Giants' 2020 Roster Report Card: Grading the Safeties

Patricia Traina

If you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful this season, look no further than the Giants safety position.

After two straight seasons in which the unit struggled with the play of guys such as  Curtis Riley and Antoine Bethea, the Giants are finally loaded at this position with some legitimate and young talent.

(Note: Julian Love, whom we'll cover in our cornerbacks preview, is anticipated to be deployed at safety as well.) 

Not since the days when the Giants had Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant have they had such a solid group of safeties. 

While this isn't to say that the current group is on par with Rolle, Grant, and Phillips--we still need to see the current group on the field before we can advance any conclusions--the talent and versatility in the Giants' current group should allow defensive coordinator Patrick Graham significant flexibility.

The benefits of having a three-safety set include making it more difficult for offenses to read the coverage. The three-high safety set can also be used to disguise what’s being run and, as we saw in 2011, when 21 of the Giants' 86 passes defensed (24.4%)  were generated by those three players alone, the scheme can mess up the opposing passing game.

To add to that, if the Giants get solid play out of the back end of their defense, that will help the pass rush while also providing reinforcement against the run.

The versatility of Xavier McKinney and Jabrill Peppers, both of whom are projected as the starters, gives the Giants a safety duo with a skillset they’ve been missing for years. 

If these two youngsters jell, an added benefit would be allowing for the perimeter's cornerbacks to lock up against their respective men.

Let’s look at the talent on this underrated, yet essential unit on defense.

ROSTER LOCKS: Xavier McKinney, Jabrill Peppers

In Xavier McKinney, the Giants have a safety with experience playing over the top, communicating a defense, and generally being that “last line of defense.”

McKinney is a very smart and versatile defender who was handed a wide variety of responsibilities in a very sophisticated defense run by Nick Saban. Because of that versatility, McKinney should have little difficulty being “positionless” in Patrick Graham’s defense.

Among the numerous roles McKinney played at Alabama include free safety, box or strong safety, slot defender, and “MONEY” linebacker in Alabama's defense. Each of those positions has different roles and responsibilities, and McKinney was able to execute them all. 

There’s no reason to think that McKinney won’t be able to make the calls on defense just as there’s no reason to worry about his coverage in zone and his run support. As a bonus, McKinney has proven to be an effective blitzer.

McKinney doesn’t appear to be a true “deep centerfielder” a la Earl Thomas or Ed Reed, but there’s a lot to love about his game and what he brings to the table.

Jabrill Peppers has always been at his best when lined up in the box as sort of a pseudo linebacker, where his physical style of play is a perfect match. 

He’s a physical and aggressive tackler, who has shown enough instincts playing the run to be a legitimate defensive asset there. 

In coverage, Peppers hasn’t been horrible, but where he has his issues against tight ends is when his shorter wingspan tends to work against him when he seeks to create disruptions.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Justin Watson (17) runs with the ball as Miami Dolphins defensive back Montre Hartage (41) defends during the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium.
Montre HartageDouglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

BACKUPS: Nate Ebner, Montre Hartage

Nate Ebner gets a spot in this group because safety is his natural position. However, he’s going to make his living on special teams, though he might, on occasion, see a snap or two on defense.

Montre Hartage is to the Giants defense what Cam Fleming and Cooper Rush are to the offense: a guy who played in the coordinator’s last system and whose knowledge is going to give him an edge in earning a support role. 

Hartage went undrafted free agent in 2019, out of Northwestern after recording 51 tackles, 15 passes defensed, and two interceptions while playing boundary cornerback in his senior season.

He spent most of last year on the Dolphins practice squad but was activated late in the regular season, making his first appearance in Week 13 where he took most of his snaps at free safety. 

Later in the season, he moved back and forth between the box safety and free safety, finishing with eight tackles and one pass defensed.

Despite not seeing many snaps, it’s important to remember that Hartage, a cornerback in college, was asked to learn a new position last year. 

He showed enough promise for Graham to request general manager Dave Gettleman to sign Hartage to the Giants defense.

ON THE BUBBLE: Sean Chandler, Rashaan Gaulden, Jaquarius Landrews

Sean Chandler, an undrafted free agent out of Temple, has been the very definition of gritty. He plays a physical game, and when it comes to football IQ and mental processing, it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe Chandler’s as being near-elite level.

So why is he projected to be on the bubble? He lacks foot speed, which makes him a big-time liability in coverage. Chandler, remember, was waived when the Giants needed a roster spot for Sam Beal. 

They eventually brought Chandler back to the 53-man roster, where he mostly took part on special teams, but even there, he saw a reduction in his snaps.

With the Giants having added McKinney, Ebner, and Hartage to the group, it’s hard to see the numbers favoring Chandler’s chances.

Rashaan Gaulden was a third-round pick by the Panthers who has the talent to play in this league. Even when asked to undergo apposition witch from corner to safety, Gaulden attacked it with zeal. 

So why is he projected to be on the bubble despite his pedigree and talent? Gaulden’s most significant problems have been decision-making and discipline, two big reasons why the Panthers gave up on this Dave Gettleman draft pick after a year and a half.

Gaulden has enough speed and toughness to play the position, but unless he starts showing a marked improvement in his decision-making process and discipline, he’s unlikely to find a place on this roster.

Jaquarius Landrews was signed as an undrafted free agent and received a $15,000 signing bonus to join the Giants. Landrews, a JUCO transfer with experience as a strong safety and nickel corner, forced six total pressures and was credited with eight passes defended and one interception in coverage last season at Mississippi State.

He’ll likely have to carve out a role on special teams this summer, but as far as cracking into what’s otherwise a crowded defensive backs room, he’s facing a bit of an uphill battle there. However, Landrews’ pass rush and coverage ability, albeit a limited sample size, is enough to wonder if a spot on the expanded practice squad is in his immediate future.

Grade: B+

The Big-3 of Peppers, McKinney, and Love (who again we’ll cover in the cornerbacks section) could very well overtake the Giants defensive line as being the strength of this year’s team—that’s how much promise and potential there is.

While I usually try not to overboard on potential, especially when I haven’t seen the unit on the field together, there’s enough evidence gathered from the various film studies we’ve done here on the site feeling pretty good about this group of safeties.