This was not long after the stunning trade became official and the Giants knew they were getting back a young safety, Jabrill Peppers, as part of a mega-deal that shipped Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. The phone belonging to James Bettcher, the Giants defensive coordinator, started buzzing.
Bettcher recalls it was “multiple text messages’’ from various Browns assistant coaches. Unsolicited, they offered their thoughts on what the Giants were getting in Peppers.
“It was not something I asked for,’’ Bettcher said Wednesday. “They said, ‘You’re gonna love him. We love him. He’s gonna work exceptionally hard. He’s gonna be about what it’s supposed to be about.’ ’’
Once he got him on the field this spring at the Giants’ facility, Bettcher saw firsthand what the Browns coaches stressed about Peppers.
“You see that when we’re out here working,’’ Bettcher said. “We’re doing stuff on air and he’s in a stance, he’s moving, he’s running around, he’s flying around.’’
This may have been a bit of overzealousness, but, Bettcher reasoned, “It’s way better to say, ‘Whoa’ than ‘sic ’em.’ ’’
Adding Peppers to the mix is part of a massive overhaul to Bettcher’s defense, the inevitable shake-up after general manager Dave Gettleman assigned most of the blame for the 5-11 record on the defense faltering down the stretch in the second half of last season.
The makeover actually began well before the 2018 season was officially stamped as over and done. Cornerback Eli Apple and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks’’ Harrison were traded at midseason. Once the offseason hit, the changes continued.
Landon Collins, the starting strong safety the past four years, was not given the franchise tag and signed with the Redskins. The Giants pulled players out of Bettcher’s past, diving into free agency to sign safety Antoine Bethea and outside linebacker Markus Golden, former Bettcher players with the Cardinals. Peppers came aboard. Outside linebacker Olivier Vernon, the team’s most accomplished pass rusher, was sent to Cleveland in a deal for guard Kevin Zeitler.
The draft brought in a haul, with defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and cornerback DeAndre Baker in the first round, outside linebacker Oshane Ximines in the third round, cornerback Julian Love in the fourth round and, later in the draft, inside linebacker Mike Connelly and cornerback Corey Ballentine as players who could see the field this season. Sam Beal, a cornerback taken last year in the supplemental draft, is not part of the 2019 draft class but might as well be. He will play a role after missing his entire rookie year following shoulder surgery.
Bettcher is left with a defensive backfield that figures to start three players (Bethea, Peppers, Baker) who were not with the team in 2018 and Julian Love, a fourth-round pick, could move in as the nickel back, making him a de facto starter. Golden will be counted on to rekindle the spark that allowed him to produce 12.5 sacks in 2016. Lawrence should slide in up front as a Day 1 starter. Ximines could get early time as a situational pass rusher.
It is a great deal to process. That is where Bettcher comes in. After all, it is his job to coordinate all of it.
The history working in Arizona with Bethea and Golden has Bettcher convinced the Giants signed impact players. He called Bethea “one of the highest-character players I’ve ever been around — smart, intelligent, unbelievable leader,” and described Golden as a force, and, when healthy, “one of the best pass rushers in this league.’’
As for the help in the draft, Bettcher called Lawrence “one of the biggest humans that I have ever seen, moves as quick as he can move’’ and characterized Baker as, “I thought THE best cover tackling corner in the draft, period.’’ As for Ximines, the career sack leader at Old Dominion, Bettcher views him as “a prototypical outside linebacker,” as far as having the ability to rush the passer and drop into coverage.
Bettcher went out of his way to praise the way veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins has already embraced the new role of elder leader.
“As I’ve watched, Janoris has been not great, he’s been unbelievable with our young guys,’’ he said.
It all looks good in early May. It usually does. This time around, it looks oh-so different as well.
“If I’m sitting back and hoping what it can be, I’m hoping it can be an aggressive, attacking defense that dictates to,’’ Bettcher said. “As I look at where it’s at today and moving forward, I believe that’s what it can be.’’