EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Discouraged with how slot cornerbacks were being paid in free agency, Logan Ryan had an idea that could both prolong his NFL career and increase his value.
Ryan would add weight and move to strong safety as he entered free agency last offseason. The veteran defensive back saw the position as the mirror to the slot role he manned with the Tennessee Titans, knew he could cover better than most safeties and has always been a productive tackler. It didn’t initially go exactly as planned, but it’s paid off in a big way in the long run.
Ryan went unsigned for nearly six months before joining the New York Giants on a one-year contract 14 days before the 2020 season began. He wound up switching to — and falling in love with — the free safety position instead. And after a successful season on the prove-it deal, Ryan was rewarded with a three-year, $31 million contract with $11.5 million at signing. Now, at 30 years old — an age when most players are retired or at least on the decline — he has a new lease on life in the NFL and feels like he’s back to being an ascending player in the league thanks to his relative inexperience in the new role.
“I didn’t move to safety because I didn’t think I could play corner or star anymore. I feel like I had a really good year in Tennessee in the slot [in 2019],” Ryan said Thursday. “I moved because I feel like that’s where the money is going to in the sport.”
The Rutgers product did his research, and he’s absolutely right. Over four seasons with the Giants, he’s due to make $36.5 million.
The top-paid slot cornerback in the NFL, Kenny Moore II of the Indianapolis Colts (who is five years younger than Ryan), is locked into a four-year, $33 million contract with $9 million guaranteed at signing.
Ryan’s new deal will pay him $10.3 million per year. Slot cornerbacks top out at $2 million less on an annual basis.
“Obviously, I have agents and stuff, but I’m very educated in this league with just having experience and having a vast knowledge of other players,” Ryan said. “I think I’ve earned respect in this league from playing a lot, being durable, being a good guy on and off the field. So, I have a lot of friendships with guys on different teams, and I understand contractually how contracts are structured and how you get paid in this league.
“I’m very much going to always align myself to do that. I don’t think you get three, four contracts like I’ve got if you’re not smart about it. I’ve signed shorter deals on purpose. When your friends are (Devin and Jason McCourty), Duron Harmon and guys that really are smart on and off the field — Darrelle Revis is someone I’ve been really close with for years, and contractually some of his stuff was really smart with what he did. I just think I study the game. I’m a fan of football. I know what everyone does, I know peoples' value.”
Once again, Ryan is correct. According to PFF’s WAR (wins above replacement) metric, top safeties are more valuable than slot cornerbacks.
Here were the NFL’s top five safeties last season by WAR:
|2||Jessie Bates III||0.91|
|3||John Johnson III||0.88|
And here were the top five slot cornerbacks by WAR:
Ryan generated 0.30 WAR in 2020, but he’s confident he can be even better this season as he continues to work at his new craft. He added weight and worked to retrain himself to backpedal, something he said he had barely done since high school.
“I had a full season to build my body and really train like a safety, really study the best guys,” Ryan said. “I think I’m pretty good, but I don’t think I was at the level of the top, top guys out there last year just cause I haven’t trained like that. But I don’t think those guys can cover man-to-man like me, they can’t blitz like me, I don’t think they can do some of the stuff that I’ve done.”
Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who was on the Patriots’ staff when New England drafted Ryan in 2013, sees the defensive back grinding.
“He wants us to be on him,” Graham said. “Thankfully, he doesn’t have to worry about that, but he wants to improve, he wants to be the best out there, and I love that about him. I’ve loved that about him since I’ve known him.”
Ryan originally believed he’d be mimicking relatively undersized strong safeties like the Cardinals’ Budda Baker and the Buccaneers’ Tyrann Mathieu. Always known as a cerebral player, Ryan is enjoying the art of fooling offenses by disguising coverages before the snap at free safety, however.
“I was a high school quarterback, I was a quarterback my whole life, so messing with the quarterback now is my job,” Ryan said. “Now I’m studying the Eric Weddles, and the Ed Reeds, the Kevin Byards, the Jessie Bates and Minkah (Fitzpatrick), I’m watching their game now.”
He also leaned heavily on former Patriots teammate and fellow Rutgers product Devin McCourty, who made the switch from cornerback to safety much earlier in his career. Ryan used McCourty’s two-year, $23 million extension, signed before the 2020 season, as a benchmark for his own deal.
“He’s the guy that also brings the leadership, and the other intangibles off the field, on the field,” Ryan said. “The captain, the durable guy, the guy who’s always dependable, the guy who lines the defense up, who’s a communicator. I was in New England, and he was our communicator and he was our signal-caller in the back end.
“We’re trying to do something similar here on the Giants where we have Blake (Martinez) control the front, but I control the back. Similar to Devin, he was my comp, he’s one of my best friends, I know his game inside and out, contractually the money he’s making at his age I feel like I can be making something similar at my age. I’m happy for guys like Weddle and Devin who can really impact a game just with communication alone.”
Like McCourty, Ryan has impressive durability, and he credits his training schedule (and a well-timed broken leg that came at the end of the 2018 season) for the fact that he’s missed just three games during his NFL career. He also doesn’t like veteran days off from practice. He feels like they throw off his rhythm.
Since 2015, Ryan is fourth among NFL defensive players in snaps. Since 2013, the year Ryan was drafted in the third round, he’s seventh. But he’s also the only player in the top 14 who hasn’t made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team.
He’s looking to change that in 2021 as the point guard of New York’s defense.
“Definitely, 100%,” Ryan said. “It’s always a goal of mine. Look, I feel like in New England, I was doing my job, I think statistically I was up there with some of the top corners. But I understood what my job was in that scheme, it’s a team sport. In Tennessee, you just don’t have the national base. Kevin Byard should’ve made multiple Pro Bowls. (Ryan) Tannehill probably should’ve made the Pro Bowl last year at quarterback. I should’ve made the Pro Bowl once or twice in Tennessee. I understand the media market. I understand how it works.
“Look, I think one of my greatest assets, greatest abilities, is telling the play to my teammates. Getting my teammates lined up, allowing my teammates to shine. When I look at the NBA and I see a Jrue Holiday and a Chris Paul, they set up so much for their teammates and I think that’s what I do. I think Devin should’ve made multiple, multiple Pro Bowls. Sometimes he doesn’t make it because, statistically, it might not be as much as the guy who’s on the 1-15 team that has four interceptions, Devin might have three interceptions, but his team is 15-1. I’ve been on winning teams, and I think I know how to play winning football, and that’s my main priority is to win. Hopefully, the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro comes. I’m still striving for it.”
The “second-year jump” is a popular idiom to describe NFL players’ improvement from their rookie season into Year 2. It doesn’t usually come for players in their 30s. But there’s reason to believe it could for Ryan.
“You would think this year, he’ll make a jump because … now he’s lived it for a season,” Giants defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. “And he’s like, ‘yeah, I know I can do this better’ or ‘I know what to do in that situation when it happens again.’ I think he’ll be much better this year.”
Ryan doesn’t see the end of his career in sight and believes his football IQ is just as valuable as his athleticism in today’s NFL, which is prioritizing shrewd and innovative offensive playcallers. He doesn’t believe that adjustments made by defenses to fool offenses and take away explosive plays are valued highly enough.
It’s fairly obvious that Ryan has a deeper understanding of the game and business side of football than most NFL players. Not every player can decide one day to switch positions and net a $30 million contract. Ryan’s already accomplished that feat. Now he’s striving for some individual recognition, as well.