EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- First-round confusion be damned, the New York Giants came out of this year's draft with a rookie class they liked a lot. OTAs and minicamp didn't change that. Everybody knows how excited they are about second-round wide receiver Sterling Shepard, and third-round safety Darian Thompson thrust himself into the starting free safety mix with a strong spring.
"He has been working with [starting strong safety Landon Collins] quite a bit," Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said last week. "That probably says a lot, that he's up there with those guys. He's assertive, he's vocal, he's not afraid to make a mistake. I think the first thing you need to do at that position when we ask you to make calls is not to be afraid of making a mistake and to be vocal. If he continues to do that, he will learn the defense. He's smart enough."
Could Thompson start at that critical position as a rookie? Absolutely he could. Just as Shepard could be a starting wide receiver and fourth-round linebacker B.J. Goodson could muscle his way into the starting middle linebacker conversation. The competition at those positions is by no means overwhelming -- especially at safety, where no one has yet emerged from the inexperienced and perpetually injured injured group of Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Cooper Taylor and Mykkele Thompson.
Add in first-round cornerback Eli Apple, whose rookie-year role is still being worked out, and you could easily imagine four Giants rookies either starting or at least playing significant roles in 2016.
Is this because they have a rookie head coach? Because Tom Coughlin never liked to play rookies and Ben McAdoo will give them a shot?
Eh... not really.
That old rap on Coughlin became outdated in recent years, as players like Collins, Ereck Flowers, Weston Richburg, Justin Pugh, Andre Williams, Devon Kennard and of course Odell Beckham Jr. all played major roles on the team in their rookie seasons. This happened not because Coughlin woke up and saw the error of his stodgy old ways, but because the Giants' roster had become so hollowed out that they had no choice but to lean on rookies as starters and major contributors. The 2008-12 draft classes produced almost nothing, so the guys drafted from 2013-15 had to step in right away and fill spots that, on most teams, would have belonged to ascending but somewhat seasoned young players or mid-career veterans.
Things are getting better, even if slowly. Pugh and Johnathan Hankins, the top two picks from 2013, look like long-term starters (even if Hankins isn't signed beyond this year). Beckham is a superstar, and Richburg, the second-round pick from that 2014 draft, seems poised to be a top quality starting center. That whole 2014 class is still on the roster with a chance to help in 2016. And Flowers and Collins were full-year starters as rookies last year, while Owa Odighizuwa and the rest of last year's class could still pop in Year 2.
But the state of the Giants' roster is such that there's still plenty of room for rookies to make an impact. And as long as you keep in mind the part of Spagnuolo's quote where he says of Thompson, "he will learn the defense," future tense, and you can be patient with rookies and their mistakes, there's reason to be excited about the idea of rookies playing a major role on the 2016 Giants. Just don't think it has to do with a philosophy change. It's basically out of necessity.