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Gary Brightwell, a running back taken by Giants in sixth round, could be next big special-teams player

Gary Brightwell #37 of the Giants runs drills

Gary Brightwell #37 of the Giants runs drills during mini camp at Quest Diagnostics Training Center on May 15, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Credit: Mike Stobe

Urgency. Physicality. A heightened sense of intensity.

Those are some of the intangible qualities Joe Judge said go into producing a great special teams player. As for the physical toolbox, he said the most valuable asset is speed.

"It's a space game," Judge said. "Some guys are size-speed players, some guys are smaller, more athletic speed players, but you want to make sure they have an advantage in space in single blocks and being able to beat double teams."

Judge, who coached that unit for nearly a decade with the Patriots, has seen plenty of the best specialists. And not just guys who dabble in it as a side gig, but players who have managed to forge entire careers as gunners and blockers. From when he first arrived in New England and worked with Larry Izzo through the bulk of his career there coaching Matthew Slater, Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner (who be brought with him to the Giants last year), Judge has had a chance to help mold some of the league’s top special teams performers of the past few decades.

Now, he may have his hands on the next one.

The Giants selected running back Gary Brightwell in the sixth round of April’s draft, but while the former Arizona player appears on the roster with an offensive position next to his name it’s the potential he has on special teams that appealed so much to Judge and the Giants.

Those qualities shared by all of the Pro Bowlers and captains and Super Bowl champs that Judge was able to groom in New England? He says Brightwell has them.

"Gary has enough traits to work with and build with," Judge said on Saturday.

That was clear to him the first time he saw Brightwell play. It isn’t often a coach remembers the very first time he comes across a player who winds up being a sixth-round pick, but Judge recalled with amazing clarity the way he was introduced to Brightwell in the lead-up to the draft.

"Tom Quinn, Thomas McGaughey and I were sitting in the staff room on a Saturday about 5:30 in the morning and Tom Quinn brought his name up and we watched his kick game and this dude was flying down the field," Judge said. "It was early enough that it woke you up and you really got excited about watching him. He's a guy that jumps out from his skill set. You are always looking for good versatility and depth at those positions, running back and the kicking game."

Special teams has become so important to the Giants that Brightwell may have to wait his turn on the depth chart to prove his value there in the NFL. What is normally a launching point for rookies on this team is a logjam of polished veterans who are well-versed in the fourth-down plays. One of the first players the Giants signed in free agency this spring was "fullback" Cullen Gillaspia (his position listed in quotes here since he has touched the ball just once in his two-year career in the league with 20 snaps on offense and 390 on special teams over 25 games). The Giants are also expecting Ebner to return to the roster after he spends the summer competing with the U.S. National Rugby Team in the Olympics.

"Technically Nate is a free agent right now, but we fully intend for him to be a member of the Giants," Judge said on Saturday. "He's a very important part of this team and we look forward to getting him back."

Maybe one day Brightwell will be as valuable as Ebner or Slater or Bolden.

Maybe.

"He's a long way from some of the top players in the last few decades and there's a reason those guys have made a living out of it and won a lot of games and been successful," Judge said. "But he definitely has the speed and the size to factor in and go out there and give himself an opportunity. At this point it's just an opportunity. We'll see what he does with it."

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