Key Takeaways and Observations from the NY Giants' Mandatory Minicamp
The New York Giants put their three-day minicamp in the books this week, a minicamp that, while conducted under the non-contact rules mandated by the CBA, was still a very spirited and productive session for head coach Tom Coughlin’s team.
“I thought that we had a lot to learn this spring, obviously, with the defense changing coordinators and having new information to be learned,” Coughlin told reporters following his dismissal of his players until July 30, the start of the team’s training camp.
“We had our assessment of last season and what we wanted to be able to take on and try to conquer. We had new people in different positions, some anticipated and some not, and of course a lot of that work had to get done.”
While the spring and camp in general threw a few curveballs—more on that in the following slides—overall Coughlin liked what he saw from the team.
“Our two practices here in this camp were good. They were intense, and they worked hard. Sometimes it was a little too physical, but that is kind of the way it goes.
“We have kind of set the tone for when we come back, and we look forward to these guys having a little time off.”
Although it’s not fair to make snap judgments based on what’s shown in the spring—a period the coaches often refer to as their “pajama” or “underwear” period since the players are not wearing full pads—there were quite a few nuggets to come out of the workouts and the media briefings with the coaching staff and players, all of which set the stage for what’s still to come in six weeks when the team reconvenes for training camp on July 30.
In the following slides, we’ll hear from the coaches, and I’ll share with you some observations I had from having attended the OTAs and the three-day minicamp.
They’re Cautiously Optimistic About the Offensive Line
If given their druthers, the Giants coaching staff would probably prefer to have rookie first-round pick Ereck Flowers get his feet wet at right tackle instead of the all-important left tackle position.
Unfortunately, the pectoral injury to Will Beatty put the kibosh on that plan, and now Flowers, the 6’6”, 329-pound 21-year-old out of Miami, looks as though he’s going to be trusted to protect quarterback Eli Manning’s blind side, for better or for worse.
“I think he has done a nice job so far," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. "He is a young player. He is going to grow, but my concerns are we would like to see him get in here in training camp in great condition and ready to go."
It’s unclear what McAdoo meant by his “great condition” comment, which was interesting, as was this gem from McAdoo when he was asked how content he was to have Flowers as the team’s left tackle.
“We like him as a future left tackle of the New York Giants," he said. "I am very comfortable with him being out there right now. Nothing is ever set in stone. We look forward to getting back here in camp and seeing him jump in there right from the beginning and give a run at it.”
Breaking It Down
At the very first OTA, head coach Tom Coughlin made it clear that they were planning to try different offensive line combinations. While the team stuck with a unit that features Flowers at left tackle, Justin Pugh at left guard, Weston Richburg at center, Geoff Schwartz at right guard and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle, that unit isn’t set in stone.
It needs to be noted that Pugh was spotted taking snaps at left tackle with the second-string offense, and the left guard was Brandon Mosley.
While it’s difficult to gauge how effective the offensive linemen were because of the non-contact nature of the drills, the fact that Pugh, a starter, was working with the second-string offensive line at left tackle with Mosley next to him suggests that the coaches are not fully on board with having Flowers as their starting left tackle just yet.
Nor should they be. While Flowers is athletic and seems to take to coaching well, his technique still needs some work, specifically his hand placement.
And speaking of hand placement, in watching Newhouse at right tackle with the starters, he looked like he was clearly holding on to the defender on virtually every snap. So perhaps the concern is more about Newhouse than it is about Flowers.
Regardless of where the concern lies, it’s clear that the offensive line is still very much a work in progress.
Corey Washington Earns Praise
This spring, the coaching staff praised receiver Corey Washington for coming in and putting his nose to the grindstone.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, for instance, said of Washington: “He has had a nice spring. He has worked hard. He has had a good attitude. He has had a smile on his face. He has done most everything we have asked him to do. I think every time he has been called upon he seems to have responded.”
Receivers coach Sean Ryan told reporters that Washington excelled in the classroom and the meetings, and he echoed Coughlin’s opinion about Washington’s attitude.
“His attitude was outstanding," Ryan said. "He worked. He got better, and we will compile all the catches, but he is right up there. I am not sure if he didn’t lead the pack in catches and productivity for the spring. He certainly stood out to me."
Breaking It Down
There’s no doubt Washington has been sensational when the ball comes his way.
However, one thing that continues to pop up when watching Washington is the little details.
There were three examples where Washington came up short in doing the little things that will likely mean more reps and sitting on the sideline watching.
The first was a pass play to tight end Adrien Robinson during the seventh OTA. Washington’s responsibility on the play was to “block” the defender, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, so that Robinson could turn up field for yards after the catch.
Instead, Washington barely got in the way of Rodgers-Cromartie, who had a clear shot at Robinson.
In another instance from the first day of minicamp, the Giants ran a play to the left side of the formation.
Washington, who was on the right side, started to move when the ball was snapped, but then stopped after a couple of steps.
Instinctively, the defender saw this and shifted gears, flowing over to the side where the ball was going.
All Washington had to do was keep going through the play and try to sell it so that there would be one less defender in pursuit of the ball-carrier.
The last instance came in the third minicamp practice. Washington was covered by Rodgers-Cromartie on a pass that fell incomplete. What Washington didn’t do, however, was fight for the ball.
In conclusion, yes, Washington is a dynamic player who can dazzle when he wants. However, if he is to earn snaps this summer playing against opposing two’s and higher, he needs to show consistency in doing the little things.
Dwayne Harris Is Going to Give a Nice Boost to Special Teams
Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn’s job status, which was on shaky ground last year after his units as a whole finished 15th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, just might be able to rest easy this year thanks to the addition of return specialist Dwayne Harris.
“He has done a nice job assimilating himself and getting the returns down, so we have seen enough; we are pleased,” Quinn said.
To give a clearer picture of what kind of an impact Harris might have on the Giants special teams, let’s look at some statistics.
Harris’ individual averages alone topped both of the Giants' team marks. The former Cowboy averaged 24.7 yards per return on kickoffs and 9.2 yards per return on punts.
Breaking It Down
What makes Harris such a solid return specialist is his combination of patience, vision and acceleration.
On a kickoff return during the third minicamp practice, I had an opportunity to watch Harris return the kick from behind the play (Harris’ vantage point).
After cleanly fielding the ball, he did a nice job of reading his blocks and following them up the gut where he came away with at least a 25-yard return.
Lest anyone think returning the ball is all Harris will be asked to do, Quinn did say they hope to have the receiver do other things for the special teams units.
“He is going to be a ‘big four’ player, so he will be on all four of the teams, and he will make a very good contribution,” Quinn said. “His coverage skills are equal to his return skills, so that is the nice thing about getting this kind of player.”
Again, Harris has nice speed to get down the field, and he is a physical player despite standing 5’10” and weighing 202 pounds. Harris uses his hands well to shed blockers, and because he has that athleticism and foot speed with which to work, he is able to run circles around would-be defenders.
Harris, don’t forget, is also going to see time as a receiver in the offense. Again, he has the good vision and concentration, runs crisp routes and fights off the jam very well.
What Harris does need to watch, though, is pushing off on defenders, which is something he did on the third day of minicamp on a deep ball down along the sideline.
(The photo above is actually from the play I'm referencing—you can see Harris has his arm in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's chest as he prepares to push off of the cornerback). Had there been an official present, Harris no doubt would have drawn a flag.
Last season, according to NFL Game Statistics and Information System, Harris was flagged twice during the regular season, both for unnecessary roughness fouls.
It’s good that Harris is not a pushover and is willing to fight for what’s his, but that has to be kept in check lest the penalty yardage hurt the team.
RB Shane Vereen Could Be the Offense’s Secret Weapon This Year
Opposing defensive coordinators might be licking their chops over having a chance to exploit the Giants offensive line.
If they’re smart, they’ll make sure they spend at least some time game-planning to stop running back Shane Vereen, who just might very well be the Giants’ “secret sauce” on offense this year.
“Nice addition to our team, I think he brings a veteran experience. He has obviously been a Super Bowl-winning player, [and] that helps a lot,” said running backs coach Craig Johnson, who, in response to my question about all the running backs, chose to speak about Vereen first.
“He is very versatile; he brings great depth and competition to this spot. He is a very smart player. I kind of figured that was the way he was and the way he played before seeing him on tape.
“He really picked up our system well, has done a good job of understanding and has a really good rapport going on with Eli right now, so I really like where he is at, and I think he has done a good job. He ended up the spring like I had liked him to.”
Breaking It All Down
At times, it’s not hard to wonder if at some point, Vereen might move ahead of Rashad Jennings as the starter on the depth chart.
Vereen is probably the most complete running back on the Giants roster, with his specialty, of course, doing damage out in space, which is something the Giants haven’t really had since the days of Ahmad Bradshaw and before him, Tiki Barber.
Like Bradshaw and Barber, Vereen gave the linebackers fits in coverage. The Giants, remember, improved their speed at linebacker by adding J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas, players who can cover a lot of ground rather quickly from sideline to sideline.
When it came to covering Vereen, unless the defense created a wall to string him out, it was no contest when going one-on-one against a linebacker in coverage.
In watching Vereen do his thing against the linebackers, I asked Johnson if, based on what they saw this spring, they came away envisioning specific roles for each running back in terms of how the workload would be distributed.
“It is fluid,” Johnson said. “We aren’t really sure because right now what you learn in the spring is getting them acclimated to the system and make sure they can make all the adjustments that we have and see what they bring to the table.”
In other words, keep an eye on how the workload is distributed during training camp.
Just as Bradshaw quietly passed Brandon Jacobs on the depth chart a few years ago—both he and Jacobs ended up being very productive in that role reversal, by the way—it would not be a shock if history repeated itself and Vereen and Jennings switched roles at some point in order to optimize their respective contributions.
The Safety Spot Is Still a Concern
One of the secrets to a great defense is trust among teammates.
Unfortunately, trust takes time, and in order for that trust to develop, the players have to be convinced beyond any doubt that their teammates fully understand what they are doing.
That hasn’t quite been the case with the Giants safeties, where none of the primary candidates—Landon Collins, Cooper Taylor, Justin Currie, Nat Berhe and Bennett Jackson—have started an NFL game.
“I think it is extremely hard,” safeties coach Dave Merritt said when asked how hard it is for a rookie or someone who has never started before to come in and do it right away.
“You are the ‘the extension of the defensive coordinator.’ Whatever call comes in, you need to be able to hear the call, accept the call and then spit it back out to your fellow teammates."
The Giants are looking at Collins, their second-round draft pick, to take the reins on making the calls.
It’s been a slow process, according to Merritt, but the needle is moving in the right direction.
“[Collins] is starting to realize that these missed alignments and the minus plays [have to be] cut out of [his] game in order for the guys around [him] to trust [him].
“He wants to be a leader. OK, we are putting him out there. I think he is going to be ready to go, definitely, for Dallas.”
To achieve that trust, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who admitted the trust factor has been a “challenge,” said that the veteran players need to be patient with the kids as they cut their teeth.
“I think our other guys that rely on them are doing a good job being patient and letting them try to work through it, rather than trying to overstate them or jump the gun and make the call, so to speak,” Spagnuolo said.
Are they close to being there yet, though?
“We have a long ways to go in my opinion,” Spagnuolo said.
Breaking It Down
It certainly hasn’t helped that the safeties already on the Giants roster have been nipped by the injury bug—Berhe, whom Merritt told reporters was supposed to initially see first-team reps, missed the entire spring with a calf strain.
Also nipped by the injury bug on the third day of the minicamp were Jackson (unknown) and Mykkele Thompson (hamstring), both of whom sat out.
Their absence, combined with Berhe’s, left the Giants so thin at safety that Josh Gordy, who had been working at the slot cornerback, had to move back to safety just to help out with the numbers.
Let’s talk a little bit about the players who have been there, most notably Collins. Collins came into the league with some question marks about his ability to cover tight ends.
Thus it was not surprising that Merritt, who spoke to reporters before the first practice of the minicamp, revealed that the rookie out of Alabama was going to get some opportunities to cover the tight ends in practice.
Collins had a mixed bag. He was beaten on a post by veteran tight end Daniel Fells for a touchdown in the first practice.
Also in that first practice, Collins took a bad angle on another pass to Matt LaCosse, who left his fellow rookie sucking wind.
The good news is that Collins learned from his mistakes and got better as the practices wore on. He’s not ready to be deemed an All-Pro just yet, but the fact that he takes well to coaching and has shown improvement is big.
The rookie’s growing confidence is being noted by his teammates, as is the confidence of Taylor, who lined up next to Collins for the majority of the snaps with the first-team defense.
“When you don’t have that veteran guy behind you, you are relying on verbiage because you can’t turn around,” linebacker Jon Beason said. “Between Coop and Landon Collins, they are doing an outstanding job. I am impressed with both of them. They are out there making calls. They are being definitive about it. They are loud, and it is making my job a whole lot easier.”
Cornerback Prince Amukamara agreed: “They have been doing a great job. I haven’t seen a lot of [mistakes], and they have been making plays on the ball, so I have been applauding them.”
For the sake of the defense, hopefully what few mistakes are being made will be a thing of the past by the time opening day rolls around.
The Giants Defense Plans to Be Aggressive
There is a reason why the Giants defense struggled the last few years, and that reason isn’t only due to the injuries that rocked the unit, especially in 2014.
The struggles of the Giants defense under now-former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell were also due to the sometimes-passive nature Fewell wanted from his players. For instance, if a blitz didn’t work, instead of trying something else or trying again, Fewell might have backed off the idea altogether.
In doing that, the Giants defense often took on the “bend but don’t break” mentality, and when that happened, more times than not, the defense broke.
New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is putting a stop to that by introducing a system that stresses being aggressive and physical, and that doesn’t allow for the offense to dictate to the players.
“I think we all can agree in here that if you are going to be good on defense, it needs to be aggressive,” he said.
“If you look around the league—I was very fortunate to be a part of one the past two years down south on I-95 [Baltimore Ravens] that is aggressive and physical. I think all good defenses in this league function that way.
“We would like to get to that point as well. How and when and where we will get with all that, we will see as we go.”
So far, the players love the new scheme, with it finally starting to click on the first day of the minicamp.
“It is coming along,” linebacker Jon Beason said after the first day of the minicamp. “First day of minicamp I would say was our best day collectively in terms of execution, making plays, playing with a sense of urgency, playing fast and finishing the play.”
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” cornerback Prince Amukamara added. “Coach (Spagnuolo) always preaches to compete, and that is what we are trying to do and not trying to play to the other opponent’s energy. [We are] trying to have our energy and create our own, and I think we are doing a good job of that.”
Breaking It Down
Spagnuolo—who, prior to becoming an NFL defensive coordinator in 2007, learned from the late Jim Johnson when the two were at Philadelphia—has been dialing up more blitzes in the spring than the Giants probably ran all of last year in the 16-game regular season.
While it needs to be stressed that the blitzes weren’t run at full speed—this, again, due to the non-contact nature of the practices—what the Giants defense showed were numerous blitz packages that were well-disguised as far as who was actually coming and who was looking to drop into coverage.
That’s not to say every blitz package Spagnuolo has tried out will find its way into the playbook.
“I do think it is important to be multiple in this league because offenses are multiple, and you have to have an answer for certain things," Spagnuolo said. "There will come a point as we get closer to that first game when we are going to have to make a decision and say, ‘This is it.’ If we do too much, we become less as a unit.
“There is a ways to go. We are going to make those kinds of decisions as we go along the way here. That is why we are fortunate that we still have four preseason games. Thank God. I wish we had another one to figure all that out. That will be an important piece of it, especially early.”
In addition to being patient in finding out what fits his players the best, Spagnuolo’s approach toward working with the players has drawn rave reviews.
“He is all over us," Beason said. "He is passionate about it. He doesn’t yell. He is very direct when he speaks to you. I love the fact that he is not afraid to call guys out. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you make a mistake, own up to it and move on. He is all about moving on and being poised under fire.
"Any time you have a [defensive coordinator] like that, it makes your job a whole lot easier because you know you can just take a deep breath. This is what you are supposed to do. Take coaching, next play and move on and don’t do it again.”
That and not be afraid to go back to the drawing board if what you initially drew up didn’t work, which is why Spagnuolo already has this defense much improved before it takes its first snap.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes, observations and information were obtained firsthand. Follow me on Twitter.