Despite winning their first postseason game since Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants knew there was still a talent gap to close heading into the second season under general manager Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll. That set in motion an off-season plan to increase the speed in all three phases of the game.
Darren Waller became the face of the stated goal when the Giants acquired the dynamic tight end in a trade with the Raiders. The price was a third-round selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, No. 100 overall, which the Giants acquired in the trade with Kansas City that sent Kadarius Toney to the Chiefs.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder has amassed 298 catches for 3,572 yards and 19 touchdowns in 74 games (52 starts) for the Raiders (2018-2022) and Ravens, who originally selected him in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Waller caught seven passes for 76 yards in his single postseason appearance with Las Vegas.
Waller’s 107 receptions in 2020 are tied for fourth-most by a tight end in NFL history. Only six others have reached the 100-catch plateau: Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce (three times), Jason Witten, Mark Andrews, Tony Gonzalez, and Dallas Clark. Waller is one of six tight ends to record 200 receiving yards in a single game, hitting that exact number in a 2020 game against the New York Jets.
Waller had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2019-20. The Giants have had only one tight end reach 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Mark Bavaro had 1,001 in 1986.
But that was all in the past.
Waller’s future is tied to quarterback Daniel Jones, and the two forged an immediate bond on and off the field.
“I learned he’s a smart guy, he’s funny, he’s driven,” Waller said of Jones. “He’s one of the hardest workers as far as coming in early for preparation and staying after for recovery and doing what he needs to do, having a routine, having a plan. I feel like that sets the tone when you know like, OK, this guy that’s stepping in the huddle telling us what we need to do, where we need to go, he’s really out here putting all the work in and then some, and then he also wants you to have a good time while you do it. That’s what I’ve learned about him.”
Although they took the field for just one series in the preseason, it was nearly flawless. Jones accounted for all 75 yards, completing three passes to Waller for 30 yards to set up a touchdown on the opening drive vs. Carolina.
“They work at it,” Daboll said. “They work at it, they work hard at it, probably got a long way to go still with it, but the off-season stuff, OTAs, we give them a lot of reps together. In the passing game, that’s really what it’s about – as much chemistry as you can get. Still a way to go with it.”
If you need speed, look no further than Campbell, who ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at his NFL Scouting Combine.
A second-round draft pick by Indianapolis in 2019, Campbell played in 32 games with 24 starts for the Colts, recording 97 receptions for 983 yards and five touchdowns. Campbell is coming off his most productive season yet. He played all 17 games (16 starts) after injuries limited him to just 15 games (eight starts) over his first three seasons combined.
“My career is what it was,” Campbell said when he signed. “It was tough, very tough those first three years. Being able to bounce back from each and every injury that I had, I really learned a lot about myself. I feel like I grew as a man, as a person, a player, obviously. It allowed me to grow in so many different areas because I’ve seen a lot of myself that I didn’t know that I had. I was able to fight and bounce back so many different times. It really showed me a lot. Then just speaking in terms of last year, being able to play a full 17 (games), that’s all I ever wanted to do. Just given the history of my career, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Being able to do that, I was blessed, grateful. The injuries that I had, there were things that were just freak accidents. You couldn’t really draw it up. They weren’t avoidable to me. They were things that happened and just had some bad luck. Like I said, was able to play all 17 last year, so I was extremely blessed.”
In 2022, he caught 63 passes for 623 yards and three touchdowns in addition to carrying the ball five times for 58 yards (long of 28 yards). In Week 17, Campbell had a season-long 49-yard reception against the Giants. It was the second-longest of his career (he had a 51-yard touchdown against Houston in 2021).
In that same game, Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke also made a favorable impression at MetLife Stadium on New Year’s Day, when he had a career-high 17 tackles, including 13 solo and two for loss, plus a forced fumble. The Giants obviously liked what they saw and signed him.
The veteran, who has recorded nearly 300 tackles over the past two seasons, has assumed the role as quarterback of Wink Martindale’s defense.
“I’ve always said this, philosophically, if you have a fast Mike [linebacker], then you have a fast defense and he’s a really fast Mike,” the defensive coordinator said. “A lot of his success will depend on how we play up front, and we have seen improvement there as well.”
Martindale’s two key metrics are red zone and third down, two areas in which the Giants excelled in 2022. The run defense, however, was an off-season focus. So, Schoen acquired the man they call “Nacho.”
Originally a sixth-round pick by Kansas City in 2015, Nunez-Roches has appeared in more than 100 games with the Chiefs (2015-2017) and Buccaneers (2018-2022). He has also played in eight postseason games with four starts, including Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl LV championship run.
The 6-foot-2, 307-pounder helped Tampa Bay’s 2020 championship defense lead the league in rushing yards allowed per game (80.6) and yards allowed per rush (3.60), while ranking sixth in yards allowed per play (5.12), sixth in yards allowed per game (327.1). The Buccaneers that season were also tied for second in tackles for loss (91), tied for fourth in sacks (48.0) and tied for fifth in takeaways (25).
In 2021, he was part of a defense that held the Patriots to negative-1 yard rushing, the fewest allowed in a game in Buccaneers history and the fewest allowed by any NFL team since 2007.
From top to bottom, the seven-man draft class made headway this summer. Because of their talents and team needs, cornerback Deonte Banks and center John Michael Schmitz unsurprisingly locked down starting roles as the top two picks. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, a third-round pick and the reigning Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, made splash plays at camp in the preseason, which again, was not a shock for anyone who watched Alabama at Tennessee a year ago.
But then possible draft gems started to surface.
Cornerback Tre Hawkins III, a sixth-round choice out of Old Dominion, began running with the first team opposite Banks, while veteran Adoree’ Jackson moved to the slot. At first regarded as a training camp experiment, it became more of the norm as the Giants entered the preseason. Similarly, defensive lineman Jordon Riley, a raw seventh-rounder who played at four different colleges, emerged with the help of a deep and veteran-laden position group.
“I wouldn’t label anybody as a surprise,” assistant general manager Brandon Brown said. “I think we all knew that we were excited from whether you’re going from Tae in the first round to Tre in the sixth round. We’ve all been excited for all these guys when we acquired them. … These guys all have traits to play on Sunday. It was just a matter of marrying the development from the coaching staff to having game day traits. That’s where the synergy comes from. Dabs preaches to the coaching staff, ‘Develop these guys, our rookies, our year two guys.’ There’s been a high emphasis on developing their skillset. For us on the scouting side, it’s making sure that they have the skill set that fits our scheme. So, it’s been a good marriage so far.”