A Closer Look at Julian Love's Very Promising Future

Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Esposito

The logic behind signing Antoine Bethea to two-year, $6.5 million deal this offseason was sound at the outset.

The idea was to bring the 35-year-old into the fold to provide the New York Giants with a rocksteady veteran safety to replace the departed Landon Collins at least until one of the many young defensive backs on the roster was ready to start.

So far, unfortunately, Bethea’s been anything but what the organization envisioned he would be.

At first glance, Bethea has been a respectable defender when you see the season-long stats sheet, as he currently leads the Giants in solo tackles (57) and combined tackles (80). However, those numbers belie just how much of a liability he’s been in 2019.

Despite his familiarity with James Bettcher’s defense, inconsistent play in coverage has been a common theme during Bethea’s first season in the Big Apple - and last weekend’s loss to the Green Bay Packers brought those struggles to the forefront.

The three-time Pro Bowler was targeted four times against the Packers, allowing four completions for 68 yards, three touchdowns, and perfect 158.3 passer-rating allowed.

Now, it’s easy to attribute his poor performance to the quarterback with whom he was dealing. After all, Aaron Rodgers is a two-time All-Pro selection and future Hall of Famer. However, the veteran safety has performed at a similar level against lesser competition for a majority of the year.

The table below is a game-by-game log of Bethea’s performance in coverage this year. All advanced analytics have been compiled via Bethea’s player pages at pro-football-reference.com.

bethea

Legend: *Most touchdown receptions allowed by a safety in the NFL** Highest yards per target allowed in the NFL regardless of position***Third-worst passer rating allowed among all defensive backs

The cited production raises concerns that the most battle-tested member of New York’s secondary is showing signs of decline.

However, Bethea’s inconsistency opens the door to a unique opportunity for one young defensive back in particular: Julian Love.

Just like fellow rookies Corey Ballentine and Deandre Baker, Love is a cornerback by trade. However, the coaching staff has lined him up at safety on several occasions and has raved about how his skill set seamlessly translates to the nuances of the position.

Even Love himself believes that he can make a difference in the backend of the secondary. “I think my skill set could be similar to that of a free [safety],” said Love this past May, “I’m smart, physical and have range on the field.”

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Like all rookies, Love has experienced growing pains in adjusting to the professional game and has seen limited action through the first half of the year.

However, his performance this season - particularly over the past three weeks - has backed up his offseason comments and may indicate that he’s the future at safety in New York.

The Notre Dame product has played on at least 67 percent of New York’s defensive snaps since Week 10 and has responded well to his increasing role.

Surprisingly solid in coverage, Love has drawn just two targets over the past three games while allowing two completions for 23 yards. Add in his first career interception against the Chicago Bears in Week 12, and the rookie has recorded an impressive 75.0 passer-rating allowed this year.

The sample size may be limited, especially since both targets came in Love’s first career start in Week 13, but early returns have shown that Big Blue may have a star in the making.

"Four weeks ago, eight weeks ago, I saw a guy that was in the meeting with his feet on the ground, taking great notes, paying attention, asking questions in the position meeting room," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said when asked about Love.

"When we were doing walk-thru, he might not have been getting the reps, but he was back behind taking mental reps and building for his moment so that when his moment came he was able to play as fast as his mind would allow him to. I think that’s why he’s playing like he is right now because in the moments that led up to it, he was doing the work that he needed to do."

Despite his small body of work, the 21-year-old rookie has quietly been one of the best players at his position, per Pro Football Focus, sporting an impressive 87.7 overall grade for the year (0-to-100 scale).

Getting more in-game reps under his belt over the next four weeks will be vital for Love, and if he continues to impress, the Giants should have enough of a sample size to truly determine whether or not he’s the right man to pair with Jabril Peppers going forward.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that the Giants may continue to start Bethea for the remainder of the season due to the veteran presence he brings to the back end of the defense. Yet, with just four games left in what’s a lost season, what does this team have to lose by starting Love?

Even if the Notre Dame product comes back down to earth and performs at the same level that Bethea’s performing at right now, at least he’ll get the in-game experience needed to improve.

And maybe, just maybe, he’ll develop into a much-needed defensive cornerstone. 

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