School is out. Summer came early.
Giants coach Brian Daboll canceled the team’s final minicamp practice on Thursday in favor of an “organization wide function.” After that, players will break for the summer. Many will vacation — keep an eye on Leonard Williams’ Instagram, it’s always a treat — and others will return home. Some will stay in New Jersey. Punter Jamie Gillan is taking a trip to see his family in Scotland. Kicker Graham Gano is taking a family trip to Mexico.
Surely, Daboll will make another appearance at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night for the Rangers game. But with no more practices until training camp, Daboll’s first spring as Giants coach — one that was fairly relaxed and low-intensity — fittingly ends early.
Here are my final takeaways from everything that happened — and everything I heard — during OTAs and minicamp this spring:
Brian Daboll ≠ Joe Judge
It’s clear already that Daboll and Judge — who wanted to hire Daboll as his offensive coordinator — have much different approaches, philosophies and personalities. That’s not a controversial opinion. As a coach, Daboll is more laid back and the practices — at least in the spring — were much more low key. Judge famously coached with an old school, hard-nosed mentality.
Now, it should be noted that Judge didn’t even get spring practices before his first season in 2020 due to COVID-19, but I’m fairly confident that we won’t see a drastic change in Daboll’s persona between now and training camp.
One big, noticeable difference in terms of the actual practices: Players aren’t punished for their mistakes yet, at least not in the same way. In the early days of Judge’s tenure, some media (including this reporter) used to track which players were forced to run laps due to making mistakes during drills. A penalty, turnover, anything. It got to a point where some players, like center Nick Gates, would make a mistake and just run a lap without a coach telling them. Daboll does not coach that way. Occasionally, a backup offensive lineman would get called for a false start and they’d get subbed out, but otherwise players stayed on the field.
That’s not to say one method is better than the other, but it clearly changes the mindset of players when they’re on the field. One message Daboll has repeated throughout the spring — especially as it relates to Daniel Jones — is that he doesn’t want players to be afraid to make a mistake.
It’s not as if Judge never had light practices or never canceled practice to give guys a day off — but the overall vibe of a Daboll-ran practice is much lighter. Wednesday, the Giants barely conducted any live team drills.
“I feel like Coach does a really good job of listening to the players, listening to the staff and understanding we’ve been grinding,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “We’ve been going since April 4th.”
Many of the Giants key players were limited or didn’t practice this week due to various ailments too. Many of them could’ve practiced, but I’m told that Daboll and his staff told them — especially the ones already entrenched into roster spots — to take it easy and focus on getting ready for training camp.
“The vibe I’m getting is the excitement people are coming into work with,” said defensive lineman Leonard Williams. “I think guys are happy to be here. They’re happy about the teammates that they have next to them. They’re happy about the coaches that are coaching them. I think when you’re happy about all those things … it makes it easier to come into work and have a great attitude and great energy, and it shows in practice how we’re flying around out there.”
Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said the “vibe” around the team with Daboll leading the way is “awesome.” McGaughey has been a holdover from Pat Shurmur and Judge’s staffs.
“It starts at the top,” McGaughey said. “‘Dabes’ is awesome. He brings a lot of energy every single day. The players feel it. The coaches feel it. I think everybody in the building feels it.”
Maybe that change in approach will make a difference when the season starts. Maybe not.
No leadership council — just open communication
Another big difference from the Judge era: Daboll won’t have a “leadership council” comprised of the team’s veteran leaders. That’s a common practice among NFL teams, but Daboll’s approach makes sense too. That clearly has already factored into Daboll’s thinking with Wednesday’s light practice and the cancellation on Thursday.
“I think it’s important to talk to your players,” Daboll said. “I think just because you have experience and a good player doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a leader. Everybody can be a leader in their own right. Doing what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it on a consistent basis, that’s the first step to being a good leader. We have a lot of guys that I think fit that mold. How it pans out, when we vote for captains, which will be a vote for the players, it’s their team.”
Saquon Barkley intrigue
Barkley looked like the Giants’ best and most important non-quarterback for much of OTAs, though take that with a grain of salt considering it’s been non-contact. But he remains probably the most fascinating figure on the team heading into the season.
In terms of the on-field aspect, the biggest takeaway of the spring is how Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka plan to use Barkley on offense. We’ve already written about it extensively, but he was lining up as a receiver — both in the slot and outside — frequently throughout drills, and moved around a lot in pre-snap motion too. He was heavily targeted, though that doesn’t necessarily matter in this setting.
But there were numerous occasions where Barkley would be lined up as a receiver and someone else — like backup running back Matt Breida or a receiver — would take his place in the backfield. He has never been used like this in the NFL before.
Off the field, Barkley said something interesting on Wednesday that he hadn’t previously: He admitted that he lost some confidence the last couple of years as he tried to work his way back from various injuries. Barkley missed all but two games in 2020 with a torn ACL, and had an ankle injury that bothered him most of the 2021 season. He only finished last season with 593 rushing yards and four touchdowns in 13 games.
“I was a way more confident player in college and early in my career than I was prior to the last year and then last year,” Barkley said. “Now I’m starting to get that back, starting to get that swagger back. You can’t get too high on it because it’s just minicamp right now, but all the little stuff in gaining confidence here, in this break that we have, hopefully catapults and pushes me through camp and to the regular season and beyond hopefully.”
This might be his last season in a Giants uniform — it’s difficult to envision Joe Schoen paying him big money on a second contract, even if he has a great year — so Barkley returning to his rookie form would be a major boon for a rebuilding offense.
So. Many. Injuries.
If this was any other team, one could say “it’s only minicamp” so the number of guys sitting out of practice doesn’t really matter. And yes, as mentioned, many of these players probably could’ve practiced more but the coaching staff held them out.
But the Giants have not earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to durability issues. Especially at wide receiver: Kadarius Toney, Kenny Golladay and Sterling Shepard were all limited or out the entire spring. Shepard (Achilles) was expected. Toney had a new knee injury that kept him from doing anything other than catching balls from a JUGs machine. Golladay (unknown injury) participated in some individual drills during minicamp and seemed to be moving OK.
But we saw what happened last year when Daniel Jones barely got any reps with his top receivers during training camp. When the season started, he didn’t really have a connection with any of them other than Shepard, who has been here for his whole career. Here’s to hoping Toney and/or Golladay heal up and are good to go for most/all of training camp and into the season without hiccups. (Their absences were a boon for rookie Wan’Dale Robinson, who got plenty of reps with Jones.)
As for other injured players:
• Both cornerbacks Aaron Robinson (unknown injury) and Darnay Holmes (foot) are dealing with minor ailments and should be fine for training camp, per source.
• Left tackle Andrew Thomas (ankle) is still moving around gingerly but has participated in some drills after offseason surgery. The seven weeks off should help.
• Outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (unknown) was limited in minicamp out of an abundance of caution. He should be OK for training camp.
• Linebacker Blake Martinez (knee) is still working his way back from ACL surgery. I would expect him to be limited to start training camp.
• Guard/center Nick Gates (leg) and tackle Matt Peart (knee) are still a long way off. Peart is closer to a return than Gates, who might not even play at all this year — but Peart also might be fighting for a roster spot.
The Giants secondary is going to go through some growing pains this season, but going all-in on seeing what they have with some young players might not be the worst thing. James Bradberry and Logan Ryan are gone. My early prediction for the Giants’ secondary on the initial 53-man roster — barring anymore offseason additions — based on some conversations I’ve had:
Outside corner: Adoree’ Jackson, Aaron Robinson, Rodarius Williams, Michael Jacquet
Nickel: Darnay Holmes, Cor’Dale Flott
Safety: Xavier McKinney, Julian Love, Dane Belton, Jarren Williams
The locks, I think, are Jackson, Robinson, Holmes, Flott, McKinney, Love and Belton.
Jacquet was one of the biggest surprises of minicamp and was getting some first-team reps with Robinson out. Rodarius Williams is still injured and needs to show he can contribute on special teams. Jarren Williams played well last year and has cornerback/safety versatility.
Don’t be surprised if Belton eventually usurps Love’s starting job — though they’ll often be on the field at the same time anyway since both have the versatility to line up at multiple spots.
I thought that Flott being drafted in the third round might’ve meant the Giants had soured on Holmes, but I’m told this coaching staff is still high on Holmes. Flott still needs to bulk up and is probably the long-term solution at nickel, but Holmes is the early favorite to start.
Holmes was starting to come into his own last season before he suffered a season-ending ribs injury against the Eagles — at the end of an interception. Prior to that at the trade deadline, the Eagles were calling around the league trying to acquire help at cornerback. They spoke with the Giants about Holmes but the Giants weren’t interested, a person familiar with those conversations told NJ Advance Media. The Eagles wound up trading a sixth-round pick to the Broncos for cornerback Kary Vincent.
Some under-the-radar players that caught my eye (besides Jacquet):
• OLB Elerson Smith: He was making an impact both against the starting offensive line and the backups, consistently creating pressure. Wink Martindale was creative in the way he was used, too, even plugging him in on the inside and at middle linebacker. He’s an athletic, toolsy ball of clay for Martindale and outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins to mold.
• WR Travis Toivonen: He was getting reps with both the first and second-team offenses with so many receivers out and took advantage of those opportunities. He has good size (6-4) and feels like the most likely candidate to become a classic training camp fan favorite.
• CB Zyon Gilbert: The undrafted rookie from FAU made some plays running mostly with the second or third-team defensive groups. He nearly had an interception on Wednesday.
• OLB Niko Lalos: He had a pick-six off Daniel Jones in one OTA practice, and his ability to help as an emergency snapper on special teams can’t hurt. A perfect practice squad player.
• TE Austin Allen: He didn’t make any big plays necessarily but by the end of minicamp the undrafted rookie was getting as many first-team reps as Ricky Seals-Jones.
Every year, there are players that sign as free agents or that were drafted fairly recently that wind up getting cut when rosters are trimmed to 53 players. A few players that might be more on the bubble than originally anticipated:
• WR Darius Slayton: This was a possibility anyway considering the moves the Giants made this offseason, but Slayton rarely worked with the first-team offense during live drills and generally struggled to catch passes. The lack of reps with the starters is especially eye-opening with how many actual starters (Toney, Golladay, Shepard) were out. If the Giants cut or trade Slayton, they’ll save $2.54 million.
• TE Ricky Seals-Jones: When he signed, he was penciled in as the starting tight end. But that was before the draft. Now rookie Daniel Bellinger seems locked in as the starter, undrafted rookie Austin Allen is making a push and veteran Jordan Akins has past ties with tight ends coach Andy Bischoff. Seals-Jones, meanwhile, was often running with the third-stringers.
• G Max Garcia: He’s a veteran (52 career starts) and was viewed as a contender to start, but that’s not really the case. Shane Lemieux feels locked in at LG, with rookie Joshua Ezeudu behind him. Garcia has gotten some reps as a backup center but he’ll be battling it out for a roster spot in training camp.
• OT Matt Gono: He was signed as a possible swing tackle option in March and still might take on a role like that. But when Andrew Thomas sat out team drills, only Ezeudu and Korey Cunningham filled in at left tackle with the starters. Not Gono. Plus, Matt Peart will return eventually to push for a backup job too.
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Zack Rosenblatt may be reached at email@example.com.
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