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How good can Giants secondary be? They're aiming for the top spot

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When opposing quarterbacks survey the field against the New York Giants this season they could be faced with an interesting dilemma. Where can they reasonably throw the football?

On one side, there is a Pro Bowl cornerback from last year in Janoris Jenkins. He could be flanked by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-team All-Pro last year. On the other side is 2016 first-round pick Eli Apple with top-level talent. And he is expected to make a jump in his second season.

Behind them is All-Pro safety Landon Collins, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate last year. He's playing alongside Darian Thompson, a promising second-year safety whose skillset as a natural centerfielder is supposed to perfectly complement Collins.

With that kind of lineup awaiting their opposition this season, quarterbacks that face the Giants might want to be a wee-bit careful with the football.

The Giants secondary, at least in talent, ranks near the top of the league. They're expected to be among a group that includes the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs challenging the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos for what most seem to consider the best secondaries in the NFL.

"I ain't a talking kind of guy," said Rodgers-Cromartie, the respected sage of the Giants secondary. "You hear talking because you're compared to Seattle, Denver. I leave that with them. I'm telling you we're up there with them though."

Collins also believes the Giants should be in the conversation. They have the talent, production, knowledge and experience. They were a major part of a Giants defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL last season.

They still have a ways to go though. The Seahawks and Broncos have won Super Bowls in recent years. They were ranked eighth and first, respectively, in pass defense last season.

The group known as the NYPD (New York Pass Defense) was 23rd in the NFL last season in pass defense. They allowed 59 pass plays of 20-plus yards, tied for second most in the NFL.

Many of those big plays came against the linebackers and backup defensive backs, but it reflects poorly on the secondary as a whole. They can't be considered one of the best secondaries in the league allowing that many big plays. It's why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulolo has put an emphasis defensively this season on limiting the big play.

The Giants know their defense and secondary still have room to grow, a scary proposition given last season's results.

"We're still working to be the best secondary," said Collins, who listed Seattle, Denver, Giants and Chiefs as his top four secondaries. "We're not the best secondary yet."

They know the talent is there for them to grow into the best secondary in the league. Three of the Giants' top five defensive backs are 23 years and under. Jenkins is 28 and Rodgers-Cromartie is 31.

The core of Seattle and Denver's secondary are bordering on 30, or in some cases over 30. Their reigns are inevitably coming to an end soon while the Giants appear to be on the rise. It's their second year together.

"We still have some young guys in the back," said Collins, who turned 23 earlier this year. "I consider myself a young guy."

Rodgers-Cromartie knows a good secondary when he sees one. He played on some quality defenses, especially when he joined the Arizona Cardinals as a rookie in 2008. There he was part of a defensive backfield that included five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and three-time Pro Bowl safety Antrel Rolle.

The Cardinals reached the Super Bowl during his rookie season with that group.

Rodgers-Cromartie thinks the two defensive back groups are similar in talent, with the Giants having more youth.

"We have some talent back there, man. We have guys that can play multiple positions," said Rodgers-Cromartie, who even added free safety to his resume this preseason. "This is the first time since my Arizona days -- we have safeties, we have corners, we have nickels, guys that can be interchangeable."

This Giants group seems to have it all, including a shutdown corner. Jenkins followed teams' No. 1 receivers around the field last season with impressive results. He held Dallas' Dez Bryant to two catches for 18 yards and a fumble in their two meetings combined.

Jenkins, 28, earned his first Pro Bowl selection in his first season with the Giants. What has impressed his teammates is what cornerback Michael Hunter called a "crazy" ability to know what is coming before it happens. This cerebral part of Jenkins' game surprised the Giants upon his arrival.

"I was expecting a jumping corner that would jump routes," Collins said. "That is what I was expecting. Everybody was telling you he was about to rob some stuff, but he also gets beat. I was like, 'All right, going to have to work on it.'

"But, nah, he's more of a knowledge guy. If he sees something … he picks out a route, he sees the concepts, he knows what is going on. It's natural for him to do that."

Jenkins has been a welcome addition to that secondary, which was among the league's worst in 2015. The Giants finished 32nd in pass defense with Collins as a rookie, Rodgers-Cromartie on and off the field with injuries, and before Jenkins signed and Apple and Thompson were drafted.

Rather quickly the Giants rebuilt their secondary. Jenkins was signed in the 2016 offseason, Apple and Thompson were drafted a month later and Rodgers-Cromartie successfully made the transition into the slot last summer. All the pieces seem to fit, and now they're expecting to be even better in their second season together.

It a major part of the Giants optimism this summer. Opposing quarterbacks should be on notice. So should those teams vying for the mythical title of NFL's best secondary.

"Our talent is not going to be unnoticed," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "We're definitely somebody you want to worry about when you're throwing that ball."