EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As an NFL defensive lineman, Rakeem Nunez-Roches is often involved in violent collisions, but his first such encounter as a member of the Giants was not the manner of impact he expected.
On July 25, the day the Giants' veterans reported to training camp, the man his teammates call Nacho was involved in a two-car auto accident "five feet away" from the Giants' headquarters, the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. Nunez-Roches was placed in the NFL concussion protocol and missed the first three camp practices. He returned to the field Monday, practiced fully yesterday and was on the field for the team's first full-pad workout today.
His rapid return disguised what was a near tragedy.
"Definitely blessed," Nunez-Roches said today. "Definitely was fortunate coming out of that situation. Looking at that accident and both vehicles being totaled, it was definitely an eye-opener. At the same time, shoot, I am in a car wreck every week at practice, so it wasn't anything different, fortunately. God blessed me to be safe, no bumps, bruises or broken anything, so it was all good."
Moments later, Nunez-Roches described the circumstances of the crash.
"Actually, I was coming through, and I saw her approaching the stop sign, which she was supposed to stop, but as I am looking at her, I'm like, 'She's going way too fast, I don't think she's going to stop,'" he said. "I was able to apply the brake a couple seconds before she hit me because if I didn't, she was going to hit me straight on. As she hit me and I spun in a circle, it was more frustration because I was heading home to help my wife put the kids down before bed check. I was just disappointed that I wasn't able to help because I knew I was going to have to go to the hospital, I knew I was going to have to do all these tests. I was really more mad about that than the accident all together."
The Giants signed the nine-year veteran on March 17. Nunez-Roches and A'Shawn Robinson, added on April 24, will join Pro Bowler Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams to lend depth in the interior of the defensive front. (Robinson has yet to practice and is on the physically unable to perform list after tearing his meniscus last Nov. 20 while playing for the Rams at New Orleans.)
Now healthy, Nunez-Roches can again focus on preparing for the 2023 season.
"It was great to see him back," Williams said. "Glad nothing happened to him during that accident. But also, he's just a great guy to bring into this building and to bring it to the defense. He has great energy, and so far, he's been playing the run really well. I think he's going to be a great addition on the D-line."
Nunez-Roches, who turned 30 on July 3, is a 6-2, 307-pounder who has played in 102 regular-season games with 38 starts and eight postseason games with four starts for Kansas City and Tampa Bay. He started at nose tackle and played 13 snaps on defense and nine on special teams in the Buccaneers' 31-9 victory against Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.
Last year, Nunez-Roches played in all 18 games, including one in the postseason, with 10 starts for the Bucs. He brings a skillset that meshes perfectly with the Giants' needs. Nunez-Roches' forte is stopping the run. Last year, the Giants ranked 27th in the NFL by allowing 144.2 rushing yards a game and 31st by giving up 5.2 yards a carry.
Nunez-Roches is confident those numbers will improve.
"I feel like there is a great thing here that's able to stop the run," he said. "There are other things that we have to fine tune. Just understanding where your neighbors are. Not farming the same ground, just being disciplined. Not peaking too soon, just staying there and trusting that your guy will flow to the ball, and you don't have to do anybody else's job."
Nunez-Roches played on teams that earned postseason berths in six of his first eight seasons. He joins a Giants team that last year reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Expectations are high entering the new season. What is Nunez-Roches' advice for managing them?
"Don't look too far," he said. "Those expectations are always going to be there, but just worry about the now. Worry about what you can control and win the day. As long as you keep winning the day and keep stacking them, everything else will fall into place."
*In his 2022 rookie season, tight end Daniel Bellinger led the Giants' tight ends with 30 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns on 35 targets in 12 games. That was BW – before Waller. With former Pro Bowler Darren Waller – who has 298 catches in six seasons – now with the Giants, Bellinger's numbers could decline.
"I don't really think of it like that," Bellinger said. "What Darren does opens up for everybody, not just in the tight end room, but in the receiving room and it opens up everything all together. So, I wouldn't say I think about the targets or the passes or whatever that is. I think of it as just what's going to help the team the best, what's going to put us in the best position to win. I think Darren does a great job for us and for myself."
Bellinger has quickly become an admirer of Waller.
"I got a chance to really connect with him last year at Tight End U, so I was already kind of aware of his very unique abilities," Bellinger said. "Just being able to actually talk and see how he views things off the field, I think is the biggest eye opener for me. He's a very smart guy. He helps me and helps the whole offense just with different things that he can do. Obviously, we see it on film all the time and what he did in Las Vegas (his previous team) but being able to just pick his brain off the field, I think, is what makes him the most unique."
Bellinger, a fourth-round draft choice last year, believes he can succeed in his second season even if Waller is the team's dominant tight end. He has received advice from veteran players about what to expect as a second-year pro.
"The biggest thing that I'm getting feedback from other guys on and the biggest thing I'm experiencing myself is just having more confidence going into a play or to a practice and being able to understand not just my job and my responsibility, but now being more confident knowing everybody's job and knowing the whole scheme of a play instead of just focusing on my one job," Bellinger said. "I can now see the field better and be more confident about playing.
"I definitely have more confidence now. I feel more confident being able to read a defense as well, and just different kind of small things that I was so hyper focused on last year that now I can really sit back and be like, 'Okay, I got this, I got that.' I still have to make sure I'm good at those things but being able to focus on bigger picture things as well."
*In an exchange of centers, the Giants signed Sean Harlow and placed J.C. Hassenauer on injured reserve.
Harlow, 6-4 and 285 pounds, has played in 33 regular-season games with eight starts (three at center, five at left guard) for Arizona (2019) and Atlanta (2021-22). He also played in one postseason game. Harlow spent the 2020 season on the Falcons' practice squad.
Harlow was the Cardinals' fourth-round draft choice in 2019, from Oregon State.
Hassenauer tore his triceps in practice on Sunday. He played three years for the Pittsburgh Steelers before signing with the Giants on April 6.
Catch up on all the action from training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.