The Giants’ fortunes this season will largely be decided by their top players. But quarterback Daniel Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Darren Waller, left tackle Andrew Thomas and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence will need help if the Giants are going to get back to the playoffs — and potentially make more noise in the postseason.
So here’s a closer look at a handful of players who will be X-factors for the Giants this season:
Moments after getting picked by the Giants in the third round of the draft, Hyatt said one of his top priorities was building a relationship with quarterback Daniel Jones. Hyatt followed through. The duo spent time working after practices in the spring, then got together before training camp to continue building their chemistry.
“He was the first person to text me (after the draft) as far as Giants players,” Hyatt said. “He was the first person I got to interact with when I got up here. We just hit it off after that.”
Jones hosted a group of offensive players in the Charlotte area for workouts during the break between minicamp and training camp. After that, Jones and Hyatt returned to New Jersey and worked together daily.
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“We just kept working every day before we started training camp,” Hyatt said. “He was learning my speed, learning what I like to do, learning when I’m breaking. At the same time, it was learning for me, too. I was learning how he throws the ball, especially with deep balls — does he put a lot of arc on it or does he make it more of a line drive? How hard does he throw the ball? Just a lot of things like that.”
Hyatt’s blazing speed initially resulted in deep connections with No. 2 quarterback Tyrod Taylor early in training camp. But Hyatt got more work with Jones as the summer progressed. Then, after wide receiver David Sills was cut, Hyatt moved into the vacated locker stall next to Jones. It’s been common to see Jones, Hyatt and other receivers sitting around the quarterback’s locker reviewing film after practices.
First of many for Hyatt 🤩
📺: NBC4/NFL Network pic.twitter.com/WN6P9sD7AL
— New York Giants (@Giants) August 18, 2023
“He’s just a leader, and I respect him,” Hyatt said. “Especially when I’m new, being a rookie coming in, kind of an uncomfortable position, trying to learn everything — learn the plays, learn my teammates — he made it easier for me.”
Hyatt is still in the early stages of his transition to the NFL. He said he saw far more press coverage in training camp than he did in college, and it’ll be an adjustment for the 6-foot, 185-pounder to deal with the physicality of NFL corners at the line. But it’s already clear Hyatt will provide a big-play spark to the offense this season, with the potential for more in the future.
Pinnock was convinced he was going to make the Jets roster last year, so it was a shock when he got cut.
“I got scars a little deep,” Pinnock said of that experience.
But Pinnock quickly recovered, landing with the Giants when they claimed him on waivers. Initially expected to be a special teamer, Pinnock moved into the starting lineup at safety after Xavier McKinney’s bye-week hand injury.
Pinnock made five starts in the second half of the season, flashing the athleticism that made him a fifth-round pick in 2021, but also showing that he was still adjusting to safety after playing cornerback until midway through his rookie year.
“I go back and watch last year’s film and I see myself thinking sometimes,” Pinnock said. “Last year was learning the playbook. Just a completely different playbook — way more aggressive. You’ve got to really think because things get on you fast.”
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Pinnock dove into the playbook after the season, striving to understand defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s thought process within game situations. The benefits were obvious this summer, as Pinnock claimed the starting safety spot next to McKinney a few days into training camp.
“I’m the most comfortable I’ve been,” Pinnock said. “That’s why I think the plays are coming in abundance for me. I’m comfortable, so I can let my athletic ability show and not do so much processing and thinking.”
One-handed INT 🔥 pic.twitter.com/owJgiELMjX
— New York Giants (@Giants) July 30, 2023
Pinnock cemented his starting status with a dominant cameo in the preseason opener. He tallied an interception, a tackle for a loss and a pass break-up in five snaps before joining the rest of the starters on the bench.
“I was very confident in my preparation over the offseason. Both physically and mentally in the playbook,” Pinnock said. “Once I got comfortable with it, I knew my athletic ability would separate me.”
How does a wide receiver who runs a 4.61-second 40-yard dash get open against NFL cornerbacks? For Hodgins, it’s all about the finer points of route running.
“I’m loose with the wiggle at the top of the route,” Hodgins said. “Corners are some of the fastest people on the field. You’re not going to be able to just outrun them all the time. There’s going to be times where it’s like, ‘OK, now I’ve got to craft and use my footwork and my hips and my head and shoulders and wiggle off of it.’”
There were plenty of examples of Hodgins using his crafty route running to get open after he joined the Giants midway through last season as a waiver claim from Buffalo. He quickly developed chemistry with Jones, catching touchdown passes in five of the last seven games of the season.
“In the red zone, you can’t really use speed unless you’re just running a shallow across the field,” Hodgins said. “You can only go so far, so you have to be able to wiggle a little bit and be loose to shake a defender off of you. That’s when some of those whip routes and those double moves have come in.”
Hodgins was particularly adept at uncovering when Jones was scrambling after the initial play call broke down. That type of improvisation shows up more on game day than in training camp practices.
“Games and practices are so different,” Hodgins said. “In practices, a lot of stuff is scripted like, ‘We want this person to do this.’ You can control that. … I had so many touchdowns last year that I literally didn’t catch one time throughout practices. It was just that Daniel read it out, it played out like this, the defense did this, and that’s how it happened.”
Hodgins enters this season as the Giants’ No. 3 receiver, although he’ll likely split time with Hyatt. Hodgins’ goal is to expand his production beyond the red zone.
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Belton leaped to intercept a Jones pass in the fifth practice of last year’s training camp. Belton, then a fourth-round rookie, came down with the ball — and a cracked collarbone.
The injury sidelined Belton for the next six weeks, but the Giants medical staff determined that surgery wasn’t necessary.
“They thought it could heal on its own without surgery, so it was more of a wait and getting the strength back,” Belton said.
Belton made his debut in Week 2, playing 79 percent of the defensive snaps as the third safety in a win over the Panthers. He recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff, which was his first NFL snap. But Belton also aggravated his collarbone in that game. He quickly discovered it’s difficult to tackle NFL players while trying to protect one side of your body.
“It was super tough just not being able to play the brand of football I wanted to play, especially being physical in the box,” Belton said. “Some games I was taking blocks on the other shoulder when I was supposed to take it on the left because I didn’t want to use it. It was impacting my game. Especially at my position, you need to be able to tackle, hit and things like that. It was tough. It kind of shaped the way I play the game a little differently than I wanted to, but I tried to go out there and give my best.”
Belton had another setback in Week 10, and his playing time plummeted for the rest of the season.
“As an athlete, you always want to get back as fast as possible,” Belton said. “Every day I was in there trying to get one day sooner off the recovery time. Looking back, I definitely would take a little bit more time just knowing what happened and re-injuring it right when I got back. But hindsight is 20/20.”
Belton underwent two surgeries at the same time after the season. He had “a couple of plates and a whole bunch of screws” inserted into his collarbone. He also had surgery on his left shoulder to “fix up” issues stemming from a previous surgery two years ago.
The collarbone healed in two months, while the shoulder recovery took five months. Belton was cleared for the start of training camp and picked up where he left off last year. He had an incredible strip of Lions running David Montgomery during a joint practice, an interception in the Giants’ preseason game against Detroit and a pick-six of Jones in a practice during the span of a week this summer.
Dane Belton straight up stripped that 😳 pic.twitter.com/c09Lg4MBTY
— New York Giants (@Giants) August 9, 2023
Belton, who has secured the third safety role, has demonstrated a nose for the ball that should be beneficial for a defense that ranked 25th in takeaways last season.
A 2020 fourth-round pick, Bredeson has made nine starts in three seasons. In four of those starts, Bredeson didn’t play the full game due to a rotation or injury. As a player who hasn’t yet established himself as a starter, Bredeson knows that versatility is critical to his value.
“It’s part of the job being an interior guy,” Bredeson said. “Versatility is huge, and being able to play all three spots has always been a goal of mine. I believe having that ability to swing and play multiple positions is beneficial.”
The Giants leaned heavily into Bredeson’s versatility recently. He opened the offseason as the starting center, but rookie second-round pick John Michael Schmitz seized that job a week into training camp.
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Meanwhile, Bredeson was also taking first-team reps at both guard spots. Sometimes he plays both positions during the same practice as part of a three-man game of musical chairs with Mark Glowinski and Josh Ezeudu.
“It keeps things interesting,” Bredeson said. “You just have to be ready to go wherever on a daily basis.”
Switching sides is a challenge for offensive linemen, who are forced to flip their techniques. But Bredeson is in no position to complain about getting first-team reps at any position.
“It takes a bit to get used to in the beginning, then it’s just a reps thing,” Bredeson said. “After you do so many reps, it starts becoming more second nature.”
Coach Brian Daboll said Friday that he’s settled on two starting guards for Sunday’s season opener against the Cowboys. The expectation is that Bredeson will be at left guard and Glowinski at right guard. It doesn’t appear Ezeudu will rotate at left guard like he did last season.
Bredeson will also serve as the backup center, so he’ll take over there if anything happens to Schmitz. The hope is that doesn’t happen and Bredeson will be healthy — he’s missed time with ankle, knee and hand injuries the past two seasons — and productive enough to keep the starting left guard job all season. But even if he doesn’t play another position, his versatility should help him at guard.
“When you’re at center, you have to understand the whole scheme of the play and not just what your job is,” Bredeson said. “You can start understanding how all the different pieces fit. Then when you move to guard, you can take that same mentality and just play a little smarter. It’s definitely helped me.”
(Top photo: Rich Graessle, Stephen Maturen, Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)
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