East Rutherford, N.J. — As the Giants head into their mandatory minicamp, one of the biggest keys to determining just how far this team can go will be the improvement of a handful of young players on the defensive side of the ball.
Perhaps chief among those is edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The second-year player out of Oregon had a solid first season for the Giants, starting 14 games and registering 49 tackles, four sacks, and six tackles for a loss. However, both the team and Thibodeaux himself know that there is another level for him.
“I think he’s so self-motivated, and he studied so much tape on his own like all the great players around this league do,” said outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins before Tuesday’s practice, who mentioned Thibodeaux spent the off-season watching tape of his bad plays in an attempt to learn from them.
“You don’t have to go far to find his good plays, right? They’re all over the place, and for him to dig deep and say, ‘Hey, how can I do this better? This was a game where, you know, I felt like I could have done this instead of that.’ That really shows he’s conscientious and he really wants to get better and eliminate those things”
Part of that evolution for Thibodeaux has reportedly been a focus on adding more of a strength element to his pass-rushing game.
“All of our guys as they continue to grow and evolve as rushers it’s using every tool in their toolbox. So, you know, if you have a great speed rush to tackle is going to try to take that away,” said Wilkins. “So whatever the tackles giving you, you need to develop the tools to counter that and take the next thing.”
A big part of that evolution for Thibodeaux is finally having a full offseason to work on his game.
“Really that rookie year, there is no offseason,” explained Wilkins. “That first year you go from draft to this to that, so getting that chance this year to really study himself. It’s been in every facet of his game. He comes in with great questions, saying, ‘Hey, how can we attack this better? What can I do here?’ And he’s really, he has such a humble approach to it.”
“We’ve been here, what, 10 weeks in the spring. Those 10 weeks he’s attacked every one of those.”
While much of the focus is understandably on Thibodeaux since he was the Giants’ first-round pick last year, the team is also optimistic about the development of a few other young players on the defensive side of the ball.
One of which is second-year linebacker Azeez Ojulari, who is projected to start opposite Thibodeaux.
The former Georgia Bulldog battled injuries for much of last year, being limited to just seven games; however, Wilkins said that Ojulari is “moving around really well right now. He’s worked really hard in the offseason.”
Even with the limited reps on the field last year, the Giants were pleased with what they saw from the 22-year-old
“He did a lot of things really well last year,” explained Wilkins. “He had a great training camp, obviously had to battle through some things but when you look at it… he had one of the highest sacks per rush in the league.”
That gives the team hope that a fully healthy season from Ojulari across from Thibodeaux could make the Giants pretty disruptive.
“He’s healthy,” said Wilkins, “and we’re excited for where he’s gonna take this thing.”
The Giants are also excited about the development of third-year defensive back Nick McCloud.
While McCloud will be in his third NFL season, last year was his first with any meaningful NFL snaps. Despite playing most of his career at cornerback, the Giants coaches saw tools that they believe could make McCloud an impact safety and decided to change his position over the offseason.
“Last year for us, he played the dime role, which is really almost a safety body, safety job,” explained defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson, “so we thought let’s look at him at safety this offseason.”
“We like him for his toughness, we like him for his competitiveness, you know, and thought he would help us at the safety position…we were blitzing the nickle and now we need a guy who can cover that slot receiver, so we like him for that.”
The versatility that McCloud brings as both a corner with the ability to move to safety is something the Giants covet in their reserve defensive backs.
“The more flexibility if you’re not a starter you bring the better for us,” said Henderson. “You take nine guys to a game. If two of them are hurt, you’re running out of people, and having guys that can play multiple positions absolutely brings value.”
While the Giants are optimistic about the growth of their young defenders, it’s still early days.
“Nobody’s really playing the way that we want to play; we’re playing the way we have to play right now” admitted Henderson. ” So right now it’s hard for one guy really to stand out over the others because of it, but they’re all competing and doing a great job.”
As the practices go on, the younger players are going to get more and more reps to show the coaches what they’re capable of.
“The more reps we can get them, the better,” said Henderson. “We’re going to get just keep throwing them out there and get some reps so that they can figure it out.”
If they can, this New York defense could take a major step forward.