As the new head coach, Joe Judge knows he will be judged based on the won-loss record the Giants put up in 2020. He is not Joe Judge, offensive guru, or Joe Judge, defensive mastermind. He is Joe Judge, head coach.
There is one specific area of the team, though, where the performance level, good or bad, will directly reflect what Judge is all about. He is the rare assistant ascending to head coach who made his mark solely on special teams. He is not the coordinator of that unit with the Giants — popular and well-respected Thomas McGaughey, who previously worked for Tom Coughlin and Pat Shurmur — was retained by Judge. Still, every coach has his certain expertise and Judge’s is on special teams, putting those areas of Judge’s first Giants team on high alert.
The cupboard is not bare. The Giants owned the NFL’s seventh-best special teams units in 2019, based on the comprehensive rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin, the former Dallas Morning News football writer, whose special teams rankings are used throughout the league. This was achieved despite place-kicker Aldrick Rosas having a subpar year, based on his Pro Bowl 2018 showing.
This offseason, the re-signing of Cody Core and free-agent addition of Nate Ebner had Judge’s fingerprints all over them. Core made the team a year ago not as a receiver, but based on his special teams prowess. Ebner’s entire-eight year NFL career spent with the Patriots was accompanied by Judge as either the special teams assistant or coordinator for Bill Belichick. Ebner is listed as a safety but he was used for a total of only one snap on defense the past three seasons.
On the third and final day of this year’s NFL draft, the Giants had seven selections and used six of them on defense. The final five picks were all defensive players: Linebacker Cam Brown from Penn State in the sixth round and then three more linebackers (Carter Coughlin, TJ Brunson and Tae Crowder) and one cornerback (Chris Williamson) in the seventh round.
As these six players try to edge their way onto the field and onto the roster, the ticket they need to punch first and foremost is establishing a role on special teams.
“Most definitely,’’ said Williamson, who finished his college career at Minnesota after starting off at Florida. “Throughout my college career, I played on every single special teams and that’s something I was able to communicate with each and every team that I talked to. This past year they took a lot of our guys, a lot of our starters, and kept them off special teams. We had a lot of young guys who they wanted to get out there and see them in some smaller roles. They took a lot of our starters off special teams this year. Throughout my college career, I played every special teams so that’s not an issue at all.’’
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Working the way up the depth chart via special teams will be familiar footing for most of these rookies. It was the way they gained a foothold in college.
“Yeah, freshman and sophomore year, it was how I made my money honestly,’’ Brown said. “It was how I got on the field.’’
Brown’s 6-foot-5 frame and long arms should be useful physical attributes when it comes to lining up to block kicks. He knows this is where he needs to make his first impression with the Giants.
“I definitely understand that as a rookie coming in that I’m going to have to do and play all special teams,’’ Brown said. “I mean it’s a 53-man roster, you’ve got to play your role and that role might be in multiple places. I’m willing and ready to play.’’
Putting together the roster, Judge said, is a balancing act.
“You build your defense to build two-thirds of your team,’’ he said. “Whenever a young player is fitted for a role on defense, where he lines up on special teams is almost always factored in.”
Brunson was a two-time team captain at South Carolina but he embarked on his college career doing the grunt work.
“I started off on special teams and that was my way of getting on the field and getting on the roster,’’ Brunson said. “That was also how the coaches gained their trust in the players, so whatever it took.’’
It will be this way, again, for Brunson and the other Giants rookies. Whatever it takes almost always goes through special teams.
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