This next installment of my offseason New York Giants position unit review looks at the cornerbacks.
2015 In Review
In 2015, the Giants finished with the league's worst-ranked pass defense, allowing 298.9 yards per game.
However, when evaluating the reason why the Giants pass defense fell apart at the seams, there are some who will point to a lack of a pass rush as being the main culprit.
To an extent that's true, but to take that idea a step or two further, if the pass rush was so bad—and it was, as you will see later in this analysis—then what does that say about all the flaws that were exposed in the back end of the defense?
So let's now talk about the cornerbacks. First, the depth at the position was simply dreadful, and that became very apparent when Prince Amukamara missed part of the season with a pectoral injury.
Behind Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara were Trumaine McBride, Trevin Wade and Jayron Hosley.
Of those three, only Wade—who won the team's slot cornerback role—remains on the roster.
Let's talk now about coverage, which is the primary job of a cornerback. Other than Rodgers-Cromartie, who per Pro Football Focus posted a 67.2 NFL Rating in coverage, not one other cornerback on the roster came close to that solid mark, the coverage ratings ranging from 90.0 (Amukamara) to 124.0 (Hosley).
So yes, the pass rush was a problem—a big one at that. Not only did opposing quarterbacks have all day to scan the field, the lack of the pass rush badly exposed just how thin the Giants were at cornerback.
2016 Outlook: Where Can This Unit Improve?
Stats aside, the biggest improvement that needs to be made is in the depth at this position.
For as good as Rodgers-Cromartie has been, it remains bothersome that he takes himself off the field at inopportune times. Sure enough, when he does that, the opponent goes right after his replacement.
The Giants did try to improve the depth at this position. They let go of Amukamara, who flashed talent but dealt with injuries that would affect his aggressive style once he returned. They brought in Janoris Jenkins to replace him.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson rated the Giants' decision to hand Jenkins a five-year, $62.5 million contract with $29 million guaranteed as the fifth-worst move in his “10 Worst Moves of the 2016 Offseason” analysis.
Here is Monson's explanation for his doubts about making Jenkins one of the highest paid corners in the game:
Jenkins is a gambler who can make a lot of big plays, but he has also surrendered 22 career touchdowns and over 700 receiving yards every season of his career. In two of his four seasons, he has been beaten for a passer rating of more than 110.0, and has never held opposing receivers to a completion percentage of under 61.7 percent, a mark 54 cornerbacks bettered this year alone.
Even if you work on the basis that the 2015 version of Jenkins is the player you will be getting going forward, that player had the 32nd-highest coverage grade among corners this past season, and was second-best on his own team, trailing Trumaine Johnson.
In addition to Jenkins, the Giants drafted Eli Apple in the first round out of Ohio State.
According to Pro Football Focus, Apple boasts some impressive numbers over the last two seasons, such as a 71.3 coverage rating and a 48.5 percent pass completion rate on balls thrown against him.
The problem is that Apple isn't a slot cornerback and the Giants have, per Over the Cap, $16 million in 2016 cap space tied up in starting cornerbacks Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins.
While Apple reinforces the depth—he'd certainly be an upgrade in the slot if he can learn to play it—big question marks remain regarding the rest of the depth at this position.
In addition to Wade, the Giants have six other relatively unknown players at cornerback, not to mention safeties Bennett Jackson and Mykkele Thompson, both of whom also have experience as cornerbacks and will likely be in the mix as well.
The X-Factor: The Pass Rush
To recap the changes in the secondary, the Giants swapped out Prince Amukamara for Janoris Jenkins and drafted Eli Apple to presumably be the heir to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
More importantly, though, they placed a higher premium on fixing a dismal pass rush. If it's as improved on the field as it looks to be on paper, it's going to make a world of difference for the back end of the defense.
Let's take a closer look at the effect of the Giants pass rush last year in the following table:
|New York Giants: 2015 Pass-Rush Effectiveness|
|Week||Team||Result||No. Dropbacks||Pressured||% Pressured||TDs Under Pressure||INTS Under Pressure||Sacks Under Pressure|
|Data from Pro Football Focus|
This data tells us a few things.
First, the Giants managed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks just 31.1 percent of the time.
Second, with the exception of three games—New England, the Jets and Minnesota—each of the Giants’ nine losses last year saw the defense failing to get pressure on the opposing quarterback in at least 30 percent of the dropbacks.
(Side note: In the New England and Jets games, one potential game-changing play made the difference between a win and a loss. Against the Patriots, it was safety Landon Collins' dropped interception on New England's game-winning drive; in the Jets game, it was a missed 48-yard field goal attempt by kicker Josh Brown that would have tied the game in overtime.)
Third, of the 31 passing touchdowns allowed by the Giants defense last year, 24 came when the opposing quarterback was not under any kind of pressure.
Simply put, the more time the opponent had to scan the field, the more that hurt the back end of the Giants defense.
So next time you hear or read that a good pass rush is a secondary's best friend, there is indeed something to it.
Sure it helps to have cornerbacks that can cover, but it makes a far easier time of things for the secondary if the quarterback never gets a chance to hit his intended target.
With the Giants cornerbacks still a bit of a question mark—as it stands right now, this unit is one injury away from having to throw a rookie head-first into the deep end of the pool—an improved pass rush is going to do wonders for the corners.
Who is the slot cornerback?
The common thinking is that the Apple will get this position. However, so far this spring, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been rotating different guys in and out of the slot, including Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie.
If all else fails, Wade will return to man the position for a second year. However, after the Giants attempted to bring on board Jerraud Powers and Leon Hall earlier this spring, that would seem to indicate that they have some trepidation about what they have for that slot cornerback spot.
What will Eli Apple's role be?
In college, Apple was not much of a slot cornerback. He'll get a chance to learn that position, but he admitted recently it's not going to come overnight.
"It's not going to be an easy adjustment, for sure," he said after the team's first OTA last month. "I'm going to have to be in my playbook every day, talking to my coach and trying to pick the brain from other guys and get more experience out there."
What's going to be the biggest difference?
"You have to communicate a lot more," he said. "You've just got to make sure you're noticing everything on the field."
It sounds like young Mr. Apple could be in line for a lot of reps at that slot position this summer.
Do they have enough depth at this position?
On paper you would think that to be the case given the numbers. However, my gut tells me they're going to keep looking to add some experience to this otherwise inexperienced group behind Rodgers-Cromartie, Jenkins and Wade.
One name to keep an eye on as a possible addition is McBride, who remains unsigned.
No, McBride didn't play well last year, which probably contributed to him not being re-signed.
However, the Giants have been known to bring back players with ties to the team—last year, they brought in safety Craig Dahl who was able to hit the ground running in Spagnuolo's system thanks to Dahl having played for the Giants during Spagnuolo's first tenure with the team.
If McBride is in shape and the rest of the depth doesn't pan out, a one-year veteran minimum deal absolutely makes sense for the team to do.
Janoris Jenkins, 5'10", 198 lbs., North Alabama
Earlier I mentioned why Pro Football Focus isn't exactly bullish on the man nicknamed "Jackrabbit."
While changing teams offers a fresh start to any player, a recent scouting report done on Jenkins by the Scouting Academy lists his weaknesses as "run support, open-field tackling [and] change of direction" and that Jenkins is not a fit for Cover 2.
Let's go back to the run support factor. Per Pro Football Focus, Jenkins has 56 career missed tackles and only 23 stops for zero or negative yardage. Amukamara, the man he's replacing, has only missed 17 tackles over his career but has made 63 stops.
Of course if the front seven's run defense improves, then any deficiencies in run support that Jenkins might be carrying over won't matter as much—that is unless injuries start poking holes in the front seven.
Eli Apple, 6'1", 199 lbs., Ohio State
There are those who will go to the grave believing that the Giants, who made Apple the 10th overall pick in the draft, panicked after missing out on Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Conklin and Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd.
However, the selection of Apple isn't as big of a stretch as some believe it to be.
First, the team continued adding resources to the league's worst-ranked defense last year.
Second, in Apple, they have a transition plan in place for next year should they decide to move on from Rodgers-Cromartie.
And third, the Giants really didn't have much in the way of depth at the cornerback position behind Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins.
So what about Apple, who primarily played right cornerback except for a small handful of times when he moved inside to the slot? Where will he fit into the Giants defense?
So far, Spagnuolo has been rotating different guys in the slot with mixed results. The key for Apple to excel as a slot corner will be how quickly he picks up the basics over the long break before camp.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.