Last year was a big year for New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle. He was named a defensive team captain. He made it to the Pro Bowl. He seemed to take yet another step forward in his surprising mid-career evolution as a reliable leader in the locker room. And on the field, he was one of the most reliable performers the Giants had on either side of the ball.
But to hear his position coach tell it, Rolle is still developing as a safety and is likely to get even better this year and beyond.
"Antrel is just now starting to understand and develop as a safety," Giants safeties coach Dave Merritt said Thursday. "He was a corner, as we all know, when he was drafted out of Miami. Now all of a sudden he's a safety, and he's starting to understand the position more so than ever. Before, as far as formations, he didn't see formations. He didn't really see the route concepts. Now, the last two years, it's all coming together for him and he's feeling more comfortable. So with Antrel's ability to continue to learn and grow, he hasn't really scratched his ability as a safety yet. Last year was a glimpse of what Antrel could actually become."
Odd stuff to say about a 31-year-old player entering his 10th NFL season and the final year of his contract with the team. But Merritt pointed out that Rolle wasn't strictly a safety even in his first couple of years with the Giants, who used him in a variety of roles from 2010-12 as needs dictated.
"The first couple of years, you all know, we played him at nickel, we played him at 'Bison,' we played him at corner, we played him at safety," Merritt said. "Now he's able to just play strictly safety, and it's coming together for him well."
Merritt said he recently told Rolle he thought he could play another four years. The safety position is a major question mark for the Giants this year and in years to come. Rolle is a free agent at the end of this year. Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps are signed to one-year contracts. Will Hill was recently released following his third drug suspension in as many years. They can't know yet what they have in 2013 fifth-round pick Cooper Taylor or 2014 fifth-round pick Nat Berhe. Depending on the way this season goes, the Giants could find themselves needing to sign Rolle to another free-agent contract just to stabilize things for them at the position. Or they could find themselves starting over with a whole new crew.
In the meantime, though, the Giants' sudden depth at cornerback should enable Rolle to stay firmly planted at safety this year. And his coaches believe he'll continue to grow, improve and thrive there as a result.