Monday, April 6, 2009

The Secondary: A Primary Focus on Draft Day

(This is Part 2 of 5 in a series of articles that will examine some positions of interest for the Giants as they approach this year's draft. Part 2 looks at the Giants’ needs at defensive back.)

Much like the offensive line, the Giants secondary is more or less set at the starting positions. The unit is stacked with young talent as the Giants have spent 3 of their last 4 top picks at those positions. 2005’s top pick CB Corey Webster has developed into one of the better corners in the NFL, while his counterpart – 2007’s top pick CB Aaron Ross – though struggling at times last season, has proven himself as an effective starter. Last year’s number one pick, S Kenny Phillips, is set to assume a starting role this year after the departure of free agent James Butler, and third-year player Michael Johnson returns at the other safety position.

Again, much like the offensive line, depth has become an issue for the Giants’ secondary. In addition to Butler’s move to St. Louis, the Giants cut two veterans in CB Sam Madison and S Sammy Knight this offseason, and the awesomely-named DB R.W. McQuarters remains a free agent. Losing four contributors from a unit will undoubtedly leave holes to fill…

Last year’s second round pick CB Terrell Thomas provides a solid third man in the CB rotation behind Webster and Ross, and may even challenge Ross for a starting spot in camp this summer. The athletic Kevin Dockery is a restricted free agent and has yet to sign his tender with the Giants. It is more than likely though that he will return, giving the Giants a solid four-man rotation at corner. But injuries can evaporate depth at a position in an instant. For the Giants, whose defensive scheme relies heavily on the CBs ability to cover one-on-one, you need roughly a half dozen quality guys who can handle their business to safeguard against injuries.

S Kenny Phillips and CB Terrell Thomas should have much larger roles in 2009.

Behind Phillips and Johnson, the only real depth the Giants currently have at Safety is recently acquired free agent C.C. Brown. The former Houston Texan only played a handful of games last season before suffering an injury. Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin have an eye for bringing in under-the-radar talent and maximizing their contributions though, so Brown could prove to be a solid addition. Still, much like Cornerback, the Giants need one or two more stallions in the stable to solidify the position. Depth in the secondary is thus an essential area for the Giants to address in the draft, with Safety getting priority.

Safety in Numbers

Ignoring the possibility that the Giants will trade their first pick, it is unlikely they would spend it on a defensive back to begin with, with more pressing needs to fill (like Wide Receiver) and more talented players likely available at other positions (like Linebacker). Safeties are unlikely to start coming off the board until the early second round anyway, but when they do, the first name called will likely be either Louis Delmas from Western Michigan or William Moore from Missouri. One of them could be available when the Giants get on the board with the 45th overall pick.

Western Michigan S Louis Delmas

Delmas is perhaps the best safety in the draft. He’s tough and physical and plays with good awareness. He’s stout against the run and in coverage, and can drop the boom with a big hit. Moore’s stock has fallen a bit recently, but at one point he was regarded as first round talent. He’s big and athletic with great play-making ability on the ball. He’s another solid run-player and can cover a lot of ground and deliver the big hit. He lacks fluid hips and can struggle in man coverage though.

Other Safeties that could come off the board in the second round include Rashad Johnson from Alabama, Sean Smith from Utah and Patrick Chung from Oregon. Johnson has great ball skills and solid instincts on the field. He matches up well in coverage and is a sound tackler. He also has that “Hit stick” ability to lay the lumber. Smith is a ‘tweener DB who played Corner in college but could move to Safety in the pros. He’s another solid athlete with speed, agility, and good hands. He plays the run well and is a good tackler, but struggles in the open field and lacks the fluid hips and closing speed to really excel. Chung could slip to the third round, but brings a solid skill set to the table that couples instinct with ability. His Special Teams potential could attract the Giants to him, but he lacks the speed to be that deep middle Safety the G-men need.

If the Giants are looking for more help at Safety on day two of the draft, some early mid-round prospects to keep an ear out for include Chip Vaughn from Wake Forest, Michael Hamlin from Clemson, and David Bruton from Notre Dame. Bruton could be a solid pick-up in the 3rd round.

On the Corner

Already four deep at the position, I don’t think the Giants will look to draft a Corner until the 3rd round at the earliest. Names like OSU’s Malcolm Jenkins, Illinois’ Vontae Davis, Vanderbilt’s D.J. Moore and Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith should all come off the board in the first round. If available at the 29th pick, the Giants might be tempted to go for Moore or Smith because of their return prowess, but again, more pressing needs to fill…

I think it’s unlikely the Giants go for a Cornerback in the second round either, but given their recent history of drafting secondary in the early rounds, it shouldn’t be ruled out completely. One name to look for is UConn’s Darius Butler. He’s an excellent athlete with great physical tools: fluid hips, leaping ability, great hands and quick feet. He’s an intelligent player with good instincts and a lot of upside under the right coaches. He also has kick return potential. Oregon’s Jairus Byrd is a slower version of Butler. Byrd could come off the board as early as the late second round (though more likely early third). His lack of speed prevents him from being a good fit in some schemes (like the Giants’), but he could do well in the right system.

UConn CB Darius Butler

A few names who might be on the Giants’ radar for day two are Sherrod Martin from Troy (Osi Umenyiora’s alma mater), Victor Harris from Virginia Tech, and Kevin Barnes from Maryland. Martin may end up playing Safety in the pros. That might make him an appealing option for Big Blue in the third round if he’s still available.

Impact Players

I anticipate the Giants will draft at least two players for the secondary at this year’s draft. Safety depth is a more pressing need, and given the Giants’ recent penchant for taking defensive backs early, I think we could see a Safety drafted as early as our first second round pick. I suspect we will pick up another corner or two on the second day. Special teams and kick return ability could play big parts in the Giants’ decisions at these positions. Regardless, given their successes with DB draft picks over the past few years, I suspect whoever Big Blue drafts for the unit will make an impact.

Tune in next weekend for Part 3 in the series: Wide Receivers.
Click here to read Part 1: Offensive Line.

And be sure to cast your vote in the Giants’ Steps survey on the left-hand column!

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