When the 2019 NFL Draft concluded, many presumed that the Giants emerged from the draft with several new contributors on defense. First-round picks Dexter Lawrence and DeAndre Baker both had clear paths to the starting lineup, while third-round pick Oshane Ximines and fourth-round pick Julian Love both seemingly had a chance to crack their respective rotations early on.
One player that did not generate much buzz back in April was fifth-round pick Ryan Connelly.
Fast-forward four months, and Connelly has been getting a majority of the reps at inside linebacker with the first unit during training camp with Alec Ogletree nursing a calf injury. While Ogletree is expected to be ready for Week 1, Connelly has taken full advantage of the extended action he's received this summer.
"Invaluable," Connelly said about his experience filling in for Ogletree with the starting defense. "They're extremely important, to be able to go with the first unit and against other teams' first units. Just to get that experience is extremely valuable."
The rookie has filled in admirably for Ogletree over the last two preseason games, and has earned the praise of coach Pat Shurmur on several different occasions.
"He's in the right spot, he's got very good instincts," Shurmur said earlier in training camp. "There's not a lot of false movement to his game. You know, there's some really fine, dynamic linebackers that'll take two steps in the wrong direction, and then still have the skill and ability to get to the play. The thing with Ryan, you don't see a lot of false steps, so he maximizes his skill and ability. We'll see as he takes his next step."
Connelly is encouraged by the progress he has made throughout training camp. However, the 23-year-old is well aware that he still has a lot of work to do before he gets to where he wants to be as an NFL linebacker.
"It's my first experience. I'm trying to soak it all in and just take it one day at a time," said the former Wisconsin Badger.
While Connelly and Ximines are two of several rookies competing for playing time at the linebacker position, the young players have a strong group of veterans to look to for guidance.
The linebacker corps consists of experienced players such as Ogletree, Markus Golden, Kareem Martin, as well as second-year men Lorenzo Carter and Tae Davis. Whether it's on the field or watching film, Connelly appreciates being able to lean on the vets for any and all questions he and the other rookies may have.
"It's been awesome just having all of those guys in the room," Connelly said. "I really can ask them anything. It's not like anyone is holding anything back. I think that's been extremely helpful as far as learning the position and learning this defense."
As helpful as the veterans have been for some of the new guys in the room, Ogletree indicated that the experienced linebackers have also benefited from the influx of talent to the group over the last few months.
"I think they have done well," Ogletree said about Connelly, Jonathan Anderson and some of the other linebackers that were brought in this offseason. "They have picked up the defense really well and they are able to communicate, get lined up and play ball.
"Like I said, we are all working to push each other to get better. Those guys are pushing each other in the room, along with myself. We just try to make sure we handle what we can handle and that's trying to get better every day and going out there being leaders on the field."
Connelly will see his last preseason action in Thursday's finale against the Patriots. However, it is the regular season opener in Dallas that the young linebacker has circled on his calendar.
While the visit to AT&T Stadium will be the first time that many of the team's rookies will see the Cowboys' home field, it will serve as a sentimental return for Connelly.
"I'm extremely excited," he said. "It kind of comes full circle, because my first game playing for Wisconsin was at AT&T Stadium, and now my first real NFL game will be there, too. It's kind of cool that it's happening like that."
The Giants hope that Connelly achieves as much success in the NFL as he did in college.