As the Giants reach the end of their offseason program this week, they have the same primary concern on defense that they had at the beginning of the workouts in April.
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The team has been working with rookie Landon Collins and third-year player (although inexperienced because of multiple injuries) Cooper Taylor at the back of the defense. Nat Berhe, who was penciled in to begin the workouts as a starter, has been sidelined for most of the spring with a calf injury. Bennett Jackson is making a transition from cornerback to safety. And so far, no one has been able to stand out as the voice of the defense, the one who sees the entire field and makes the checks.
"It's always a concern when you have guys who don't have a lot of NFL experience going in and ready to possibly start," safeties coach David Merritt said on Tuesday. "It's always a little hiccup that's in your throat."
For years, the Giants didn't have to worry about that. They had a run of veterans at the rear of the defense who guided the entire unit. It goes back to Steve Spagnuolo's first stint with the Giants and Gibril Wilson, and continued through last year when Antrel Rolle was the voice.
This year, though, there has been a complete turnover at the position. Rolle, Stevie Brown, Quintin Demps, they all left in free agency. Which left the Giants with what they have.
"There's youth and there's inexperience there," Spagnuolo said. "It doesn't matter what system you are in, in my opinion, defensively, those particular two guys are really important. Everybody else relies on them. The quicker we can get to the other nine trusting them, the better off we'll be. I'm not sure that we're there yet. I think it's going to be a work in progress. But we'll get there."
Merritt said he's especially anxious to have one player emerge. He just doesn't know who it will be yet.
"You have to have one leader back there and that's what I'm still looking for," he said. "It's elusive. I'm searching for it. If it's Landon, great. If it's Cooper, great. If it's Nat, great. If it's Mykkele [Thompson, the fifth-round pick], great. But I need to have a leader emerge out of this minicamp and emerge out of training camp."
It seemed as if Berhe was the guy for that job, but his calf injury has held him out of most of the workouts.
"Nat is plenty smart enough, but he needs to be on the field," Merritt said. "I don't need a good neighbor, I need a good football player. Him standing beside me at practice, that does us no good."
Those on the field, Merritt said, are still too slow in making their calls and checks. Especially when they go against the Giants' hurry-up offense, which is quick but nothing like the tempo that the Eagles run.
"[We've had] very slow leadership as far as making calls and controlling the defense," Merritt said. "The guys right now are very slow at making those checks."
"Right now it's a challenge," Spagnuolo said. "It's a challenge for them, it's a challenge for our patience and trust in them. But every day it gets better, I can tell you that. I do think every day there is a trust gained there."
Spagnuolo said the other nine defensive players have done a good job of allowing the young safeties to learn. The veterans at other positions have not been jumping in to make calls and have not been overriding bad ones.
"I've asked them to do that," Spagnuolo said. "I think that's important. But we've got a long ways to go."