EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz returned Tuesday from a groin injury with his heaviest workload and most productive practice of the summer. For the first time in weeks, there was reason for optimism.
The centerpiece of that defense: star pass rusher Von Miller, who piled up five sacks in three games and was named Super Bowl MVP. If Miller was the best defender in the postseason, the best defensive player of the 2015 regular season was otherworldly Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who led the league in sacks (17.5) and quarterback hurries (50). In addition to serving as helpful ambulatory examples of the word “disruptive,” Watt and Miller have something else in common: They were both taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.
We have a ways to go, but we may very well be watching the prime years of the best defensive draft class to ever play the game.
The 2011 class did deliver a certain MVP named Cam Newton, but the vast majority of the draft’s output has been from the other side of the line of scrimmage. In fact, forming a starting lineup from that 2011 class produces a terrifying defense. If you line them up in a 4-3, you can go with Watt at one defensive end spot across from the Rams’ Robert Quinn, who had a 19-sack season as recently as 2013. Jets end Muhammad Wilkerson would kick inside to play tackle alongside massive Bills nose tackle Marcell Dareus, forming a devastating two-way front four.
Now consider the back end. The AFC West came away from the 2011 draft with a pair of terrors at outside linebacker. We can slot Miller alongside Chiefs star Justin Houston, who has averaged more than one sack per game over the past three seasons. The interior isn’t quite as laden with talent, but we can move Seahawks cover linebacker K.J. Wright into the middle.
Throwing on this team? Good luck. Our cornerbacks are an NFC West tandem; Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Seattle’s Richard Sherman are both capable of shutting down top talent. The lone weak spot comes at safety, where the likes of Da’Norris Searcy and Chris Conte would be competing for starting reps. But that’s not much of a complaint.
“It’s an old-time man-coverage beater where that guy’s going to snag right at the outside shoulder of the guy covering the slot,” Flinn said. “Number one [the outside receiver] has got to get himself turned, facing the line of scrimmage so he doesn’t get called for offensive pass interference. But that’s a classic pick route right there, try to get the defensive back to run over the top.”
Baldwin doesn’t run straight to the flat. He wants the defender to back off a little bit to give him room to operate.
“If [Baldwin] goes right to the flat, his guy can undercut the pick,” Flinn said. “Or it’s going to be a 1-yard out. If he goes up the field, freezes him, makes him run around the pick, now you have space to get the first down.
“Basically set your guy up and run him into the pick. Make him run over it. If he runs under it, you’re not deep enough. The quarterback’s got nowhere to throw the ball. The pick guy, you’re driving his near shoulder low to high and making him come around you. Ideally he runs into you, that’s great, then the guy’s wide open. But if he runs over the top, at least here you’ve got some separation and now you can catch that ball. Catch, tuck and turn, get up the field and get the first down.”
No wonder Nelson called it “hardly even a practice.”
By unofficial count, earlier in Monday’s practice Nelson caught 15 passes from Aaron Rodgers and the other quarterbacks at the far end of the field while the rest of the team went through a special-teams period.
Nelson appeared to run closer to full speed in that drill, although never against a defender.
Nelson said he was more concerned about his conditioning than either of his knees — the reconstruction of his right knee after his ACL tear last year on Aug. 23 and his left knee that was injured earlier this summer during his rehab.