EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It is no longer just an experiment with the New York Giants’ first-team defense to have two rookie cornerbacks on the field at the same time. They’re serious about sliding their best cover guy, veteran Adoree' Jackson, inside to the slot while rookies Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins play on the outside.
That has been the primary alignment for more than a week at training camp as they insist on getting their “three best corners” on the field. It means Hawkins, a sixth-round pick out of Old Dominion, is getting starter’s reps instead of veteran nickel cornerback Darnay Holmes.
Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale doesn’t seem to have any fear about rolling with the two rookies, despite the general difficulty of the position for first-year players.
“None at all. I mean, you’ve got to play the best guys,” Martindale said. “There's still a lot of competition going on out there. But it just so happens, [Banks and Hawkins are] both playing really well right now, and they deserve the reps with the ones.
“That's what this league is all about. That's what our organization, and [head coach Brian Daboll] and [general manager] Joe [Schoen] are all about.”
If last year is any indication, this regime has no qualms about throwing mid-to-late-round rookies into the mix. Fifth-round tight end Daniel Bellinger and third-round cornerback Cor'Dale Flott started within the first two weeks last year.
Banks, as a first-round pick (No. 24 overall out of Maryland), isn’t a surprise if he ends up a starter come Sept. 10 against the Dallas Cowboys. It’s Hawkins who wasn’t expected to develop so quickly.
Hawkins (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) has taken training camp by storm. He looked so good early with the second team that it took only a week before he worked his way into the first-team defense.
“I’d say all the stuff that we’ve given these guys is based on what they’ve earned,” Daboll said at the time.
Hawkins’ given name is Larry Hawkins III, and the legend of Lockdown Larry was born. The 23-year-old knows the first-team reps at this point mean something. But he’s trying not to get too far ahead of himself after the Giants coaching staff was pleased with his first professional outing last Friday against the Lions.
This Friday at MetLife Stadium against the Carolina Panthers is the next opportunity for him and Banks.
“I’m just looking to get better in those games before I think about starting and just focus on the moment,” Hawkins said.
It makes sense for the Giants to have their best three corners on the field, considering Martindale employed defensive formations with at least three cornerbacks on 70% of the defensive snaps last season.
And Holmes struggled. He allowed 63% of passes as the nearest defender to be completed, according to NextGen Stats. He committed a team-high nine penalties that resulted in seven first downs.
Holmes and Flott failed to take advantage of their first-team snaps in the slot at the beginning of this summer. As a result, the Giants decided to move their best outside corner inside to the slot.
As the days pass at training camp, the Giants seem serious about the Banks-Hawkins-Jackson combo as the primary nickel formation. It doesn’t seem to matter that it will look vulnerable to outside receivers on the schedule like Philadelphia’s A.J. Brown, Seattle’s DK Metcalf, Miami’s Tyreek Hill and Las Vegas’s Davante Adams.
Those weeks Martindale could keep Jackson on the outside because of the matchup.
“You know me. You saw some different things out there that you're like, ‘What is he doing?’ I mean, we consider everything,” Martindale said. “With the matchups that you would have, [Jackson in the slot] gives you great versatility. We’ll see where that goes.”
At the very least, it would make sense early in the season to use Jackson in the slot. They play the Cowboys in Week 1. Dallas’ top receiver, CeeDee Lamb, had 61% of his receiving yards from the slot last season.
Jackson, in the final season of the three-year contract he signed as a free agent in 2021, has accepted the new role. He is currently playing outside in two-cornerback formations before sliding inside when more defensive backs come onto the field.
“It kind of makes me feel like Logan Ryan in a sense being able to play outside then play inside and do different things,” Jackson said of the versatile former Giants defensive back. “If it comes to that understanding or whatever it is to help the team and be selfless but at the same time just thrive in the role that I’m given.”
Jackson played at a high level as the Giants’ top cornerback last season. He was the one certainty they seemed to have in the secondary coming into this year.
Moving him inside naturally comes with some risk. So does playing two rookies. But they seem willing to live with some of the growing pains from their outside cornerbacks.
“I don’t really have any concerns about it at all,” said Jackson, who allowed a 92.6 quarterback rating against and six touchdowns as the nearest defender during his rookie season. “At the end of the day, they know how to play ball.”