The Giants spent almost eight months trying to find a second starting cornerback. It seemed as if they finally did in the last game of this season. And he had been right there on the roster the whole time.
Julian Love, the second-year player who had been lining up at safety since he came into the NFL, stepped in at outside cornerback against the Cowboys, played every defensive snap in the game, and may have proved himself worthy of being penciled in at the position when the Giants regroup in the spring.
"I think I showed them some great stuff," Love said on Tuesday. "They know that now."
Going up against Dallas’ talented receivers, his teammates agreed.
"He looked like he was up for the Thorpe Award again, like he was at Notre Dame," safety Logan Ryan said of Love’s performance. "It was like his old Notre Dame days again. There was a lot of him."
In college Love was one of the top corners in the country and a finalist for the Thorpe Award in 2018. The Giants, though, saw him as a safety. That’s where he trained as a rookie and, once Jabrill Peppers was injured late in the 2019 season, where he finally played. This season he was mostly a safety, too. But he never lost his desire to be lined up in man coverage on the outside.
"Corner, I knew, was something I always kind of had in my back pocket," he said.
When James Bradberry had to miss the Browns game because of close contact with a chiropractor who tested positive for COVID-19, Love stepped in and played the position a bit, rotating with rookie Xavier McKinney. It was, he said, "kind of a last-minute thing" given Bradberry’s sudden lack of availability.
Against the Cowboys in Week 17, though, he had a whole week to prepare for the test. He almost had an interception and the Giants’ secondary held Dallas without a passing touchdown.
The knock on Love that made most teams in the draft process — and the Giants, the team that eventually drafted him — project him as a safety is his lack of top-tier speed. Love, of course, said he doesn’t feel that’s an issue.
"If you tell me to run straight, I’m not going to run that great of a time," he said. "I’m not going to be that fast and that’s kind of what my Combine numbers were [4.5 in the 40] . . . But I think my game speed is something that has always been a highlight of my game. I was able to do what I had to do, especially against Dallas’ receivers, and what I’ve prided myself on since my college days, since growing up, coming out of Chicago, is my physicality of playing football."
He wound up with seven tackles.
"Corner isn’t usually seen as a position that can tackle, can hit, and so I just tried to make sure in this game [against the Cowboys] I’m going to tackle, I’m going to help seal the edge for us," he said. "I was able to play fast, play without thinking, play with anticipation. I think that’s how we really limited those receivers."
Before the Giants landed on Love in that spot, they went through nearly a half dozen other options with varying degrees of success. DeAndre Baker seemed poised to start the year there, but his legal issues ended his Giants career after just one season. Sam Beal was the next man up, but he opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. When the regular season started, Corey Ballentine was lined up with the starters. He was replaced by Isaac Yiadom, who was replaced by Ryan Lewis until he got hurt. Then it was back to Yiadom again.
It seemed as if he had locked down the job, but Yiadom’s missed tackles against the Ravens in Week 16 meant the Giants wanted someone out there they could trust to bring ball carriers down. Love was that guy.
"It was pretty fun," Love said. "Kind of went back to some of the roots I established in college. Yeah, I enjoyed it."
If there were a next game coming up immediately for the Giants, Love might get another start. But between now and the fall there will be plenty of moves made in the draft and free agency. The Giants may wind up bringing in a cornerback to play that spot. Love may go back to safety, where the position is also crowded with the anticipated returns of Ryan, McKinney and Peppers.
So when Love comes back for his third NFL season, what will he be?
"I’ve been talking to the coaches," he said. "Kind of that versatility role for me is what will happen going forward as well. Being able to play a lot of positions and then we’ll see how the offseason goes. I’m gonna keep working to try to really establish myself in a role, but right now, my role is the guy who can go get it anywhere for us."
At least now, if the Giants do find themselves in a place where they need to find a cornerback whether it be for a series, a game, or an entire season, they won’t have to spend eight months looking.