Several Giants asserted themselves in the offseason as sleepers to contribute on offense, including receiver Darius Powe, quarterback Geno Smith, fullback Shane Smith, running back Shaun Draughn and offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty.
But what about the Big Blue ‘D?’ Which little-known, underdog talents will rise to chip in for Steve Spagnuolo on a defense that turned around in a huge way in 2016 and catapulted the team to 11 wins and a playoff berth?
Here are the guys on defense to keep an eye on as training camp approaches in late July:
MICHAEL HUNTER, CB, 6-0, 186 pounds (Jersey No. 39)
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There is more competition at the corner position than you may think. Starters Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple are back on the outside and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will man the slot, but the Giants’ depth at the position is up for grabs. Trevin Wade, Coty Sensabaugh and Leon Hall all were allowed to walk in free agency, Wade being the most curious decision in that regard, given his cheap price tag and solid contributions in a 2016 backup role. Still, that opens the door for a player such as Hunter, 24, a second-year pro out of Oklahoma State signed originally as an undrafted free agent. Spagnuolo even raved about Hunter’s strong offseason at minicamp in mid-June. “I will tell you who has had a good offseason is Michael Hunter,” Spagnuolo said. “He has done a really nice job. He has had to jump in there a couple of times, because you know that Eli (Apple) has that illness right now, so (Apple) is not in there. And if you have watched enough practice … Mike has really stood out. I give him a lot of credit.” Hunter still faces an uphill battle. He appeared in only two regular season games last season and stood out for the wrong reasons in Week 5 in Green Bay, when Aaron Rodgers and Devante Adams picked on the undersized corner for a quick Packers touchdown drive. Still, Hunter is no longer a rookie in 2017, and impressing the coaches in the offseason is a good start toward earning more reps when it counts.
ROBERT THOMAS, DT, 6-3, 325 pounds (Jersey No. 99)
Thomas lined up with the first-team defense plenty in the offseason, so predicting he will factor into the Giants’ plans in place of the departed Johnathan Hankins is no stretch. But the point here is that Thomas, 26, could end up being the most productive tackle in a rotation alongside All-Pro Damon Harrison that also should include at least Jay Bromley and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson. The reason is that Thomas might become the best at plugging holes up front in the all-important matchup against Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys’ big, bad offensive line. In general, even, the Giants’ rush defense last season led by its front four forced opposing offenses into different play-calling and often away from their strengths. Spagnuolo’s comments at minicamp indicate that Tomlinson, the second-round pick out of Alabama, is coming along slowly, so Bromley and Thomas both seem likely to see significant work. Both veterans were on the field for the Giants’ Week 16 goal line stand in Philadelphia last season, with Harrison injured and on the sideline, and both should see even more of that high-stakes work in 2017. Thomas, by the way, joined the Giants as a waiver claim last September after his release from the Carolina Panthers. The humble, small-town Arkansas product went undrafted in 2014 after breaking his left leg in October of his final NCAA season. He then spent time with Washington in 2014 and Miami in 2015, playing in just one career NFL regular season game for the Dolphins before appearing in eight for the Giants last season after an early-season illness. His goal for games played this season should be no fewer than 16.
ERIC PINKINS, S, 6-3, 220, (Jersey No. 37)
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Pinkins, 26, a former Seahawks sixth-round pick in 2014, joined the Giants’ practice squad last September, made his mark in five regular season games on special teams, and now is trying to make a bigger push. All-Pro Landon Collins is the cemented starter at strong safety, and Andrew Adams is penciled in for now at free safety with Darian Thompson and Nat Berhe competing. But Thompson and Berhe have injury histories, and at the very least Pinkins, a San Diego State product, could lock down a permanent special teams spot that vaults him to next in line for safety snaps when the opportunity presents itself. He is extremely versatile, having played corner, safety and linebacker in his brief career, which included six games for Seattle in 2015. The Giants’ continued search for depth in the defensive backfield – which includes using frequently-injured safety Mykkele Thompson at corner – also could provide chances for Pinkins to get on the field. “(Pinkins is) big, strong, just aggressive,” secondary/safeties coach David Merritt raved in early June. “He just loves the game. I’m talking this is it for Pinkins. He just loves the game so much, we’re all just happy; he’s a pleasure to be around because he brings so much energy every single day. He loves drill work. He’s just a fun kid to have around and hopefully he can continue to grow and become someone we can hopefully count on. Because he has to start (on) – all of them we know have to play – special teams. So hopefully he can grow into one of those roles and improve from there.”
ISHAQ WILLIAMS, LB/DE, 6-4, 253 pounds (Jersey No.: None at the moment, 97 in 2016)
Don’t count Williams out yet, even though the Giants released him in May, as the Daily News reported, under the NFL’s waived/injury designation. Williams, 24, a Brooklyn and Notre Dame product, is still working out at the Giants’ facility as he recovers from May 4 knee surgery. His surgery calls for approximately a three-month timetable that would put him back on the field around Aug. 4, or a week into training camp. Giants coaches and management like Williams. He played both sides of the ball on the practice squad last season, knows the Giants’ system, and was promoted to the active roster for the Giants’ final two 2016 regular season games. Once Williams gets healthy and passes a physical this summer, the Giants will have the option to cut him outright, but other factors just as well could see Williams stick around. The Giants see him as a combination of strong-side linebacker, pass rush specialist, and third-down rusher – a versatile athlete they can unleash in some of Spagnuolo’s more creative pass rush packages. If defensive end Owa Odighizuwa doesn’t return to the team, which seems possible, that would clear one roster spot, and if teammates such as linebacker J.T. Thomas struggle to stay healthy, that’s how more opportunities can open as they did last season for Williams to show his stuff and continue rebuilding a career that almost ended prematurely due to the ramifications of a years-long NCAA academic dishonesty investigation at Notre Dame.
DEVIN TAYLOR, DE, 6-7, 275 pounds (Jersey No. 97)
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Giants defensive line coach Patrick Graham said something that resonated in early June about Taylor, 27, a fifth-year defensive end: “He’s a proven veteran in this league,” Graham said. “He has to prove himself again, but I think as a defensive end, he’s shown some great flexibility in the past. It’s a good piece to have, and we will see how the competition plays out.” If Ishaq Williams is the darkest horse to rise back through the ranks on Spagnuolo’s defense, Taylor’s path seems more direct, if not already charted, to becoming a significant depth contributor, perhaps in a rotation of five ends on game days that includes Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Romeo Okwara, Taylor and fifth-round draft choice Avery Moss. Spagnuolo said Taylor’s signing in late May puts him behind other players in competition as far as learning the scheme, of course. But the four-year Detroit Lion has played in 61 of a possible 64 games in his first four NFL seasons, and it’s hard to see the Giants signing him and then cutting a player with that much experience – and his 6-7 size – unless he absolutely tanks in training camp.
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