There isn't a secondary in football that improved as much this offseason as Perry Fewell's unit in New York. The Giants signed a pair of starting-caliber cornerbacks—Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond—from 2013 Super Bowl teams while also re-signing Stevie Brown, a potential starting safety who was forced to miss the entire 2013 campaign due to injury.
Here's why those three fresh faces could put New York's defense over the top.
1. Antrel Rolle can finally breathe
Rolle is the most distinguished defensive back on the roster. The 31-year-old former top-10 pick has been to three Pro Bowls and named All-Pro twice. But because the Giants have been shorthanded in the defensive backfield for most of Rolle's four seasons in New York, he's rarely been able to maintain a groove back there.
Rolle has been forced to line up as a slot cornerback 668 times the last three years, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He has a background as a corner, so that hasn't been a major problem, but it's neutralized his ability to make plays as a safety.
A prime example came in 2013 when the Giants were forced to use Rolle in the slot on the final series of a very close, very important game against Dallas. Rolle was beaten four times for 45 yards on what wound up being the game-winning drive for the Cowboys.
He jams Dez Bryant at the line of scrimmage and is off to a good start, but when Miles Austin comes across with Prince Amukamara on a slant, Rolle is thrown off.
Rolle spends the rest of the route racing to keep up with Bryant, so when Dez cuts back inside, Rolle is helpless.
That wasn't terrible coverage, but you'd rather have a true corner in a spot like that. Plus, it robbed Rolle of the ability to patrol over the top, which is what he'd be doing if the team had someone it trusted to cover Bryant there.
You'll notice that Ryan Mundy was playing safety with Rolle in slot coverage. This isn't necessarily a mistake on Mundy's part, because we don't know exactly what his assignment his, but he ultimately bit to provide late assistance to Amukamara, instead of Rolle.
Later on that same drive, Rolle was way too slow getting out of his backpedal after giving Bryant too much pad on an easy third-down conversion catch.
Finally, to cap it all off, he was simply embarrassed by Cole Beasley.
But with Thurmond's arrival, the Giants finally have a bona fide slot cornerback whom they can rely on full time.
Here he is on a huge third-down, one-on-one matchup with Marques Colston in last year's playoffs.
You won't see better coverage than that against a top-flight receiver in a big spot. The Giants should get plenty of that this season.
One thing I noticed while watching tape of Thurmond from last season is he has great awareness and is able to adjust in order to get a hand on the ball quite frequently, even if he's breaking away in man coverage.
An example from a victory over Tennessee. The man he's stepping in front of for a near-interception is not the dude he was covering:
The point is that the guy has game. As a result, Rolle will have the ability to settle back into his natural safety position. He's comfortable working as both a strong safety and a free safety, and has extremely strong instincts in either role.
The Giants need to give him more opportunities to make plays like these:
So the addition of Thurmond actually helps them in two different spots, at least when they're healthy and in the nickel.
2. They have multiple coverage options
While Thurmond and Rolle are both exceptionally strong options for help in the slot, the Giants have to be pretty excited about their ability to cover outside receivers as well. Rodgers-Cromartie put up All-Pro-caliber numbers covering out wide in Denver last season, and returning champ Prince Amukamara now has plenty of experience in the same role.
It's nice to have a completely reliable shutdown corner on the outside. And based on what we've seen from Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara thus far in their respective careers, the Giants don't quite have that. Neither of these guys have played consistently well enough the last few years to be left on islands like Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman or Johnathan Joseph.
However, this gives Fewell options, which is something he didn't really have with Corey Webster either unhealthy or unreliable the last two years.
Rodgers-Cromartie is 6'2" and fast. Amukamara is two inches shorter and half a step slower, but he probably has better technique and more discipline. DRC is a pure cover corner, while Amukamara is more physical and a stronger tackler. The two are not similar, which works to New York's advantage.
Here's Amukamara hanging with Steve Smith deep.
And here's DRC doing the same with Pierre Garcon.
And I know it was only against Jernel Jernigan, but this is exemplary outside one-on-one coverage at MetLife Stadium in Week 2.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin suggested at the NFL meetings this week, per NJ.com's Jordan Raanan, that DRC, not Amukamara, would draw the opposing team's top receiver. But again, I'd guess that is fluid. If we see a lot of the Rodgers-Cromartie who appeared allergic to wide receivers in Philadelphia two years ago, that will change quickly.
Amukamara actually did a solid job against Calvin Johnson when they faced off in 2013. Here, he jumps all over slant route from Johnson and almost makes a huge interception.
Yet here's DRC sticking with Jackson in order to save a touchdown in their Week 4 matchup.
Very few players could recover from that end-zone slip.
And even fewer can out-jump Andre Johnson for an interception on a deep ball, as Rodgers-Cromartie did in Week 16.
The general plan will likely be to have them split the field and stick to certain sides, but the Giants know what they're getting from each guy and can use that to exploit opposing wide receivers.
3. They can afford to lose a man or two
Obviously they'd be in big trouble if a starter went down, but the Giants now have more depth than ever in the secondary. Don't forget that Trumaine McBride was also re-signed after playing tremendously in spot duty in 2013. He's a third option for outside coverage, which will come in handy if either goes down with an injury.
|New York's deep secondary (PFF grades)|
|Corner||2013 grade||Safety||2013 grade|
|1. D. Rodgers-Cromartie||4.0 (34th)||1. Antrel Rolle||7.4 (10th)|
|2. Prince Amukamara||13.0 (5th)||2. Will Hill||15.7 (2nd)|
|3. Walter Thurmond||4.8 (31st)||3. Stevie Brown*||4.1 (26th)|
|4. Trumaine McBride||6.6 (24th)|
|* Brown's grade/rank from 2012 due to injury (Pro Football Focus rank out of 110)|
And at safety, assuming Brown's surgically-repaired knee holds up, they'll have three starting-caliber players for two spots. If that's the case, don't be surprised to see Rolle, Brown and Will Hill on the field all at once—something Fewell has done plenty of times in the past when he's had the manpower.
McBride and Hill are the unsung heroes here. McBride was nothing but a journeyman before landing with the G-Men, but he was the only qualifying corner in the league to give up catches on fewer than 44 percent of the passes he faced in 2013, per PFF.
Hell, DRC and Amukamara weren't the only guys able to stick with Jackson deep in 2013.
And Hill, who everyone knows has a lot of talent but was marred by character concerns entering the league, was PFF's second highest-ranked safety in 2013.
And wait, is that Hill intercepting a pass in front of, you guessed it, DeSean Jackson?
Injuries happen, especially to the Giants. But now they've insulated themselves.
4. They have a chance to create a lot of turnovers
Not only can Rolle focus more on making plays if he gets to stick to safety, but let's not forget that Brown, who missed the entire 2013 season due to injury, was one of only three players with eight interceptions in 2012.
The Giants haven't done a lot right the last two years, but the 64 takeaways they've generated on defense during that stretch ranks fourth in the NFL. When Brown was an interception machine in 2012, they ranked third with 35.
|Most takeaways since the start of 2012|
|1. Chicago Bears||72|
|2. New England Patriots||70|
|2. Seattle Seahawks||70|
|4. New York Giants||64|
|5. Arizona Cardinals||63|
|Pro Football Reference|
Now add DRC, who has six interceptions the last two years. Rolle had seven takeaways last year, but he could be even more lethal in a more comfortable full-time safety role. If you're an opposing quarterback, the margin for error is slimmer than ever.
A whole new look
Pardon the cliche, but the sky really is the limit for a unit like this. Of the seven players we've just looked at, only Rolle is older than 28. So you can see what they're building.
Certainly it is a departure from what we're used to, because they've had to sacrifice up front. Jason Pierre-Paul and Jon Beason are back, but Linval Joseph and Justin Tuck are gone. They'll have to rely on 2013 draft picks like Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore.
But for once, the secondary will help the pass-rush, rather than vice versa. That's something the Giants aren't used to, but it never hurts to mix things up when you've missed the playoffs four times in five years.
And considering that the secondary-centric formula the Giants are apparently adopting is also what the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks used to build their defensive empire, Big Blue might actually be on to something here.