Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could be playing new position Week 1

Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (41) on playing the slot: "It's definitely more physical on the inside ..." Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With veteran cornerback Leon Hall inside the team facility on Monday as he navigates the NFL’s concussion protocol, the New York Giants' first-team defense had an interesting look Monday on the first play of team drills. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had his nickel defense on the field, with three cornerbacks and two linebackers to better protect against the passing games.

It’s a formation that has become common in the NFL, with 63.4 percent of the defensive snaps last season having at least five defensive backs on the field, according to Pro Football Focus. The Giants are part of the trend, and it’s been apparent again this summer that the nickel is their preferred defense as the game has transformed to (as Spagnuolo likes to say) "basketball on grass."

The Giants’ nickel defense Monday had cornerbacks Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins on the outside with veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the slot. It’s a look they have showcased more and more as the summer has progressed, and Apple, their first-round pick this year, has inspired more confidence.

Don’t be surprised to see it during the regular season, possibly even as early as Week 1. Hall didn’t have a good game Saturday night against the Jets, even before he was injured, and Apple shined.

The Giants are looking to get their best players on the field, and it’s becoming evident each game and practice that Apple belongs in that group. He has impressed at practice and games. He played well Saturday against the Jets, with all three passes in his direction falling incomplete, including a knockdown.

"He competed, he was physical at the line of scrimmage," coach Ben McAdoo said. "He competed down the field, they went after him a little bit on the press-man coverage and he didn't back down. He stepped up. He did a nice job."

The Giants’ solution to their dilemma of how to get Apple on the field appears to be to use him with Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie. It's not as if Hall wouldn't be part of the mix. The Giants have also used four-cornerback-packages quite often at practice over the past several weeks, with Hall even playing some safety.

It was believed entering the summer (before Hall was signed) that Apple could be the cornerback that saw time in the slot. But that has never quite materialized. He's been used almost exclusively on the outside. Rodgers-Cromartie has made the switch to a position he has rarely played during his first eight professional seasons, aside from 2011 with the Philadelphia Eagles. That was admittedly an unmitigated disaster.

This time at least he’s had a full summer to prepare. And he’s better suited. Rodgers-Cromartie is playing at 208 pounds. He was 188-190 during his time with the Eagles.

But playing the slot still isn't natural.

"At first it felt weird," Rodgers-Cromartie said last week. "Any time you do something new, it’s going to feel kind of different."

Rodgers-Cromartie, 30, is still learning. There are different responsibilities that come with playing in the slot rather than on the outside. Much of it involves being more physical near the line of scrimmage, which hasn't been Rodgers-Cromartie's strength. He's been known as a long, athletic cover corner with great instincts and ball skills.

"You’re in the run front now. You have to understand gap responsibilities to come down. Sometimes you have to thud up that lineman," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "It’s definitely more physical on the inside as far as the run standpoint. It’s fun though."

It might also be foreboding. Apple and Jenkins are the Giants’ future on the outside. Either Rodgers-Cromartie becomes a full-time slot cornerback or he could be playing elsewhere next season. He has two years remaining on his contract at a reasonable $8.5 million per year.

In the meantime, Rodgers-Cromartie’s role with the Giants is changing. And it might include playing the slot with the first-team defense as early as Sept. 11 against the Dallas Cowboys.