Versatility. The word has been used so often by the New York Giants coaching staff and media this offseason you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes upon hearing it again. Still, a term’s tedium does not deny it’s veracity. By all accounts, the Giants plan to be highly versatile this season, especially on defense. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham won’t commit to any formation as his base defense. He insists the Giants will modify their scheme according to opponent and situation. Fortunately, New York should have the defensive personnel to adapt on a weekly and in-game basis. In large part, this is thanks to their three starting-caliber safeties.
Safeties are inherently the most versatile players on defense. They’re typically not matched up with any specific offensive player, and are therefore free to fill almost any role. Safeties can play zone coverage, man coverage, run support, or rush the passer on any given play. The Giants not only project to have three quality safeties in Jabrill Peppers, Julian Love, and Xavier McKinney, but each are renowned for versatility in their own right.
Peppers was a do-everything star at the University of Michigan, to the point where his natural position was still up in the air coming into the NFL. He played both safety and linebacker in college, but by his second year with the Cleveland Browns had settled nicely into the strong safety spot. Peppers is a freak athlete, and has the size and speed to cover backs, tight ends, and slot receivers. He has the physicality to come downhill in run defense as well.
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Love was a cornerback at Notre Dame, and transitioned nicely to safety in his rookie season. He replaced the injured Peppers at strong safety from weeks 12-17 last year, and performed quite well. Pro Football Focus even named him the Giants’ most underrated player heading into 2020. As a converted corner, Love has the chops to play man-to-man or zone coverage. His spell at strong safety also demonstrated his abilty to play in the box and help in run support.
Then there’s the rookie McKinney; the most versatile of them all. McKinney played over 200 snaps at each of slot cornerback, free safety, and strong safety over his final two years at Alabama. Per Pro Football Focus, he received a grade of over 79.0 in pass rush, run defense, and pass defense during that time. The Giants’ 2020 second-round pick projects as their starting free safety, but his trademark is his ability to excel all over the field.
With all three safeties on the field, New York will be able to disguise their intentions pre-snap since each of them are capable of doing multiple things. The Giants can come out in a cover-2 shell, and then rotate into a cover-1 “robber” look at the snap. They can run more slot-corner blitzes, knowing the safety filling in for the blitzing corner is just as capable in coverage. The options at Graham’s fingertips multiply exponentially with these three versatile pieces in the back end.
Graham came to the Giants preaching the importance of being multiple. With the personnel he’ll have at his disposal, there’s no excuse to not get creative.