Part 11 in a series analyzing the New York Giants.
The one thing you notice about the kicking specialists the Giants employ is they look, well, like football players. Aldrick Rosas is a strongly built 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, and Riley Dixon is the same weight and taller, at 6-4.
Dixon is coming off an excellent year as the Giants’ punter and was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $8.7 million. Rosas, after a sensational 2018 season as the place-kicker, was not as effective in 2019 and was brought back on the one-year restricted free agent tender of $3.2 million.
For the first time since 2007, the special teams will not be anchored by Zak DeOssie, who set a standard of consistency that every long snapper dreams about. The less heard and said about the long snapper, the better, and DeOssie, for 13 years, navigated through coaching changes and players exiting and entering the locker room.
The replacement is Casey Kreiter, a veteran of four seasons with the Broncos, and the transition should be smooth. Kreiter was the long snapper at Iowa for 40 games and for 58 games with the Broncos. In 2018, he snapped the ball back 146 times without incident and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
What the Giants need to find is their leader on special teams, as DeOssie served as a team captain every year since 2011.
Given his background coaching in college and for eight years with the Patriots, new head coach Joe Judge will be extra-demanding when it comes to the special teams operation. He retained Thomas McGaughey, who has a long NFL history on special teams — with the Giants for Tom Coughlin and as the coordinator for the Jets, 49ers and Panthers before returning to the Giants in 2018 as part of Pat Shurmur’s staff.
“I will be involved with all three sides of the ball,’’ Judge said, “but T-Mac is the special teams coordinator here.’’
With a new head coach to impress, this likely is a season of decision for Rosas. He looked like the next big thing at kicker when he made 32 of his 33 field-goal attempts in 2018. He looked like just another kicker in 2019, going 12-for-17 on field goals and missing four extra points. Leg strength is not the problem with Rosas. Far from it. Judge was accustomed to superior kicking during his time with the Patriots, upping the ante even more for Rosas.
There should not be much of an argument if Dixon was named as the Giants player having the best season in 2019. He averaged 46.1 yards on his 69 punts, put 29 punts down inside the 20-yard line and, remarkably, just two of his punts went for touchbacks.
The return game was not bad last season. Corey Ballentine as a rookie averaged 25.6 yards on 10 kickoff returns, and Golden Tate averaged 9.7 yards on 10 punt returns.
It will be interesting to see if Judge and McCaughey turn Jabrill Peppers loose. He was a dynamo with the ball in his hands in college at Michigan and handled those duties his first two years in the NFL with the Browns. As a full-time strong safety, the Giants might want to mitigate the risk factor with Peppers, who is coming off a fracture in his back suffered late last season.
Darius Slayton did not do much (21-yard average) on his nine kickoff returns as a rookie. He figures to be more involved on offense in year No. 2. Corey Coleman was re-signed, and his most direct pathway to the roster is staying healthy (that has been a problem) and proving he can be a difference-maker in the return game. Coleman showed some good stuff in 2018, averaging 26 yards on 23 kickoff returns for the Giants.
Javon Leake went undrafted out of Maryland as a running back, and he adds value in the return game, something that attracted the Giants. He was named the Rodgers-Dwight Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year after averaging 26.8 yards per kick return last season. His two touchdown returns tied Torrey Smith’s career Maryland record.
Cody Core was re-signed based on his prowess on coverage units and veteran Nate Ebner was signed after exceling with the Patriots.
Other than Rosas’ downturn, the Giants special teams in 2019 were the most consistent unit on an inconsistent team. With stability at coaching and in the kicking game, Judge’s arrival and some upgrades in the return game, this has the potential to be a top-five unit.