Countdown to Camp: Who Will Be the Giants' Return Specialist?
With new Giants head coach, Joe Judge's background being in special teams, there's no doubt that the game element will be an emphasis for the Giants in 2020 and beyond.
One of the questions surrounding the improvement of the special teams unit involves the return game. Kickoff and punt returns are not only exciting for fans to watch, but they are also critical in the field position battle and can be the catalyst for positive and negative momentum shifts.
Last season the kickoff return duties for the Giants were primarily held by four players. Receiver Cody Latimer, who is no longer with the team, returned 24 kickoffs for 570 yards and a long of 50 yards. Cornerback Corey Ballentine showed some intrigue, returning 10 kickoffs for 256 yards and a long of 52 yards. REceiver Darius Slayton had nine returns for 189 yards and a long of 30. And finally, Da'Mari Scott had for returns for 100 yards, and a long of 35.
Looking ahead, Latimer is no longer on the team, having signed as an unrestricted free agent with Washington. Ballentine and Slayton, who were role players last season, are likely to have more prominent roles on defense and offense, respectively, making their contributions as a regular return specialist unlikely.
Scott, meanwhile, has an uphill battle to make the roster if the Giants' first three receivers end up being Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, and Slayton, and if Corey Coleman, Cody Core and one of the undrafted free agent receivers (Austin Mack, Derrick Dillon, and Binjamin Victor) round out the depth at receiver.
So where will the Giants look for their kickoff returner? It just so happens they have another undrafted rookie on their training camp roster who has experience in that role and who could make a good push for it.
Former Maryland running back Javon Leake is the guy to watch. In his three seasons as a Terrapin, he returned 59 kicks for 1,445 yards and three touchdowns, two of which he returned last season.
He's a big, strong, dynamic runner who can break tackles and fight for extra yards. He's also proven to be a home run hitter despite his 4.65 40-time at the NFL combine (which, remember, was recorded during an evening run).
Despite being an early favorite for the role (and benefitting from the fact that the Giants appear to have roster openings at running back where the rookie could, with a strong camp, impress), Leake isn't a lock.
Other candidates for the role include cornerback Darnay Holmes, who is a tough and intelligent football player with the dynamics to be an effective return man.
At UCLA, he had 38 kick returns for 878 yards and a touchdown. His special teams role diminished significantly over his final two seasons as a Bruin due to his heavy involvement in the defense, but early on with the Giants, if he's not the full-time slot receiver, he could find his way onto special teams as a returner.
The wild card is Dillon, the former LSU receiver. Dillon did not return kicks for the Tigers, but he will need to show his value on special teams as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Dillon has always been a tough receiver, but his 4.29 40-yard dash time recorded at his pro day opened up the possibility that he could be a game-breaker as a returner.
The concern will undoubtedly be that none of those rookies even have legitimate punt return experience at the collegiate level. Now, they will be competing to be the answer at the highest level.
But they would have to start somewhere, and kickoff returns are generally a little easier to adjust to since the ball doesn't take a tricky rotation when it comes off the foot of a punter.