Leading into the July 27 opening of Giants training camp, The Post will analyze 11 position groups based on personnel, strengths, weaknesses and key depth chart battles. Today’s look-in: specialists.
Joe Judge made his mark in the NFL as a special teams coordinator, so you know he is not going to tolerate shabby work in that department. The Giants’ operation is overseen by Thomas McGaughey, a veteran coordinator, aided by Tom Quinn, another experienced special teams coach and longtime Giants coordinator. Judge, by nature, always has an extra-keen interest in what is going on here.
Kickers and punters: Graham Gano, Riley Dixon, Ryan Santoso. Returners: Jabrill Peppers, Darius Slayton, C.J. Board, Dante Pettis, Kadarius Toney. Long snappers: Casey Kreiter, Carson Tinker.
You want to know the absolutely, positively no-doubt-about-it best signing of 2020 for the Giants? Look no further than the addition of Gano. Bringing him in, after he missed the entire 2019 season with the Panthers because of a fractured left femur that eventually needed surgery to repair, was far from a sure thing. Yet it worked out spectacularly, as Gano made 31 of his 32 field goal attempts and went 5-for-6 from 50 yards or longer. The power in his right leg was just fine and the low number of touchbacks (41 percent) was more a case of McGaughey calling for directional kicks. The Giants rewarded Gano, at age 34, with a new three-year, $14 million deal. Judge actually believes kickers can get better with age.
Punter Riley Dixon experienced a drop-off almost across the board in 2020 from the previous year (44.8-yard average, down from 46.1), frustrating the coaching staff. He is a big guy with a strong leg, but must execute the different kicks and styles the Giants want to use during the course of a season.
As far as overall special teams play, the Giants were ranked No. 19 in the league by the respected Rick Gosselin, renowned for rating NFL special teams units based on 22 different categories. The Giants struggled all season to find a reliable kickoff returner (Dion Lewis and Corey Ballentine were lacking). Peppers averaged 12.5 yards on 15 punt returns. Nate Ebner, after bowing out of his bid to once again qualify for the U.S. Olympic rugby team, is expected to re-sign, which will give the coverage units a leader to rally around. Casey Kreiter, replacing longtime long snapper Zak DeOssie, did the job and was retained.
Gano is set. The coaching staff is intrigued by Santoso, a 6-foot-5, 258-pounder who booms punts and kickoffs, meaning Dixon needs to have a good summer. The most heated competition should be for the returner roles. Peppers plays every down on defense, and though he is a threat with the ball in his hands, it might be wise to limit his snaps on special teams. This could be a spot for Toney. He averaged 11.3 yards as a punt returner at Florida and 21.6 yards on kickoffs. He can make would-be tacklers miss at a high level, but first must prove he can make the catch and not display any ball security issues.
Can John Ross emerge as a factor here? He was a prolific kick returner at the University of Washington, but did not get a single kickoff or punt return in his first four NFL seasons, with the Bengals. His renowned speed makes him an intriguing possibility, though, and that could be his ticket onto the roster. Another possibility: cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. He is expected to start on defense, so this might be a big ask, but he did show flashes of success as a returner with the Titans. Gary Brightwell, a rookie running back, is reputed to have some special teams value.
The coverage and protection units were quite strong in the first half of the season, but then took a sharp downturn — a blocked punt in the end zone in Seattle resulting in a safety was a low point. For a team with a small margin for error, buttoning up these issues is imperative. Gano must show he can remain consistent and not lose any leg strength. Last year’s special teams tackles leader, David Mayo, was not brought back (he signed with Washington), leaving fullback Eli Penny (seven) and Devante Downs (six) as the two leading returning tackles on special teams. The unit could use a standout gunner and coverage ace to emerge.
Next up: Cornerbacks.