NEW YORK -- You can see it when speaking to New York Giants players, coaches and management this year. Their eyes widen ever so slightly when talking about the defense. Their tone changes just a touch.
The consensus seems to be that this can be a special group.
No wonder the team and players wanted to keep the unit together after allowing the second-fewest points in the NFL last season. The optimism is so high and the potential so unlimited that linebacker Keenan Robinson turned down multiyear offers from other teams to return to the Giants this offseason.
Robinson signed a one-year deal worth $3 million as a free agent in March. Betting on himself to remain healthy and have another productive season wasn’t a difficult decision.
“Not really,” Robinson said Tuesday night at the 24th annual United Way of New York City Gridiron Gala, where teammate Mark Herzlich was honored. “Other teams offered multiple-year deals, but I’m still young. A one-year deal is fine. I’m still 27, so, like I said, right now I’m in a great situation. So I wanted to be a part of it. I was willing to make it work and be flexible as far as that goes.”
The fit is part of what made the Giants’ offer so enticing. Robinson was a key piece to the team's defense last season. He wasn’t technically a starter, but as the nickel linebacker it didn’t matter. Robinson played 70 percent of the defensive snaps last season and was an asset against the pass.
Now he’s back in what will likely amount to a similar role in 2017. Even though starting middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard remains unsigned, B.J. Goodson is expected to step in as the middle linebacker in base formations.
If that happens, Robinson will remain the nickel linebacker, saving his body on traditional running downs. He played 16 games in that role for the first time in his career last season.
The improvement of the Giants' defense (32nd overall in 2015 to 10th last season), the playoff appearance and his role all played into Robinson’s decision to return.
“First of all, it’s a great situation -- a good team, we have unfinished business, we feel we can pick up right where we left off and hopefully we can do even better than last year,” Robinson said.
The Giants (11-5) finished second in the NFC East last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Their defense, which allowed 15 points per game during the second half of the regular season, returns nine of 11 starters.
Sheppard and Johnathan Hankins, who signed a lucrative free-agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts, are the only starters from last season not on the roster. The Giants drafted Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson as Hankins’ replacement in the second round last month. They didn't re-sign Sheppard in part because they drafted Goodson in the fourth round last year.
Robinson and the rest of the defense are looking to build off last season's success.
“We did pretty well,” Robinson said. “The only thing is what we did last year is gone. If we don’t follow with the same stats or better ... so for us it’s not starting over but making sure we pick up where we left off to try to get back to that high level of play so that first game we’re ready so we don’t have any setbacks from last year.
“Instead, only going forward to be a top-five defense in all aspects, not just one or two. Like last year we were pretty good in red zone defense and third-down defense but didn’t force enough turnovers. We didn’t have enough sacks. There are things we can improve upon, but we want to be the total package.”
As Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins explained last month, the goal is for the defense to be ranked No. 1 in the league this season. There seems to be a genuine belief it can happen.
That potential helped lure Robinson back to the Giants for another season, even on a one-year deal. The belief seems to be: Play well and stay healthy again, and everything else will take care of itself.