The safety position in the NFL is a bit like spinning rims on a new car. Nice to have, maybe, but not required. That’s a good way to describe the New York Giants’ safety play the last few years, too: shiny, spinning wheels and going nowhere.
The Giants ranked dead last in pass defense in 2015, allowing 299 passing yards per game, nearly 100 yards more on average than the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos.
It was not as if the team completely neglected the position through the NFL Draft: The Giants selected safeties in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. But these were throw-away picks, late, as much chance of hitting as a $20 scratch-off lottery ticket.
Drafting a safety that late is like saying you’re ready for a job interview in a clip-on tie. Yeah, it’s an option.
But between Nat Berhe (fifth round, 2014), Cooper Taylor (fifth, 2013), Tyler Sash (sixth, 2011) and Chad Jones (third, 2010), there was nary a star among them. Granted, tragedy struck twice – Jones was involved in a horrific car crash in June of his rookie year that nearly cost him his leg; and Sash never panned out after being suspended for Adderall in 2012 and died in 2015 because of an accidental drug overdose – but suffice to say, the Giants weren’t exactly set at the position.
Is it a surprise, then, that New York finally put safety first the last two drafts?
Or, rather, second?
In 2015, the Giants selected Alabama star Landon Collins with the first pick of the second round, making him the top strong safety selected despite holes on the defensive line and at wide receiver. It probably says something that of the following seven picks in the draft, five were either defensive linemen or wide receivers.
It says something more that the Giants went back to the well early in 2016, selecting free safety Darian Thompson with the eighth pick of the third round. In an uncommonly fruitful year for the position – two free safeties were selected among the last seven picks of the second round, Indianapolis’ T.J. Green (pick 57) and New Orleans’ Vonn Bell (61) – it’s clear the Giants saw Collins’ potential pairing as a priority.
And what a priority.
Thompson appears to have seized the starting nod opposite Collins, and the Boise State product is drawing rave reviews from his coaching staff.
“He knows football; he gets football,” Giants head coach Ben McAdoo told the New York Times’ Bill Pennington. “He can communicate the game, and it doesn’t seem too big for him.”
Thompson was a late bloomer who weighed 100 pounds as a high school freshman, and only hooked on with the blue-turf Broncos when he put on enough weight as a senior. And then he became a Boise legend, getting the starting nod midway through his freshman year and finishing as the Mountain West’s career interception leader.
“I used the talk about my size to fuel my fire,” Thompson told Pennington. “I wasn’t going to be just a football player on the field. I was going to be a football player in every way.”
Collins, meanwhile, could not have had a more different pedigree.
A high school All-American out of Dutchtown High in Louisiana, Collins dominated the Under Armour All-American game, ranked as the No. 2 safety in his class and then starred at Alabama.
As a rookie, he started 16 games – the first for a safety in team history – and he was named to the All-Rookie team after an impressive 112 tackles, 84 solo, though he sometimes looked lost in the passing game. After an offseason of better nutrition – he kicked his Vanilla Oreo habit, he told reporters – reports out of Giants camp have been glowing: Pro Football Focus graded his preseason Week 2 performance as one of its two best in the league.
“Landon has been a breath of fresh air versus the young man from last year,” Giants safeties coach Dave Merritt told AL.com, “because he actually understands the defense a little more being in his second year. He’s communicating, he is taking charge out there.”
It sure sounds as if the Giants have found their safeties of the future.
Even if it took them a while to do it.