The Giants.com crew discusses potential surprise players in 2020.
John Schmeelk: I'm going to select Nick Gates. Gates missed his rookie season with an ankle injury after getting signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018. Last season, he played in 16 games, including three effective starts at tackle and guard. This season, Gates will be given the opportunity to earn a starting job in a competition with centers Spencer Pulley, Shane Lemieux and Jon Halapio (if he is re-signed).
If Gates can make the transition to center, he could be a vital cog in making the offense productive. It's pointless to handicap the center competition before the players have stepped onto the practice field, but Gates should have as strong of a chance as anyone to earn the spot. If he can't grab the job, he will have an opportunity to be an effective backup along the entire line.
My other sleeper is cornerback Corey Ballentine. He was a sixth-round pick out of Division II Washburn in 2019, but got substantial playing time at the end of the season after having a strong camp. The competition in the starting defensive backfield should be wide open, and there's no reason to think he won't be able to earn his way onto the field. If he can play well, it would be a great boon to the team's pass defense.
Dan Salomone: Take you pick between former Stanford tight ends Kaden Smith and Levine Toilolo. If there is one thing the Cardinal football program does, it is produce all-around tight ends who can impact the run game, pass game, and special teams. After the Giants claimed Smith off waivers from the 49ers in mid-September, the 6-foot-5, 249-pounder started the final six games of 2019 and caught three touchdown passes, including the overtime winner from Daniel Jones in Week 16 at Washington (it was Smith's second TD of the game).
Meanwhile, the Giants are the fourth team in as many seasons for the 6-foot-8, 268-pound Toilolo, who comes off single years in Detroit and San Francisco after playing his first five seasons in Atlanta. Toilolo has played in two Super Bowls – albeit excruciating defeats with the Falcons (SB LI) and 49ers (SB LIV) – and can be deployed as a confident blocker. There was a void in that role after veteran Rhett Ellison retired in March, and Toilolo can help fill it.
Adding to the intrigue is new position coach Freddie Kitchens, who has had the opportunity to learn from some of football's most successful minds. He was a graduate assistant at LSU under Nick Saban in 2000. Six years later, Kitchens broke into the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys under Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants. Kitchens was one of six assistants from the 2006 Cowboys who eventually become an NFL head coach, joining Anthony Lynn, Todd Haley, Tony Sparano, Mike Zimmer and Todd Bowles. As the tight ends coach that season, Kitchens had future Hall of Famer Jason Witten in his room.
Prior to the NFL, Kitchens spent seven years coaching at Mississippi State (2004-05), North Texas (2001-03), Louisiana State (2000) and Glenville State (1999). Giants coach Joe Judge was a senior on the 2004 Mississippi State team.
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
Lance Medow: If there's one area of the team where the Giants could use a breakout player, it's the pass rush and I can't think of a better candidate than Oshane Ximines. As a rookie, the former Old Dominion standout played 45% of the defensive snaps and recorded 4.5 sacks (tied for second on the team) with nine quarterback hits (tied for fourth).
Ximines had a knack for getting after the quarterback in college, piling up 32.5 career sacks over his final four seasons. That's a big reason why the Giants invested a third-round pick in him - and he showed some flashes, highlighted by a strong finish. Ximines collected 2.5 sacks over his final three appearances and proved he can be a disruptive force despite making the transition from college defensive end to pro outside linebacker.
The Giants' roster includes only one player who has recorded a double-digit sack season and that's newly signed free agent Kyler Fackrell, who had 10.5 sacks in 2018 with Green Bay, where Graham served as his positional coach. But Fackrell had just six sacks over his other three seasons with the Packers. That's more of a reason why there's a great opportunity for someone like Ximines to step up and emerge as a consistent playmaker.