The under-the-radar players who have helped make the Giants the NFL’s biggest surprise
Where would they be without them?
Not sitting at 5-1, that’s for sure.
There are layers to an NFL roster. When a team is losing, those layers are exposed as too thin, too weak, almost as if the roster is a tree with sick roots. The Giants are not losing. And the strong layers of support underneath the season’s first six weeks reveal why.
It is easy to see the thick branches at the top end of the Giants’ roster: Saquon Barkley, Daniel Jones and Andrew Thomas leading the charge on offense; Dexter Lawrence, Julian Love, Adoree’ Jackson, Xavier McKinney, Leonard Williams and the emerging Kayvon Thibodeaux on defense. Flourishing from that base is a hearty line of contributions from rookies Evan Thomas and Daniel Bellinger and Dane Belton, along with a recent surfacing of Wan’Dale Robinson. And then there are the new grafts taking hold, players such as Mark Glowinski, the team’s biggest-ticket signing in free agency, stabilizing the right guard spot. Or Jihad Ward, a veteran brought in because of his familiarity with Wink Martindale’s defense. Jamie Gillan was a raw, but talented young punter from the Browns.
There also has been new growth from past draft picks: Oshane Ximines and Darius Slayton come to mind.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the Giants have gotten contributions from a handful of guys who were either not expected to be on the team or were not expected to do much for it. They do not make the headlines, but they have made enough plays to help the Giants win games. Here are five of them and why they’ve made a difference:
WR Marcus Johnson
A practice squad signing the week before the start of the season does not create much buzz, and given how much Johnson, 28, had been around, that’s not a surprise. He was undrafted in 2016 out of Texas, where he caught 61 passes in three years. Johnson won a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles in 2017, catching five passes that season. He then kicked around with the Seahawks, Colts, Titans and 49ers. Johnson landed with the Giants having registered 51 career receptions for 839 yards and three touchdowns in 41 games. His first game came in Week 5 in London, and his first catch (for 12 yards) set up a Graham Gano field goal. His late grab for 16 yards on a Daniel Jones rollout was the biggest play on a drive that allowed the Giants to tie the game at 20. Johnson has five receptions for 60 yards, and has earned a jersey on game day.
CB Fabian Moreau
Cornerback figured to be a position devoid of depth, and that was before Aaron Robinson, the starter alongside Adoree’ Jackson, was sidelined because of appendix surgery and more recently with a knee injury. It has been Moreau to the rescue. The 28-year-old started 16 games for the Falcons in 2021, and was initially signed to the Giants’ practice squad, a comedown for a player who was a 2017 third-round pick by Washington. Moreau, who had logged 86 games and 34 NFL starts when he joined the Giants, did not take long to acclimate. He played all 59 snaps against the Ravens, and has won over his fellow Giants defensive backs, who joke that he owes them a turnover because he failed to secure a deflected pass thrown by Lamar Jackson. Moreau has not missed much, though.
DL Nick Williams
This might be the most anonymous starter on the team. Williams has started all six games, doing the dirty work on the defensive line while allowing Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams to push the pocket. At 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds, he is more athletic than he is a physical brute, but he gets the job done. The Giants have not been strong at stopping the run (31st in NFL with 5.6 yards allowed per carry), though, so there is more work to be done. Williams, 32, started 30 games the past two seasons for the Lions, and in a combined 81 NFL games (42 starts) for five teams, he has just 7.5 sacks. Though getting to the QB may not be his thing, he has been a critical part of a defense that has kept the Giants in every game, remaining on the field for between 49 and 64 percent of the snaps each week.
CB Nick McCloud
McCloud, 24, went undrafted after playing in college at NC State and Notre Dame, and he spent the 2021 season with the Bills and Bengals. Though he appeared in just two games for the Bengals and none with the Bills, he did enough in Buffalo to convince Giants general manager Joe Schoen — who was with the Bills last year — to claim him off waivers on the last day of August. McCloud has appeared in only one game on defense, logging 26 snaps in London against the Packers after Jackson left due to neck and knee injuries. In the fourth quarter, though, he came up big, thwarting none other than Aaron Rodgers. McCloud knocked away a pass over the middle intended for Randall Cobb, and finished the game with three tackles and the one pass defensed. That is called stepping up when called upon. The next week, he played 22 snaps on special teams.
WR Richie James
James was a prolific receiver at Middle Tennessee State — hauling in 243 receptions and 23 touchdowns — and that got him selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He spent his first three seasons with the 49ers, where he was best known for his work as a kick returner and for one breakout game in 2020 on Thursday Night Football, when he made nine catches for 184 yards and one touchdown in a loss to the Packers. James, 27, signed a one-year deal with the Giants in the offseason, and he figured to serve in a special teams role and maybe once in a while get a few reps on offense. Well, Kadarius Toney and Kenny Golladay have proven to be unproductive and unavailable, and Sterling Shepard went down in Week 3 with a season-ending knee injury. Just like that, James was needed. In six games, he has shown he is reliable and tough, leading all Giants wide receivers with 19 catches for 189 yards. Jones trusts him and James is not afraid to go over the middle and take a hit. The Giants would be in trouble without him.
The scheme theme
Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka keep coming up with new tricks. In the second quarter of the Giants’ 24-20 victory over the Ravens, Jones completed a 15-yard pass to running back Matt Breida, who had run a wheel route along the right sideline. It was part of a 10-play, 53-yard drive that produced the first points of the day for the Giants when Jones hit Wan’Dale Robinson for a 5-yard touchdown.
Running backs running wheel routes is nothing new, but ever see one out of a two-tight-end, three-running-back package? On this play, Jones was in the shotgun and had three running backs in the backfield with him: Barkley to his left, Brieda to his right and Gary Brightwell behind him. Jones play-faked a handoff to Brightwell, but the real key to the deception was Barkley crossing from left to right, running a route directly in front of cornerback Brandon Stephens. When a player possessing Barkley’s skill set is running at you, he must be accounted for, and that is what Stephens did, taking a step forward to deal with Barkley. That allowed Breida to cross behind Stephens, breaking free on the right sideline. That left Stephens in conflict, which is exactly what an offense wants to impose on a defense. Stephens was also in no man’s land. Breida put his arm up, hoping Jones noticed he was running free. Jones lofted his pass, and Breida made an over-the-shoulder grab, leaving himself unprotected as cornerback Marcus Peters delivered a blow that sent Brieda tumbling to the turf before getting right back up on his feet.
Asked and answered
Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:
Even though the Giants are on a roll, is there any trend or stat that is particularly troubling?
Why yes, there is. The Giants are allowing 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. Only the Chargers (5.8) are worse. The Giants also are allowing 144.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 28th in the league. Only the Lions, Seahawks, Texans and Bears are worse. The combined record of those four teams is 7-14-1. If a defense does not stop the run, it usually does not win. The Giants are an exception to this, but it is a dangerous path to traverse for a defense.
The issue seems to be settling on an inside linebacker tandem. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has used a 3-3-5 nickel package that does not have enough bulk on the field when opponents want to play bully-ball. The one positive in all this: The Giants have allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season.
What happened with the Giants and Darius Slayton? The guy could not get on the field earlier this season, and now he’s one of Jones’ top targets.
All true. Slayton clearly was not a favorite of the new coaching staff early on. It was either his work habits or a lack of attention to detail or what the staff viewed as a lack of production in the spring and summer. Though Slayton was healthy, he was barely part of the game plan and wasn’t even active for the season opener — a healthy scratch. His snap count in Week 2 was four; in Week 3, it was 14. He was not targeted in either game. Out of necessity — with Golladay and Toney both hurt — the Giants went to Slayton, and he has been delivering. His snap counts in the past three games: 39, 33 and 45. He caught six passes for 79 yards against the Packers in London in a win they wouldn’t have gotten without him. Slayton did not do much with the season-high workload he received against the Ravens — three targets, one catch for 18 yards — but the one catch came on third-and-14 in the second quarter, keeping alive a drive that ended with Wan’Dale Robinson’s first NFL touchdown reception. Slayton is proof that this new coaching staff does not bury players.