For a winless team, there even is a pessimistic way to see James Bradberry flourishing as a No. 1 cornerback.
With a forced fumble, an interception and more passes defended (six) than receptions allowed (five), Bradberry is living up to his three-year, $43.5 million free-agent contract. He was the highest-rated defensive player across the NFL in Week 2, according to Pro Football Focus.
But the downside to Bradberry’s improvement is the rapidly growing gap between the No. 1 cornerback and whoever plays on the opposite side of the field. So it’s only a matter of time before quarterbacks freeze out Bradberry and shift full attention to attacking a revolving door of Isaac Yiadom, Corey Ballentine and Ryan Lewis.
“You’re going to find I’m very simple when it comes to the corners: Can they tackle? Can they run? Do they have toughness?” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “You can’t have enough of those guys in this league. It’s a passing league, so any of those corners who can run, tackle and have toughness, they have a chance with us.”
This is where the Giants really feel the impact of DeAndre Baker’s arrest and subsequent release as well as Sam Beal’s COVID-19 opt-out. Though neither had proven anything in his career, Baker, a first-round pick, and Beal, a third-round pick, were natural talents expected to develop into difference-makers with game experience.
Without them, the position could become a black hole.
Ballentine is a sixth-round pick who was behind Baker and Beal when all three struggled as rookies last season, and both Yiadom and Lewis were learning different schemes when September began. The Giants traded a seventh-round pick to the Broncos for Yiadom and signed Lewis to the practice squad after he was cut by Washington.
Graham considers No. 2 cornerback to be an “ongoing competition.” A nice way of saying neither Ballentine nor Yiadom gained separation, prompting Lewis’ promotion.
“They are both playing hard,” defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. “We’ve just got to continue to play better as a group.”
Ballentine received first crack but was benched against the Bears after getting turned around in a scramble drill and trailing Darnell Mooney on a touchdown.
“He has to finish plays better [when] he has the opportunity to make plays,” Henderson said.
Yiadom played most of the second half as the Giants pitched a shutout.
“He’s really done a good job of getting into our system and proving an understanding of the techniques with the big-picture concepts,” coach Joe Judge said. “He’s made a lot of improvement. I know now he can play more confident and aggressive just with some experience in the calls and how we’re looking to play with him.”
Lewis played nearly 300 snaps under Graham with the Dolphins last season and is “definitely in the mix.” Safety Logan Ryan, who expressed a willingness to play on the perimeter, has played just six snaps as the wide cornerback (mostly in a four-safety package), and rookie Darnay Holmes hasn’t moved from the slot.
Bradberry is matching up with the opponent’s best receiver, so he expects he will still get tested.
“You know in critical moments they’re going to go to their go-to guy,” Bradberry said after ripping an interception away from the Bears’ Allen Robinson. “Especially when you have a young quarterback, he wants to go to his playmaker.”
The 49ers only have had three receivers targeted — Kendrick Bourne (10), Trent Taylor (8) and Brandon Aiyuk (three) — in two games. They rely on running backs and tight ends as pass-catchers, but Judge isn’t expecting coach Kyle Shanahan to sleep on testing a weakness even with backup quarterback Nick Mullens likely to start.
“You watch Kyle’s games,” Judge said, “you can tell right away what he thinks about a team based on how he game plans and goes at you early in the game.”
If the 49ers change the script and feast on the No. 2 cornerback, it will be a blueprint to be copied over the final 13 games.
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