The New York Giants depth chart still lists Landon Collins as the starting free safety with Craig Dahl as the starting strong safety followed by Cooper Taylor and Brandon Meriweather. As far as I can tell, Cooper Taylor is the only of those three strong safeties that’s under contract for 2016. Who’s the next man up? Justin Currie, Mykkele Thompson, Bennett Jackson, and Nat Berhe are all under contract with Berhe scheduled to make the most of the four. From what I’ve seen and heard, Berhe appears to be the favorite to start at free safety.
The safety position has been in a state of flux since March 2015 when both captain Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown left via free agency. Rolle signed with the Chicago Bears while Brown signed with the Houston Texans, got cut, and ended up back with the Giants due to injuries to Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, and Mykkele Thompson. Of course, Brown was released, forcing the Giants to sign Craig Dahl just a couple weeks after acquiring former Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather. Before Berhe was injured, many believed he was poised to seize a golden opportunity to start.
With the First Pick
We saw what happened. Landon Collins did an admirable job for a rookie playing somewhat out of position at free safety, earning a few All-Rookie honors. Thankfully, he should shift over to the strong safety spot in 2016, despite some suggesting he’s better off at linebacker.
Last season, the strong safety position was a nightmare. Sure, Brandon Meriweather laid the lumber more times in one season than we’ve seen from any safety in recent memory. He also got burned more times in one season than we’ve seen since James Butler in 2007.
Craig Dahl, a Steve Spagnuolo guy, was average to below average, taking more than 400 snaps and earning a PFF grade of 51.5. Cooper Taylor was on and off the active roster throughout the year, but has a niche group of followers who believe he can be a solid third safety. Following the 2015 regular season, the questions about the safety position started again: “What Should the Giants Do at Safety?” Is free agent Chris Conte the answer? Is Reggie Nelson a fit?
According to Thomas Maney of Pro Football Focus:
"“Meriweather graded below average in coverage for the third straight year while missing 16 tackles—tied for the fifth-most among safeties. His overall grade ranked 72nd at the position, and the team can likely find better production elsewhere at a similar cost.”"
The Giants could cut Justin Currie and Bennett Jackson and not take a dead cap hit. Though, Jackson appears to be a contender with Berhe to nab the starting role. Both Jackson and Currie would be exclusive rights free agents in 2017. Cooper Taylor would be a restricted free agent in 2017 and wouldn’t result in any dead cap if released, but could prove to be a solid backup behind Collins.
Thompson – a hybrid cornerback / free safety – has three years left on his rookie contract while Berhe has this season and next before hitting free agency. Right now, John Breitenbach of Pro Football Focus has Nat Berhe projected to be the starting free safety. Berhe also made PFF’s All-Pro Special Teams unit in 2014.
Of Berhe, Jackson, and Thompson, Berhe had the best stats in college. Picked in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Nat had accumulated almost 300 combined tackles, six interceptions, 12 tackles for loss, and 15 passes defended in four years at San Diego State and was very aggressive in the run game but got lost in coverage.
One round later in that draft, the Giants went with Jackson a converted wide receiver who had four picks, six tackles for loss and 147 combined tackles in three seasons as a defensive back, only to cut him in late August of that year. Big Blue brought him back before the 2015 season and he became a player to watch in the preseason, but caught the injury plague.
To me, Thompson’s versatility makes him a better candidate as a third safety or extra back in nickel and dime packages. At least, that was the initial thinking when he was considered a “reach” in the 5th round of last year’s draft. He, too, contracted the bug.
After failing to land anyone in free agency thus far, it’s becoming increasingly apparent Jerry Reese is going to roll the dice on his young safeties for another season. Judging from the response and coverage online, Berhe will get the nod.