The 2020 New York Giants will have a fresh look. In addition to the rookie class and numerous free agent signings, the Giants hired an almost entirely new coaching staff this offseason, led by head coach Joe Judge.
Judge arrived as one of the NFL's youngest head coaches. However, the 38-year-old has an impressive resume. His career got off to a fast start with two BCS National Championships in his three years at Alabama. He then moved to the NFL and the New England Patriots, where he was a part of three Super Bowl-winning teams in eight seasons.
Joining Judge on his staff is former Patriots assistant coach Patrick Graham, who will serve as the Giants' defensive coordinator. Graham spent seven seasons in New England and was a member of the Super Bowl XLIX championship team. The two coaches overlapped for four seasons with the Patriots, and when Judge was hired, Graham was quick to follow him to East Rutherford.
Rob Ninkovich knows all about Judge and Graham. The former Patriots linebacker and special teamer spent eight years in New England and worked closely with both coaches (Judge as special teams coordinator, Graham as linebackers and defensive line coach).
Now an analyst for ESPN, Ninkovich joined Lance Medow, John Schmeelk and Paul Dottino on the Giants Huddle Podcast to discuss what his two former Patriot coaches will bring to the Giants.
"Well, I think they have a tremendous work ethic," the two-time Super Bowl champion said. "I was with Pat a long time. Me and Pat are very close and good friends. He helped me a lot in my career because he was so thorough in everything that he did in preparation. Same with Joe Judge. Joe Judge is going to be a guy that's first in, last guy out. He'll probably sleep there four or five nights a week. I know that sounds crazy, but he's that into it. Same with Pat. Those guys, they're not going to leave any stone unturned when it comes to preparation."
A big reason why Judge and Graham both have such strong work ethics is the experience of working under Bill Belichick. In 20 years as the Patriots' head coach, he has earned a record of 237-83 (a .743 winning percentage) and 30 postseason victories on the way to an NFL record six Super Bowl titles.
Judge is one of four current head coaches who worked under Belichick, along with Houston's Bill O'Brien, Detroit's Matt Patricia and Miami's Brian Flores.
While it is important to pick up as much as you can while working under a football mind like Belichick, Ninkovich pointed out how crucial it is for a new head coach to add his own coaching style to the mix.
"I think you can learn a lot from being with the Patriots organization and you can learn the things that Bill is able to do and kind of how he approaches things," the former Patriot said. "But then also have your own personal twist on coaching style, how you deal with players and how you deal with coaching. Everyone has their own way of doing things. You can't be Bill Belichick. It's just not going to happen. I think the best thing that any coach or player that's been around Bill and learned from him is just taking all the things in and trying to absorb the key fundamentals that are taught to you when you're coached or playing under Bill Belichick, and you try to put those and install those things, types of values into your new team.
"But yet still have your own individual style on coaching and relating to your players, because at the end of the day, it's all about how do you get the group of men from all different age groups and backgrounds to come together for a common goal. That comes down to the way your consistency is with coaching, the way you consistently coach each guy. There's no favoritism… Coach Graham and Joe Judge are going to hold guys accountable, which is very much so needed in the NFL. You have to be accountable. You have to be expected to play at a high level week in and week out."
On the one-year anniversary, view photos of Joe Judge's first day after being named head coach of the New York Giants.
Judge's coaching career has revolved primarily around special teams. He served as a special teams assistant at Alabama from 2009-2011 before taking the same position with the Patriots in 2012, a role he would stay in for three seasons. Judge was named special teams coordinator in 2015 and spent the next five seasons in that position.
New England's special teams ranked in the Top 10 in each of Judge's five seasons as coordinator, according to Pro Football Focus, which uses a combination of factors in determining its special teams grades, including hang time, snap time, missed tackles, resulting field position and more. In 2016, the unit finished with the highest grade in the league, while it finished with the fifth-best grade in 2018.
"I've been around Joe Judge a long time. I have a ton of respect for him, and he has the respect of the guys around him just because of the fact that he knows football," Ninkovich said. "He knows X's and O's, he knows offense and defense, he was on the special teams side of it for a long time. (He coached) at Alabama, where we all know how great that program is. He came to New England and really did a great job there… the things that he's done working up to this point to get the opportunity to be a head coach, I think that is what guys are going to respect."
This past season, the Patriots finished with the seventh-highest special teams grade. However, the unit's success went well-beyond its PFF score. New England ranked No. 1 in average starting field position (32.7), as well as opponent starting field position (25.1). On top of that, Judge's unit was the only one in the league to return two blocked punts for touchdowns in 2019. The Patriots' coverage unit also did not allow a single punt to be returned for 20 or more yards.
So it's no surprise the Giants made Judge the first special teams coordinator to be hired as a head coach since 2008, when the Baltimore Ravens tapped John Harbaugh.
"Joe Judge, as a special teams coach, they have to really cram a lot of information in a very short amount of time," Ninkovich told Medow, Schmeelk and Dottino. "They don't have the hour group meetings with your position groups like you would if you're a D-lineman or a linebacker (coach). The special teams unit usually has their team meeting. They might have 20 minutes to go over their kickoff return or their punt return…
"I think being so thorough, Joe Judge, in coaching and being efficient, getting everybody on the same page, that is really what he excels at. Not only has he done it at the pro level, but he did it at the college level. If you take the two guys that he's coached under, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, that resume speaks volumes. I think the ability for him to coach and get everybody on the same page, that is so valuable, and you learn that as a special teams coordinator because you don't have the time that maybe a D-coordinator would have."
As for Graham, the Giants are already familiar with the 41-year-old assistant coach. After seven seasons in New England, Graham came to the Giants as the defensive line coach in 2016 and 2017.
The Giants had one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2016. The unit ranked within the Top 5 in the league in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, rushing yards and touchdowns allowed, and average points allowed per drive. They also sported the NFL's top red zone defense.
After two years away, Graham is back and ready to lead the Giants' young defense.
"The NFL is a very mentally draining league," Ninkovich said. "If you're not playing necessarily well, if it's Week Four and you only have a sack, you start thinking, 'Oh man, can I not get to the quarterback?' These are all things that as a coach, you kind of have to be a teacher, but then also a mentor. I think Pat, not only has he been a great teacher for me, but he's also been a great mentor, guiding me and helping me through the low times in a season. There's always going to be a tough point. There's always going to be an injury you're fighting through or something that's bothering you and you're not at your best. But a really good coach is able to help you through those times and maximize your potential.
"Me and Pat go way back. He does a great job of motivating guys. His pregame speeches are always motivating. Look, he gets fired up. He almost wants to put the pads on himself. I think that not only does he have that great motivating factor to him, but he's very smart. He knows schemes, he understands defense. I just think his ability to teach, mentor, and the volume of defense and the things that he knows, and his understanding of defense and how to run a defense, I think he's going to have a good, good time in 2020 as a defensive coordinator."
When filling out his coaching staff, Judge emphasized that he wanted great teachers. This is especially important for a roster that consists of only six veterans who are 30 or older.
"I think the teaching side of things and the mentor side of stuff, that's huge with a young roster," said Ninkovich. "They're definitely going to have to do a great job of teaching different situations that come up… I can guarantee that Joe Judge is going to have that team coached up and they're going to be ready to go for all situations that might pop up."
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
The Giants defense this season will look to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the presence of an elite pass rusher. This is something that Belichick and the Patriots have been known to do with incredible success over the last two decades. That approach allowed Ninkovich to post consistent numbers during his time in New England, as the linebacker enjoyed five consecutive seasons of at least 6.5 sacks from 2011-2015.
The Giants' roster may not have anyone that jumps out as a top of the line pass rusher, but the unit does contain plenty of talent. Kyler Fackrell had 10.5 sacks in 2018, while Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines have both shown flashes of potential through the early parts of their careers. Ninkovich is confident that by the end of the 2020 season, one of those players will have developed into a strong pass rusher.
"I think it's not trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole," Ninkovich said about generating pressure without an elite pass rusher. "You have to evaluate the guys on your roster and figure out what is going to be the best scheme and the best thing to run with the talent that you have on that team. Every year is different, especially this first year…
"There's going to be somebody on that roster, I can guarantee it, that's going to emerge and be a pass rusher and get after the quarterback. There are plenty of guys that can do it. They just haven't had the opportunity. This is a great opportunity for somebody to step up and make a name for himself. That's all you can ask for as a football player. Just, 'Hey, let's get on the field and let me make some plays.'"
Graham and Judge are not the only former Patriots to make their way to East Rutherford this offseason. Special teams specialist Nate Ebner signed with the Giants after eight years and three Super Bowl titles in New England. Ninkovich believes Ebner will step in and immediately become one of the leaders in the locker room.
"I think that Nate is not only a great person and great football player, but he's a great leader," Ninkovich said of his former teammate. "Right now, you need leadership. You need veteran leadership as a new coaching staff trying to make some changes, trying to get your team to go in a different direction than they have been going, changing the culture. To change the culture, you need to have guys that are able to lead and do things by example…
"I think Nate is probably one of the best additions to the roster. He's an Olympic athlete. He was on the Olympic team for rugby, which is impressive to play on the Olympic team. It just speaks about your work ethic and how dedicated you are. Again, I think that he is going to be great for the morale and great for the coaching staff for that team."
In addition to Ebner, former Patriots running back Dion Lewis signed with the Giants in March. Lewis spent three seasons in New England and was a member of the Super Bowl LI-winning team. Ninkovich's final two seasons overlapped with Lewis' time in New England. The former linebacker knows that the 5-foot-8 back will be a perfect complement to the team's star running back, Saquon Barkley.
"Dion is so quick, so fast, and he has a chip on his shoulder all the time…" Ninkovich said on BBK. "He always wants to fight. He gets up wanting to fight. He always has energy. I love D-Lew. I think he's going to be a great addition, especially with Barkley. That one-two combo of having an every-down back and then you throw in Dion in third down situations, screens, third and longs. You have a back that can catch and run, who's shifty, who's quick like a water bug. He's going to be able to move and shake guys. I just think that is a great addition to the Giants, having a guy like that, especially when you have Barkley on the other side of that."