will be one of the starting safeties in their base defense. It makes sense to think that second-round pick Xavier McKinney will be the other starter, but Julian Love (a former fourth-round pick) may have something to say about that. All three of these players are versatile, which should give Patrick Graham a lot of options to move them around. This is less of a competition and more of an opportunity to see how he will use their respective talents. I expect all three to be frequently on the field together.