5 Dark Horse Candidates That Could Make the NY Giants 53-Man Roster
I don’t know about you, but NFL training camps are one of my favorite events on the calendar because it’s a time where obscure yet talented players can emerge from the shadows.
When a team such as the New York Giants is coming off a poor season—one which necessitated a roster overhaul—there is even a greater opportunity for these lesser-known prospects to make the roster.
Along those lines, there’s also a chance for veterans who might be underdogs to win a roster spot to step up and shine thanks to the fresh start they’re about to receive.
That brings us to today’s topic, which is my look at the dark horse candidates that I think have a strong chance to make the 53-man roster if they stay healthy and produce in both training camp and the preseason.
Here is my list of five such dark horses.
Linebacker Dan Fox
If there’s a silver lining to the foot injury suffered by middle linebacker Jon Beason, it’s that guys who might not have gotten much time in the rotation need to be ready for an increase in snaps.
One such young player sure to see an increase in his workload is former Notre Dame inside linebacker Dan Fox (6’3”, 235 pounds), an undrafted free agent signed this year.
Fox, who led the Fighting Irish in tackles as a senior, comes from a 3-4 defensive system, where he gained experience playing both inside and outside linebacker.
He told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger that playing in the middle in a 4-3 scheme, which is what the Giants run as their base defense, is “kind of a new position” for him, but that he was willing to do whatever he had to in order to make the team.
Fox possesses excellent instincts and anticipation. The downside to his game, however, is that he’s not overly athletic.
His strength and technique might also not be up to par just yet. During an OTAs positional drill, in which the linebackers were required to charge at and move a tackling dummy, Fox struggled, lunging at the target rather than get up under its “pads,” indicating that the rookie's technique is faulty and needs work.
With some polish, plus the likelihood that the Giants will keep an extra linebacker if Beason isn't ready on opening night, Fox could position himself to make the roster. All he would really have to do is outplay Mark Herzlich on both defense and special teams.
Cornerback Charles James
In my “In and Out” list posted last week, one of the players I had as unlikely to make the final cut was cornerback Charles James. The reason why I put him there was less because of his ability and more because of the current numbers situation at the cornerback position.
The projected starters at corner will be Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Walter Thurmond will be the nickel back, and Trumaine McBride and Zack Bowman figure to be the fourth and fifth corners in some order.
That leaves no room for James, who right now is probably sixth on the depth chart—if there was a depth chart.
James, however, can still make this team if McBride, who last year dealt with a groin injury and who was somewhat limited during the spring, struggles.
James looked very impressive during the 12 spring practices, coming up with at least three interceptions and playing the ball aggressively.
It would certainly help James’ case if he were in the mix as a punt returner, and he could still find himself in that role when training camp starts up. That he has that ability to contribute on special teams can only help his cause.
Fullback John Conner
Although the Giants coaching staff has gone out of its way to not tip its hand as to how it's thinking about the fullback position, the feeling outside of the organization seems to be that Henry Hynoski, who lost last season due to a fractured left shoulder, is the favorite to beat out John Conner.
That’s not necessarily the case. Later this week, I’ll break down the key factors in this battle and how each man stacks up, but for now, any talk about one man having a lead over the other in this competition is premature.
How close is this battle? Pro Football Focus, on its free site, ended up adjusting its classification of Conner from a “high quality” to a “good” starter (same ranking they gave Hynoski).
On offense we were a little generous to full back John Conner initially. That’s not to say his play wasn’t impressive last year, but looking at his career body of work we found a player whose grade has alternated between having a positive and a negative every season since he’s been in the league.
(You can see the updated chart from PFF here.)
During the spring, both Hynoski and Conner received snaps with the first team unit, a factor that would suggest that neither is ahead of the other in the very early stages of this race.
For those who believe Hynoski is the better receiver, Conner did just as well with his opportunities to catch passes. Like Hynoski, Conner also also took a few handoffs.
In addition to which back has the better running and ball-security skills, lead blocking is the other critical area that needs to be looked at when evaluating this competition. Head Coach Tom Coughlin told Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post that the team will remain committed to the running game.
Although we didn’t see many multiple-back sets in the spring, that could be a result of the no-contact nature of the spring practices, which would make it pointless to waste time running plays in which the coaches couldn’t fully gauge a given player’s performance.
Craig Johnson, the Giants' new running backs coach, was very generous with praise of Conner when I asked him about the fullback.
"John Conner, who came in when Henry got hurt last year, has shown me a lot of really good things," Johnson said.
"He’s very agile, very mobile—he can put his hands on guys and get the guys blocked."
Depending on the role the new offense defines for the fullback, Conner could end up the winner of this battle, even if just by a hair.
Running Back Michael Cox
Running back Michael Cox is yet another player for whom the roster numbers at his position don’t favor.
The Giants will presumably keep four running backs and one fullback. The running backs likely to make the roster will include Rashad Jennings, Peyton Hillis and rookie Andre Williams.
The fourth running back will largely depend on what happens with David Wilson, who told reporters at the end of the minicamp that his next doctor’s appointment to gauge the progress of his surgically repaired neck will be July 21, the day the team reports for training camp.
If Wilson is cleared for contact, he becomes the fourth running back, and that means that Cox is more than likely out of the picture.
If Wilson isn’t cleared—and it would not be surprising if he opens training camp on the PUP list, as the start of camp will mark six months from when the team announced that Wilson would originally have his surgery—the door could open for Cox to land on the roster.
The other factor with Wilson’s potential return is the risk for doing further damage to his body. Last November when Wilson’s condition was initially diagnosed, Adam Schefter of ESPN (h/t Pro Football Talk) reported, “doctors have told Wilson that he faces an increased risk of doing further damage to his neck if he continues playing football.”
While the decision to return, assuming he’s cleared, will ultimately be Wilson’s—and he has made no secret of his desire to return to the field—it will be interesting to see what kind of comfort level the Giants will have with allowing that to happen.
It's early, but my guess is that Wilson doesn't get cleared and stays on the PUP list for the start of the regular season. If that happens, then barring injury or a faulty performance, Cox should be the fourth running back.
Safety Nat Berhe
Why do I have one of the Giants’ fifth-round draft picks on my list of dark horses to make the team?
The answer, once again, centers on the numbers at the position.
I’m projecting the Giants to keep five corners and four safeties. If they go with that number, three of the four safeties will be Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps.
The fourth safety will come down to second-year man Cooper Taylor and fifth-round pick Nat Berhe, about whom Giants safeties coach told me, "Nat is a typical rookie. He’s a young man who’s learning, who’s trying to understand the NFL game, the concepts and the things we’re asking him to do are probably a little foreign to him.”
Merritt went on to say that while Berhe's acclimation to the NFL has been a "slow, growing pain process," he's still been encouraged by what he's seen from the rookie.
"He’s proving that he has the ability to play on this level and his ability to be able to pick up the concepts of the pass game is going to be key for him.”
Taylor, meanwhile, is not eligible for the practice squad if he doesn't make the roster. Although he's gotten noticeably bigger and stronger, his durability plus his knowledge of the playbook are two things to keep an eye on this summer.