Team Giants


Special Report

Sent: 05-03-16

Dave Klein was the Giants' beat writer for The Star-Ledger from 1961 to 1995.
He is the author of 26 books and he is one of only three sportswriters to have covered all the Super Bowls. Dave has allowed TEAM GIANTS to reprint some of his articles.

(This week, just days after the NFL draft, our expert observer Scott Landstrom analyzes the first three selections made by the Giants, first deciding that they allowed their wishes to be broadcast by others, which ultimately cost them the chance to take Jack Conklin and then Leonard Floyd. Whether this is true - and we haven't heard that other teams were breathlessly waiting for Jerry Reese's choices - there could be tons of truth to it. So Landstrom analyzes the first pick, cornerback Eli Apple, along with the next two, wide receiver Sterling Shepard and safety Darian Thompson, and promises an equally thorough analysis of the next three selections next week.)

By Scott Landstrom
Well, Giant fans, the annual "cattle call" that we term the NFL Draft has come and gone, and as usual, the Giants have made some unconventional moves. While there are many things to like about the players the Giants selected, particularly after the first round, there are a few that I take issue with, which is probably not any kind of shocking surprise to you.

With Jerry Reese having led a scouting department that has the fewest draft choices they have made since 2007 still on the roster of any team in the NFL, and with Tom Coughlin (effectively) fired after a third straight disappointing season, one got the feeling that Reese had no more latitude left ... no more excuses, and he and his team HAD to have a good draft this year to still be doing this job a year from now. Whether he met that objective or failed will be revealed to all as summer camp and the regular season unfold, but there was - in my opinion - one clear "flash of ass" that occurred before the draft even began. Which, for those of you frustrated by previous drafts, felt like "Here we go again!"

There is really no way to "sugar coat" this, so I am just going to blurt it out. The team incredibly "leaked" who their two favorite players were that were likely to be available with the No. 10 pick the Giants owned: offensive tackle Jack Conklin of Michigan State and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd from Georgia. In fact, ESPN published an article the day before the draft stating that "the Giants' coaching staff is really in favor of Leonard Floyd, but Giants' owner John Mara loves Jack Conklin."

And none of the many interviews with Giants' staffers after the first day refuted that assertion, with Reese saying about his Draft Command Center, "no one is crying in there when someone gets picked. It is just "OK, who is the next-best guy available?'"

Take all the interviews in combination with one another, and it basically adds up to tacit admission that the Giants allowed their two favorite picks to leak out into the public - where other teams were listening. As they always are.

So what happened after Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner came off the board at No. 7, and the Giants had to wait for only two more teams to draft with both their desired/leaked players still available? Simple - Tennessee coveted Conklin, and knew the Giants were quite likely going to take him due to the reports, so in order to swap their existing No. 15 selection to get Conklin with the Brown's No. 8 selection, they had to give up a third round pick in this draft, and a second rounder next year.

So it was a very costly price to move up eight slots, but given the intelligence they had on the Giants' intentions, and how much they liked Conklin as a player, they pulled the trigger, and snatched him off the board. You don't pay that kind of heinous price to move up just eight spots unless you are SURE one of the teams ahead of you is going after your guy. Which we likely were.

Well, let's not cry over "spilled milk." Once Conklin was off the board, at least we should have been able to get Floyd, our other coveted player, since Tampa Bay was set at LB with veterans, and the Bucs were rumored to be looking to add a cornerback. Right? Except the Bears, who had not traded up in the draft in over 20 years, were sitting exactly one spot behind the Giants at No. 11. And they liked Floyd ... a lot! And since the Giants' adoration of him had leaked out, Chicago leap-frogged New York to the No. 9 position, giving up a fourth round pick in order to do so, and jumping ahead of exactly ONE team. The Giants.

And there went Floyd to the Bears. Any questions how transparent our intentions were when a team gives up a fourth round pick to jump over only one team to get a coveted player? The only way this trade makes any sense at all is if they were sure New York was going to take him at No. 10, which they were - so the lack of internal secrecy and propriety basically cost the Giants both players they coveted, seeing them picked in the very two slots before Reese got to write down his pick, a "worst case scenario" if there ever was one.

Any questions why we never, ever, ever heard a "peep" out of Foxboro on who Bill Belichick's Patriots like? Well, just view this "amateur hour" two-day process for Big Blue to see why.

So that massive blunder aside, let's look at the players the Giants did draft and try to get a feel for how well Reese and his talent evaluation team "recovered" from this "flash of ass" disclosing the Giants' desired intentions pre-draft.

I will analyze, in-depth, the first three draft picks in this column, just to keep within E-GIANTS length protocol, and publish on the selections rounds 4-6 next week.

1st Round, 10th overall, Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State University: 6-1, 199

Eli Apple was a highly recruited star cornerback out of Eastern High School in Voorhees, N.J., in 2013 (only 87 miles from MetLife Stadium), and earned first team all-state designation. He broke up (a quite impressive) 24 passes his senior season, intercepted five, and was known as a strong tackler, earning him the designation by as the eighth best cornerback in the nation his senior season.

Oh, not content with that, he played two-way, catching 43 passes for 841 yards and five TDs while leading his school to the Group 5 State Semifinals before they were eliminated. He was recruited by such notable football powers as Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina State and Notre Dame before selecting Ohio State as his destination for college. As a senior, he changed his name from his original Eli Woodard to Eli Apple to honor his step-father, who had effectively been his dad since he was 2 years old, and Eli wanted to honor that.

While his four-star pedigree and national ranking as a top 10 CB in the nation as a high school senior would seem to portend instant success, Apple struggled mightily his first year at Ohio State, both on the field and in the classroom, eventually being red-shirted for that season. Over time, it became clear that Apple had an illness - iron deficiency - that caused him to be exhausted much of the time, and lacking in focus in the classroom, and intensity on the football field. With iron supplements, that issue quickly went away, and Eli had two tremendous football seasons at Ohio State for his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons.

In the first, all he did was make second team all-Big 12, win a National Championship with his teammates, and end up being voted "Most Outstanding Defensive Player" in the Fiesta Bowl National Championship game against Oregon. In fact, Apple made the game-clinching interception in the end zone of Marcus Mariota's final college pass, to the extent you can call something "game clinching" in a 42-20 blowout victory.

In his second, he saw a great reduction in the number of passes thrown his way due to his "lockdown cornerback" reputation. In his final game at Ohio State, in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, the fastest receiver in college football (Will Fuller, 4.32 in the 40 at the NFL Combine, 14 TDs and over 1,250 yards receiving in 2015, and the 21st selection of the draft in the first round by the Houston Texans) burned the other cornerback early in the game for an 81-yard TD strike, so head coach Urban Meyer switched Apple on to him in "cat coverage" ("you see that cat? You cover him no matter where he goes.") The rest of the game, Apple blanketed Fuller, running with him in space, and held him to five catches for 32 yards.

Looking at Apple's skill sets, he is a big, strong, fast athlete. In fact, his 4.40 forty time made him only the fourth defensive back (both safeties and corners) 6-1 or taller to run 4.40 or faster in the forty since 2006 - some 11 years of data! And he is not some "light in the saddle" sprinter, either!

Apple is not some 6-1, 170-pound scatback; in fact, he weighed 199 pounds at the Combine, and was up to 204 by his Pro Day. Given the kid is only 20 years old, and won't turn 21 until August, he could be still filling out with muscle, and Giant coaches think he could end up playing around 212-215 and able to jam the new generation of big receivers at the line of scrimmage. Apple's 13 reps on the bench press was just average for a cornerback, so clear room for improvement there.

The scouting report on Apple, and one of the reasons I was hoping for top-rated, but somewhat troubled Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil with this pick, is he is almost exclusively (thus far) a "press man-on-man" cover guy, and he is truly outstanding in this role, as his record against Fuller in the Fiesta Bowl attests. He also did not make a ton of plays on the ball this past year, only intercepting once last season, after getting four the previous year, but then again, he was not thrown at nearly as much after establishing his shut-down reputation.

The problem with Apple is that his performance in zone coverage has been rated by scouts as not nearly as elite, lacking in instincts on where to be, and when to break. The Giants, according to Pro Football Focus, only played "man" coverage 21 percent of the time - so we drafted an instinctive "man" cover guy into a scheme that, at least last year, was heavily "zone." The concern that jumps out is - did we draft a "round peg for a square hole"?

Then again, the 4,783 passing yards allowed by New York in 2015 is the second most in NFL history, so SOMETHING has to change, and maybe the degree of zone schemes utilized will be one of them. Of course, I am sure New York's defensive coaches are chewing at the bit to coach up an elite athlete like Apple to improve his zone coverage ability by leaps and bounds, but until he had demonstrated it, the whole "zone thing" remains a question.

Finally, Apple was at the center of the outrage and controversy when Atlanta Falcon assistant coach Marquand Manuel asked him at the NFL Combine if "he liked men," which was just off-the-charts in terms of insensitivity and political correctness. Marquand has since issued several apologies and has attended a league-mandated counseling program to bring him out of the 1930's in terms of social awareness.

Summary: A big, fast, aggressive athlete who can play with the "big boy" wide receivers in the NFC East like Pierre Garcon, Jordan Matthews and Dez Bryant in "man" coverage. He will have to improve with coaching on his "zone" technique, but that is clearly do-able, given his size and speed. Possibly a little bit of a "reach" to take Apple at 10, but since the Giants got so badly outmaneuvered for the two players they coveted, and were apparently caught flat-footed in terms of trading down, this was probably the best "fit" they were going to find if they were not going to take Tunsil at 10.

2nd Round Pick, 40th overall: Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma: 5-10", 194

Well, the bad news is, in this seeming era of the "mammoth" wide receivers, Sheppard is only 5-10. Just about every other element about this kid falls under "good news." He played at a top-flight program at Oklahoma, gathering in over 2,200 yards in receptions, and 16 TDs in his final two seasons there. His 1,288 yards in receptions his senior season was good enough for fourth in the nation among FBS programs.

Moreover, Shepard received the highest season-long Pro Football Focus rating among any FBS receiver in the nation. Selected to the Senior Bowl, he made it through the entire week in team drills without dropping a single pass out of 40 or so thrown his way, a remarkable display of hands and concentration. In a nutshell, Shepard is a "producer" who competes for the ball, is fearless across the middle, and explosive out of his cuts, earning some comparisons to elite slot receiver Julian Edelman, and wouldn't that be great news to line up someone of that kind of shifty skills in the slot opposite Odell Beckham Jr.?

Moreover, Shepard is an accomplished "hand catcher," snatching the ball out of the air in textbook fashion, which led one scout pre-draft to say "He sort of attacks the ball in space the way OBJ used to do at LSU." Wouldn't THAT be a tasty morsel if he caught the ball with the same surety and aggression as OBJ?

I loved this pick, as several prognosticators had Sheppard with a first round grade, and more than half the scouting reports I saw called him "the best route runner in the draft, and fearless going for the ball." Well, perhaps it is not surprising that Sheppard ended up this talented, as his father, Derrick Shepard, won a National Championship at Oklahoma as a senior in 1985, then went on to an NFL career that saw him win a Super Bowl ring with the Washington Redskins in 1987.

Tragically, Sterling lost his dad when he was only six years old, and his father was only 35, when Derrick had a fatal heart attack playing racquetball as a coach of the Washington Huskies.

As far as other measurables, his forty time was 4.48, which while not elite, was still good enough to place ninth among 43 wide receivers at the NFL Combine. Oh, and his bench press of 20 reps tied for best at his position among all wide receiver participants (and just by way of reference, OBJ only did seven reps at his combine, so this kid is powerful for a WR). Oh, and his explosive vertical jump of 41 inches tied for first at the WR position at the Combine.

So when the scouting reports all seem to say "he plays bigger than his stature" you take explosive quickness and add 41-inch "hops" and hands good enough to go the entire Senior Bowl practice week (with coverage by DBs) and not drop a ball, and you can see how that might be the case.

Summary: Unlike the Apple pick in the first round, whom while I thought he was an amazing athlete, still contend we could have still gotten about 5-8 spots lower, I loved this selection. I think the Giants lucked into a guy with a first round grade who has played in a big-time conference against top flight DB's and still put up unreal production. If Victor Cruz comes back even at 75 percent of what he was, this combination of OBJ, Shepard and Cruz could be the most explosive, uncoverable trio on one receiving squad in team history.

3rd Pick, 71st overall: Darian Thompson, Safety, Boise State: 6-2, 215

Very similar to the Shepard pick in terms of getting a player who has proven to be very productive at the college level, and has some excellent tape to demonstrate that. Let's start with the fact that the Giants drafted the best safety in the entire class last year in Landon Collins, but he is inherently a thumper and a "strong safety" in terms of natural position.

So New York was headed into the season hoping one of a quartet of inexperienced, oft-injured players could emerge at "free safety": Nat Berhe, Mykkele Thompson, Cooper Taylor or Bennett Jackson. I think the expression is: "a hope and a prayer" for one of these guys to develop into an NFL starter, none of whom has demonstrated that kind of capability at this juncture.

In Thompson, we have the player who merely broke Erik Weddle's all-time career interception record for safeties in the Western Athletic Conference with 19. Oh, and he led all of FBS in career college interceptions as well. So the kid is an established "ball hawk," who plays the ball in the air with exceptional anticipation, and has soft hands, and a willingness to go up and "high point" the ball (taking the ball at the highest elevation reachable, giving one an advantage over other players trying to catch it lower to the ground.)

Not just a "finesse" player, however, one scouting report said: "Has above average size, and likes to use it. Willing to take on offensive linemen in space to blow up the blocking scheme. Tackles like a torpedo, sometimes train-wrecking the ball carrier, and sometimes being juked into missing altogether."

Obviously, Giants coaches like the aggression and willingness of Thompson to stick his nose in there, especially against the behemoths playing major college football on the offensive line these days, but want to refine his technique to get him to "break down" just before contact with a ball carrier, trading off some highlight reel demolitions for a higher tackle-rate to get the ball carrier to the ground.

Thompson was rated the fifth best safety in college football by Pro Football Focus, but even that is understating his value. Two of the four players above him, S'ua Cravens of USC and Jeremy Cash of Duke, are both projected to be linebackers in the NFL. So that moves Thompson up to the third best prospect projected to be an NFL safety. Thompson was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the country.

Oh, and then there was his disastrous NFL Combine, which definitely helped the Giants get this player all the way down at the 71st selection. Thompson, before a single event was held at the Combine, showed up claiming to have food poisoning (which five other players also contracted at the Combine) and was down seven pounds from his Senior Bowl weight by weigh-in day. So most scouting services used his Combine weight of 208, vs his playing weight, and measured weight at the Senior Bowl, of 215 pounds.

So sufficiently ill, Thompson ran a disastrous 40 at the Combine of 4.69 seconds, fifth slowest of all DBs tested, and his stock dropped (thankfully for Big Blue) like a rock. However, at his Pro Day one month later at Boise State, Thompson was back to 212 and ran the forty in 4.53 seconds, dropping a full SIXTH of a second off his Combine time, and moving from the fifth slowest sprint speed, to tie for fourth fastest, so whichever food vendor poisoned Thompson during the Combine did them a huge favor, albeit not for the poor kid.

One scout was overheard by a Sports Illustrated reporter as saying during Senior Bowl practices: "Thompson has been the best DB on either roster this week." Additionally, the omnipresent (this time of year) Mel Kiper Jr. said of Darian: "He shows great range and instincts and has a nose for the ball and tremendous ball skills." Two scouts gave him a first round grade, and for a player the Giants got in the middle of the third round, AND filled a glaring need, you have to like this selection.

Oh, and Thompson is an exceptionally smart kid as well, which helps calling coverages from free safety, with a Wunderlic score of 29, the second highest score for a dB in this draft.

Summary: Like Shepard, this is a kid who has reams of game tape showing him making plays all over the field. He is an absolutely perfect "bookend" compliment to the more physical, not as free-ranging Landon Collins, and whether it is this coming season, or thereafter, these two could be manning the deep secondary for years to come for the Giants.

As mentioned, coaches love his desire and physicality versus the run, but just have to teach him not to "gamble" for the train-wreck hit quite so often, and risk whiffing on contact. One could make the argument that the Giants haven't had a year-in, year-out ball hawking safety in their backfield (with all due attribute to the one-year wonder that was Stevie Brown in 2012) since Spider Lockhart in the 1970s, so there is tremendous upside for Thompson.

So there you have it for the first three rounds. Drastically and embarrassingly out-maneuvered as a direct result of leaks of information out of their own camp that cost them Conklin and Floyd, then taking Apple (who may end up being great, but they could have gotten him lower) probably five spots too high since Reese had obviously not played out the "worst case scenario" of two trade-ups for the two spots just before him, with opponents snatching both targeted players.

Then, to save their "Top Three draft grade," two outstanding picks that matched their "best available" mantra with significant team needs in Shepard and Thompson. I will break down the final three selections next week.

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Special Report

The Draft - First Pick
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The Draft
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Jerry Reese - Draft
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Free Agent Spending


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