What Giants’ OTA position battles tell us about who’s in, and out

Taking his cue from mentor Bill Belichick, Brian Daboll would rather host a self-deprecating comedy hour than discuss where individual players fit on a depth chart 15 weeks before the regular season begins.

So, that resistance is what makes sideline access to offseason practices like Wednesday’s player-voluntary OTA so valuable. It provides an unfettered look at the first-, second- and third-team pecking orders on both sides of the ball — plus which players might earn a roster spot based on their tie-breaking level of involvement on special teams — to help determine which positions still scream out in need of added depth.

It is important to note that the depth chart can slightly change from one practice to another so that competing players get a level playing field — as many receivers as possible catching passes from starting quarterback Daniel Jones, for example — and versatile players get a chance to stake a claim at multiple spots so the coaching staff understands how a reshuffling might look when injury inevitably strikes.

With that in mind, here is an early look at where things stand in eight position battles that The Post will be keeping an eye on during the final three weeks of the offseason program, culminating with mandatory minicamp (June 13-15).

Wide receiver: Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton and Parris Campbell (slot) were the starters during OTAs last week, with Wan’Dale Robinson and Sterling Shepard still sidelined in recovery from season-ending ACL tears. Rookie Jalin Hyatt is earning his reps on the second team.

As he was last summer before suffering an ACL injury, Collin Johnson appeared in OTAs to be one of Daniel Jones’ favorite targets.
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That’s six spots if everyone is healthy, which rarely happens. But Collin Johnson — who was having a great training camp before a torn Achilles last August — picked up where he left off, maintaining a rapport with Jones. And veteran Jamison Crowder isn’t going to go quietly.

Who is the odd man out? There appears to be an overload in the slot (Campbell, Shepherd, Robinson, Hyatt, Crowder).

Slot cornerback: Is it 38-game veteran Darnay Holmes’ job to lose? Two factors working against Holmes: The Giants just keep getting younger at the position — drafting five corners in the last three years and signing intriguing undrafted prospect Leonard Johnson — and they could gain needed salary-cap relief by cutting Holmes ($2.7 million against a minimal dead cap).

Maybe Holmes takes a pay cut to stick, like Slayton did last season? Cor’Dale Flott is Holmes’ biggest threat, but there is an internal belief that Flott — drafted to play the slot — might be better suited on the perimeter after the game moved too fast for him inside last year as a rookie.

Safety: It wasn’t a big surprise to see veteran Bobby McCain working as the starter in the departed Julian Love’s place alongside Xavier McKinney during the first week of OTAs. But the firmness of his grip on the spot won’t be known until his top two challengers — Jason Pinnock and Dane Belton, both of whom made five starts last season — return from injuries. Pinnock (1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) showed a knack for momentum-shifting plays. Belton was a fourth-round draft pick. McCain also is in the mix to replace Love as the personal protector on the punt team.

Jason Pinnock #27 of the New York Giants breaks up a pass intended for Curtis Samuel #10 of the Washington Commanders during the second quarter at FedExField on December 18, 2022 in Landover, Maryland.
Claimed off waivers late last summer, safety Jason Pinnock regularly made decisive plays in his first season with the Giants.
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Inside linebacker: As good of a job as the Giants did addressing some major needs, not every hole could be filled in one offseason. And it was jarring to see how thin the Giants are behind prize free-agent addition Bobby Okereke.

Jarrad Davis, who was on the Lions practice squad most of last season until the Giants signed him and started him in the playoffs, was still a first-teamer. Micah McFadden was the top backup, followed by primarily special-teamers Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown.

Darrian Beavers, who was pushing to start as a rookie in training camp, is still recovering from a torn ACL that ended his season before it began.

Inside linebacker was a nightmarish carousel last season, which could make Okereke the player most needed to stay healthy on defense.

Center: Right before selecting John Michael Schmitz in the second round, Daboll described him privately in the draft room as someone who “could start at center.” But Daboll isn’t going to hand a starting job to Schmitz — or any other rookie. So, he will make him earn it against Ben Bredeson, which might not be too difficult considering Bredeson is not a center by trade.

Left guard: A case could be made that all of Bredeson’s snaps at center are adding to his versatility so the Giants are not caught shorthanded if Schmitz is injured. Another case could be made that those reps are taking away from Bredeson’s case to win the left guard job against Josh Ezeudu and Shane Lemieux.

Consider Bredeson the favorite because Ezeudu’s run-blocking is way ahead of his pass-blocking and Lemieux has to prove he can stay healthy after playing in just two games over the last two seasons due to knee and toe injuries.

New York Giants guard Ben Bredeson (68) points out a defender during an NFL preseason game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants on August 11, 2022, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Despite facing competition for a starting role at multiple spots on the offensive line, Ben Bredeson’s experience and pass-blocking skills should keep him in the lineup.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Running back: When Saquon Barkley signs a contract, he will reclaim the job, but it might not be until the first week of September if no multi-year extension is worked out before the July 17 Crumpe facing all franchise-tagged players.

Until then, there is ample opportunity for Matt Breida to prove he still can handle a heavier workload — 129 carries with three different teams over the last three seasons after three 100-plus carry seasons with the 49ers (2017-19). Rookie Eric Gray probably has the best chance to prove he is worthy of taking away some of Barkley’s third-down touches and staking a claim for 2024 that he can be the cheap late-round-drafted starter that most teams covet at the position.

Swing tackle: Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal are supposed to be the offensive line bookends for years to come. But what if the standout Thomas — who has a history of ankle injuries — misses some time? Or if Neal continues to struggle like he did as a rookie?

Who is the top backup? Last season’s fill-in, Tyre Phillips, (five starts) surprisingly appeared to be behind the second-team duo of former draft pick Matt Peart and Korey Cunningham last week. This could be a position where the Giants look to add a veteran cut elsewhere before the start of the regular season.

Want to catch a game? The Giants schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

Can you hear me now?

It’s not easy being green when playing for Big Blue.

The Giants currently are practicing with multiple defensive players (instead of one) simultaneously wearing helmets with headsets connected to the coaches. Those communication helmets are identified by green dots.

Xavier McKinney #29 of the New York Giants lines up before a play during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Xavier McKinney, who quarterbacked the Giants’ defense through the first half of last season, is eager to keep the job this fall.
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No, this is not a cheating scam borrowed from Belichick’s Patriots. The idea is to evaluate who functions best as an in-game signal-caller and to get others comfortable with the assignment in case that top option is sidelined.

One thing that can make the Giants rest easy: Safety Xavier McKinney wants to keep the job.

“It’s a select few guys,” McKinney said. “Our focus is just having communication between everybody, being on point, and we’re just taking it day to day. All 11 are communicating.”

McKinney was the Giants’ defensive quarterback for the first half of last season, before he was injured in an ATV accident. Fellow safety Julian Love took over in McKinney’s absence, but Love is now with the Seahawks.

Linebacker Bobby Okereke said he wore the headset “a couple games in the past” with the Colts but was not the primary signal-caller. Is he expecting the added responsibility after signing a four-year, $40 million contract in free agency?

“I don’t expect to,” Okereke said. “Whatever is best for the team. I don’t have an ego about it.”

One thing that puts Okereke strongly in the mix to be the voice of the defense is that he is expected to be a rare three-down linebacker. Okereke allowed -2.3 receptions over expected as the most-targeted linebacker in the league (78) last season, per NextGenStats.

“I’m big, I’m fast and I’m long,” Okereke said of what allows him to cover athletic tight ends, “but then just from a mental processing standpoint, understanding how offenses are trying to attack you and where I fit in coverage with my teammates. Just kind of putting it all together.”

Bobby Okereke #58 of the Indianapolis Colts defends against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half at AT&T Stadium on December 4, 2022 in Arlington, Texas.
Though new to the Giants system, Bobby Okereke could be a good candidate to wear the defensive headset on the field given how much time he’ll be on the field.
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Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale typically has entrusted the role to safeties because he prefers the top-down viewpoint that they possess rather than asking linebackers to communicate in front and behind. The safeties pass the call to the linebackers, who pass it to the defensive linemen like a game of telephone but same as if they had heard the words transmitted into their own ear.

Tony Jefferson — who followed Martindale from the Ravens to the Giants last season before recently retiring — and Chuck Clark — who just signed with the Jets after becoming disenchanted with the Ravens in the post-Martindale era — were two of Martindale’s safety choices.

C.J. Mosley — regarded as one of the smartest players in the league — was the last linebacker regularly entrusted by Martindale, from 2016-18 before he left the Ravens for the Jets.

Martindale mentioned in the past that Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence are both “smart” enough to wear the green dot if they were on the field for every snap (not a reality for any defensive tackle).

“I’ve always thought that to survive in this league you have to look at everything, and just because something’s always been done one way, it doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to do it,” Martindale said last August. “That could change week to week, who we have wear the green dot.”

Asked and answered

Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:

Are the Giants real contenders in the DeAndre Hopkins market?

DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with a touchdown pass in the first quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at State Farm Stadium on November 27, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona.
As much as the Giants might like to see DeAndre Hopkins in their uniform, the club’s economic restraints make it likely the former Cardinals wideout is playing elsewhere this fall.
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Timing is everything in free agency. If Hopkins was released by the Cardinals in March instead of May, then he would’ve made a lot of sense for the Giants. Actually, there still is no denying that he still would be their top wideout after his surprising surge (79.7 yards per game) over the second half of last season.

But the Giants are building an offense around tight end Darren Waller as their top pass-catcher, with shifty tackle-breakers around him. It’s similar to the Chiefs’ philosophy, understanding that Waller is not Travis Kelce (but he was the next-best thing in 2019-20) and nobody is imitating game-breaker Tyreek Hill.

General manager Joe Schoen might very well make a call to gauge Hopkins’ interest out of due diligence, but I suspect that he would very quickly learn that the Giants ($6.1 million in salary-cap space) would have to short other areas to come up with the kind of contract that Hopkins is seeking. Taking that approach would fly in the face of the patience that Schoen has shown so far in his rebuild.

If Hopkins is going to take a discount, he is going to do it to play with an MVP-caliber quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson and chase a Super Bowl ring.

What will happen to Leonard Williams’ contract?

Leverage is everything in contract restructures. Williams has had all the leverage over the Giants from the moment then-general manager Dave Gettleman made an ill-advised trade for a pending free agent in 2019. The Giants have paid $63 million to Williams since then, per overthecap.com.

Now, Williams carries the third-highest 2023 salary cap charge ($32.2 million) in the NFL, behind Mahomes and Ryan Tannehill. The Giants have the ability to leave the contract alone and let Williams play it out before 2024 free agency.

New York Giants defensive end Leonard Williams #99, celebrates as he walks off the field after the Giants beat the Vikings 31-24.
Leonard Williams has been a crucial piece to the Giants’ defense, and also one of the most expensive such pieces in the NFL.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Or, if the Giants want to be as ruthless with Williams as his agents have been in squeezing out every penny over the years, now would be the time to propose a pay cut. The Giants have Dexter Lawrence signed for the long-term and added veterans Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson to solidify the interior run defense.

There is a belief in the NFL that if you are going to propose a pay cut, you better be willing to cut the player if he says no. Otherwise, you have created bad blood for nothing.

Well, the Giants might not be at the point where they can run the risk of cutting Williams for $12 million in cap savings — he is still one of the three-best players on their defense — but Williams also likely wouldn’t be able to find his $18 million salary in 2023 elsewhere at this point.

This far into free agency, money dries up, as cornerback James Bradberry learned when he was cut last May by the Giants and settled for a below-average deal ($7.25 million) with the Eagles. It took unique circumstances for Odell Beckham Jr. to land $15 million per year from the Ravens in April.

Off a season in which his sacks plummeted to 2.5 and he missed four games with injuries for the first time in a nine-year career, Williams might command $12 million on the open market at this point, one independent agent estimated to The Post. So, the Giants could propose a pay cut down to $13 million, with a chance to earn some back through incentives.

Cutting players when they are at their most vulnerable — between the draft and training camp — is not an ideal way of doing business for a front office in terms of building a reputation, so maybe nothing happens. But business is business.

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