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Is Julian Love the Giants' Answer at Cornerback No. 2?

Julian Love showed flashes of being able to man the Giants No. 2 cornerback spot. But did he show enough to lower the team's urgency in adding to this position?

The New York Giants defense significantly improved under the tutelage of Patrick Graham. Under former defensive coordinator James Bettcher in 2019, the defense allowed the 26th most yards per game (377.3), and they ranked 30th in points allowed per game (28.2). The pass defense was too confusing for the younger players, and they ranked 28rth in yards per game (264.1) while also giving up far too many explosive plays.

Graham’s unit in 2020 was much improved; they ranked 12th in yards per game (349), 9th in points allowed per game (22.3), and 16th in passing yards allowed per game (237). The additions of James Bradberry, Logan Ryan, and even Blake Martinez helped the defense’s ability to play the pass effectively, but the scheme itself was much more simplified.

Graham only had one year of coordinating experience with the Miami Dolphins. He comes from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, and he ran a lot of man coverage in 2019 for the Dolphins.

Graham opened the 2020 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Ben Roethlisberger tore apart the Giants’ man coverage with quick-man pick and rub routes, as well as horizontal crossers that went for chunk yardage.

The Steelers specifically targeted the cornerback spot opposite James Bradberry--starter Corey Ballentine and rookie Darnay Holmes in the slot. The Giants would move from Ballentine as the starter to Isaac Yiadom, whom they acquired in a trade with Denver, who eventually was benched for Ryan Lewis before being returned to the lineup when Lewis went on IR.

I’m not optimistic about Yiadom’s long-term ability to play man coverage at a solid level in the NFL, but I feel Holmes has a lot of upside in that area.

Nevertheless, Graham started transitioning his defense to a much more zone match, spot-drop zone, and more traditional man principles on third down.

The Giants were running a lot of middle-of-the-field closed defenses, and even by the end of the year, the Giants started to run a lot more Tampa-2 Robber (AKA Inverted Cover 2). Yiadom was adequate as a zone cornerback, but the Giants will be looking to relegate him to bench duty. They may have had his replacement on the roster all along.

Xavier McKinney was the Giants’ second-round pick out of Alabama in 2020. He suffered a broken foot and missed most of the year, and that’s where Julian Love executed his role as a safety, a role he only had one year of experience playing. Love was drafted in the fourth round out of Notre Dame, where he was an exceptional cornerback.

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Love had 36 passes defended in his sophomore and junior seasons before entering the draft, and he also added four interceptions. New York didn’t have him available at cornerback until the end of the year because they needed him at safety to play single high, which allowed Ryan and Jabrill Peppers to roam near the line of scrimmage.

The Giants started Love on the outside against Cleveland when Bradberry was inactive as a precautionary after coming in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. The team also started Love on the outside in an important Week 17 showdown against the Cowboys.

The first question about the cornerback position is a player’s athletic ability and measurables; On paper, Love does not wow anyone in this area.

He’s not very big--his lower body explosive traits were modest (although I feel the film says this is above average), but his 3-Cone suggests a good change of direction and stop/start ability in tight quarters, which is evident on the tape.

(Boundary corner, bottom of the screen)

Love is playing inside leverage on Michael Gallup, No. 13. Gallup chews grass up to Love and angles his break inward as Love is committing his hips to the outside.

Once Gallup hooks, Love plants his outside foot, gets his hips turned back to the outside portion of Gallup’s rear end and closes the short distance in a timely fashion. He shows solid hip fluidity and change of direction.

(Boundary corner, the bottom of your screen)

This is a similar play versus Amari Cooper, No. 19, only Cooper uses varied speed to force Love to accelerate right before his break. 

Cooper forces a bit more separation because he sold the vertical stem well, but Love quickly recovers and gets back into position. Then he sees the dump-off pass to Pollard and makes a tackle in open space.

(Bottom of screen, on the 20-yard line)

I love how Love stays in phase on this out & up versus Jarvis Landry, No. 80, and the Browns. Love is off in outside leverage, and he breaks downhill quickly while not taking a poor angle if a double move is performed.

Once Landry performs that double move, Love is right in position to get back on the inside hip. Love doesn’t lose balance, stays calm, and then easily handles the third move that Landry attempts on the comeback. A very nice man type of coverage rep from Love.

Catches Surrendered

Love isn’t a liability as an athlete--he’s not the best--but it’s not a huge hindrance to the defense’s ability to run different types of coverage concepts.

(bottom of the screen, boundary cornerback)

This is a tight 3x1 BUNCH from the Browns, and Love is slightly deeper than Peppers, giving me the impression that Love had deep responsibility. If the No. 2 receiver went deep, Love has to take him; if the No. 1 receiver went deep, that was on Love as well; unless the No. 2 receiver did not go deep, then both the apex and boundary corners would essentially play straight up man coverage.

Love is eyeing the No. 2 receiver and seeing his actions while using his peripheral vision to see what the No. 1 receiver runs. The Browns were running a quick game, so once Baker Mayfield hit his back foot, the ball was coming out against the defender who was giving the offense leverage--that defender was Julian Love.

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This is more coverage and alignment-based than an oversight or mistake by Love. Once the catch is made, Love drives downhill and makes the quick tackle out of bounds.

(Top of the screen, boundary cornerback)

The seam defeats the Giants’ defense here in zone coverage. Peppers does a poor job feeling out the underneath route in the flat, which, in his defense, was more vertically based.

Love has to get his depth and break downhill on a seam bender from the #2 receiver Jarvis Landry. Love gets there just a tad too late to force an incompletion, but he was able to close width and almost make a great play on an inner receiver while that he wasn’t initially lined up over.

(Bottom of screen, boundary cornerback)

Love is executing bail technique against Rashad Higgins, No. 82, and he does a good job staying on top of the route until Higgins breaks inside. Love, whose hips are completely flipped, can’t recollect and drive downhill fast enough to close the angle on Higgins’ dig route. It’s a challenging play to make, and Love thinks he has inside zone help, but above-average starting cornerbacks can make those types of plays.

Some Struggles

Love’s technique wasn’t always great in those two games, which is entirely understandable, yet should be acknowledged. His footwork could be wonky, and he did allow his center of gravity to rise at times, which slowed his transitions down.

(Top of the screen)

The snap comes before Love is ready, and he loses at the line of scrimmage and gives the wide receiver a free release. His balance is off, and he loses his balance trying to transition inside while in the trail technique with a safety over the top.

This isn’t consistent with his film, but struggles like this happened on tape. It’s understandable since Love hasn’t played the position since college in 2018.

(Bottom of the screen)

Love uses poor footwork and technique to reach and make contact with Amari Cooper on an in-breaking route. You can see the lack of control and hitch as Cooper breaks inside.

Love’s strengths

(Top of the screen)

This rep isn’t perfect, but it shows patience, very fluid hips, and the ability to squeeze receivers off the red-line on an island. Love restricts space against Higgins and forces a hot Baker Mayfield to throw just out of Higgins's reach on the goal line.

(bottom of the screen)

Love’s in a half-turn with inside leverage, and I like how he feels the route out up the stem and locates the comeback route with good instincts. Love can sink his hips and turn quickly.

(Top of the screen)

Love does a very good job with outside leverage here against Cooper, who explodes upfield and attempts to lean into Love and create subtle separation. Julian Love stays right on Cooper's outside hip and gives him no space on the nine route. Very good blanket type of coverage from Love.

(Top of the screen)

Love might not be winning any catching competitions here, and it was a poorly thrown pass by Andy Dalton, but it’s a quality break on the ball from Love; he inches back, flows laterally with the stem, and attacks once he sees Dalton throw the football. It’s another encouraging play from the young defensive back.

Final Thoughts

Love may not always be consistent, but he’s capable of starting games. He’s very adept in run support, which is one reason the previous regime moved him to safety.

He also flashes as a cornerback, and with some development and more reps, he could be a starter in the league. However, I don’t feel overly comfortable with the inconsistencies, and his sample size, heading into next season.

The Giants could really upgrade this position group, and Love could be an excellent third corner who could fill in for Bradberry, Holmes, and whoever the upgrade may be if an injury befalls the Giants.

The Giants should still consider top selections like Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley (if there), even with Love on the roster.

If the Giants don’t go in that direction (which is entirely understandable given the state of the team), then adding someone a bit later in the draft, or a cheaper free agent, to compete with Love for the second starting outside cornerback spot is a viable option as well. 

(Film clips via NFL Game Pass.)

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