On Thursday, you were introduced to the Giants’ offensive undrafted free agents. Now you’ll get to know their defensive counterparts:
Christopher Hinton, DT, Michigan
Christopher Hinton was born five years after his father, Chris Hinton, retired from the NFL. Christopher grew up knowing his father was a professional football player, but the elder Hinton didn’t brag about his accomplishments. So Christopher didn’t realize how good his father was until he was in middle school.
“That’s when they did the ’30 for 30′ on him,” Christopher said.
The feature about the 1983 NFL Draft aired in 2013 as part of ESPN’s acclaimed documentary series. Titled “Elway to Marino,” the documentary focused on the six quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 1983 draft. The elder Hinton became a piece of NFL history when he was picked fourth by the Broncos and then traded to the Colts for No. 1 pick John Elway.
It’s one of the most famous — or infamous — trades in NFL history. Elway, of course, went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, winning a pair of Super Bowls during a 16-year career in Denver. But Hinton became much more than the answer to a trivia question, earning seven Pro Bowl selections during his 13-year career.
“When he did the ’30 for 30,’ I was like, ‘OK, you were pretty good!’” Christopher Hinton said. “Just the older you get, the more knowledge you get about football, you realize that he was one of the best offensive linemen to ever play, especially at that time. With him being in the Ring of Honor with the Colts, that speaks volumes for the type of player he was. That also speaks volumes about him that it took me this long to realize, really through other people and through other sources, how good he was.”
Despite his accomplishments, Chris Hinton didn’t force his son to play football.
“I think it was 10th-grade year when I started getting offers and he was like, ‘Do you really want to play football?’” Christopher Hinton said. “Because it was starting to get really serious. He was like, ‘If you don’t want to play, I would never be the one to force you to play. But if you’re really serious about this football thing, then I’m going to be here for you full-fledged, whatever you need and whenever you need it, I’ll be here for you.’”
Christopher was serious about football. The Johns Creek, Ga., native developed into a five-star recruit playing on the offensive and defensive lines. But Christopher didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps as an offensive lineman, instead committing to Michigan as a defensive tackle.
“I honestly hated offensive line,” Christopher Hinton said. “I’ve always been able to move really well and been able to use that to my advantage when it comes to being on the defensive line. I’ve always just liked defense better, the aggressiveness. I like hitting people, I like making plays.”
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Hinton did the dirty work inside at Michigan while surrounded by top draft picks throughout his career, including the No. 2 selection this year, Aidan Hutchinson.
“I’m not going to go out a limb and say we’re D-line U, but we have a lot of great players who played among the D-line that went to the University of Michigan,” Hinton said. “Playing with guys like that pushes you to be your best because you want to make plays for those guys and they want to make plays for you.”
Hinton had multiple offers as an undrafted free agent, but he chose the Giants because of the opportunity to earn a roster spot and familiarity with the scheme (it likely didn’t hurt that the Giants gave him $115,000 guaranteed).
“It’s a similar defense that I ran in college so I felt like it was just a good situation,” Hinton said. “Our DC was under (Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale) when he was at Baltimore, so we ran a lot of similar stuff.”
Hinton arrived at rookie minicamp this week armed with a lifetime of advice from a former All-Pro, one who became far more than a footnote to a trade.
“I’d say more than football tips, he taught me a lot of life tips through football — just working hard, consistency, if you want something, go get it,” Hinton said.
Jabari Ellis, DL, South Carolina
Jabari Ellis had no interest in joining the military, but he found himself at Georgia Military College out of high school because he didn’t have the grades to qualify academically to play Division I football. It was not the typical junior college experience.
Ellis had to be in the chow hall for breakfast every morning at 6 a.m. He needed to be dressed in his Class A uniform, with shoes shined, by 7 a.m. for the first PT formation of the day. Dinner was at 5 p.m. and there were no late-night snacks, even for a 6-foot-2, 278-pound defensive tackle.
“By 9, you’re starving again and you can’t leave your room after a certain time,” Ellis said. “If you want a sip of water, you can’t leave your room to get a sip of water. It was very strict. By 9:30, you were in the room, lights out at 9:45. It was hard. They target you mentally.”
Ellis didn’t see an NFL future in those days.
“It was more just taking control of what you can at that moment and just putting in your mind, ‘Let me handle my business here to get where I want to be in the future,’” Ellis said. “There was so much turmoil in that moment that you just try to perfect what you’re doing at that moment day by day. I like to say I went there a young boy and left a man. That was the transition period in my life.”
Ellis landed a scholarship to South Carolina after two years at Georgia Military College. Ellis thought it would be smooth sailing after he arrived at the SEC school in his home state.
“I had this image of what it’s supposed to be like and what it’s going to be like, and I got slapped with reality,” Ellis said. “I was expecting to go ahead and play. But then I ended up having a knee scope done — small procedure, I was only out for three weeks. But the technique was hard. Of course, this was something I was never aware of — different techniques and all of that. So I ended up finding myself redshirting the first year.”
It was yet another obstacle to overcome in Ellis’ path.
“Anytime you face adversity, I feel like you’ve always got a decision. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You’ve got a decision, like, is it going to work out?” Ellis said. “Are you going to keep pressing forward? That’s really in anything. I had many of those thoughts.”
Ellis got onto the field in 2019 and then became a starter in his final two seasons at South Carolina, taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. He recorded 1.5 sacks, four tackles for a loss and two fumble recoveries last season. More important to Ellis, he was voted a team captain and became a leader in the community.
“I would never imagine I would grow into that and do what I became on and off the field,” Ellis said. “I’m big in the community because I grew up as a kid being hopeless. Many people don’t make it from that environment in South Carolina to the NFL or even make it to college football. I understand how that feels to be hopeless, so I want to always reach back and let the youth know that whatever you want to do is possible.”
Antonio Valentino, DT, Florida
For four years, Antonio Shelton played at Penn State, where the uniforms don’t feature players’ last names on the back of the jerseys. But after transferring to Florida last year, he decided a change was necessary.
“I wore Valentino on my jersey last year just because I never had my name on my jersey before when I was in college, so I wanted to put the name I thought best represented me on there,” he said. “I’m named after my dad, but me and my biological dad don’t have a very good relationship. We really don’t have a relationship at all.”
So Valentino, which was Antonio’s middle name, became his last name. He legally made the change in March.
“Part of me going to Florida was kind of taking a step out on faith and betting on myself a little bit and trying to come into my own as a man,” Valentino said. “So I felt that it was only appropriate to have the name that I think best suits me as a man, as well.”
Although Valentino doesn’t have a relationship with his biological father, there is a father figure in his life. When he was 17, Valentino went with friends to a training facility in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. There, he met head trainer Chuck Gresham, a former Youngstown State fullback.
Gresham prepared Valentino for college recruiting camps and served as a sounding board.
“I wouldn’t have made it to Penn State without him,” Valentino said. “I wouldn’t have had the vital conversations that I needed to have while I was in school or even when it came to transferring.”
The bond became stronger when Valentino’s mother, Kat, and Gresham began dating. They’ve been married since 2016.
“I really refer to Chuck as my dad. When I meet people and I introduce him, I introduce him as my dad,” Valentino said. “He’s made a total difference in everything. He’s really showed me how to be a man and why being a dad is so important. Chuck changed my life. Anything Chuck asks me to do, I’ll do it.”
Valentino credits former Giants defensive line coach Sean Spencer, who was his position coach at Penn State for four years, as another important influence.
“Coach Spence is the best coach that I’ve ever had,” Valentino said. “He taught me to play football and how to understand things and how to do my job in a defense, just to see how all the pieces move. But off the field, me and him had multiple real-deal heavy conversations that really changed my outlook on life and changed my habits and changed how I work and how I approach coming into the building.”
The guidance from Gresham and Spencer has helped Valentino reach the NFL. And with a name like Antonio Valentino, it’s fitting that the big “Sopranos” fan landed in New Jersey.
“When (the draft) wrapped up, my agent was just telling me that New York was most interested in me,” Valentino said. “It’s definitely a blessing. I’m extremely happy to have this opportunity in the first place.”
Tomon Fox, Edge, North Carolina
Tomon Fox already passed Lawrence Taylor on one team’s career sacks leaderboard. If Fox does it again, the Giants will have signed the greatest undrafted free agent in NFL history.
Fox returned to North Carolina last fall tied for fifth with Taylor on the school’s all-time sacks list. It didn’t take long for Fox to pass Taylor, as he recorded a half-sack in the season opener and then another sack in a home game two weeks later with Taylor in attendance.
“I saw him before the game,” Fox said. “I was getting ready and I saw him in the weight room. I just walked in there and the coaches introduced us. And I spoke with him a little bit afterward. He was just letting me know he sees me doing my thing out there, let’s stay in touch — those kinds of things. Then, of course, he had to let me know he was still the better athlete.”
Fox, who spent six years at UNC, said Taylor was quick to point out he played fewer games during his college career. Matching Taylor’s post-college exploits will be a challenge. The No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft, Taylor had 142 career sacks for the Giants while establishing himself as the greatest defensive player in NFL history.
“I’ve definitely seen his highlights,” Fox said. “Those are crazy.”
Fox will have his sights set on a college rival when the rookies join the Giants veterans for practices next week. Fox recorded 1.5 sacks in two career matchups against then-Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, but the Blue Devils won both games.
“Obviously, that competitive nature is going to be out there when we’re practicing even though you can’t touch him or you’re going to get fined,” Fox said. “Still, having that college rivalry, you can bring that up there to the Giants and just compete with each other.”
Fox will also be competing with some friendly faces. The Giants drafted North Carolina guards Joshua Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan this year. Even though Fox played on the edge and Ezeudu mostly played inside, they would match up in one-on-one drills during practice.
“We knew we were probably one of the better guys on the team, so we might as well compete with each other and get ourselves better,” Fox said. “I think it helped me a lot.”
Fox’s indoctrination to the Giants started immediately after the draft with daily hour-long zoom meetings led by outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins. Fox was joined by first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux in the introductory meetings to help the newcomers prepare for rookie minicamp.
“He’s a high-energy guy,” Fox said. “He’s a great athlete. I’ve seen some of his film when he first got to Oregon. He’s definitely a cool, genuine guy.”
Trenton Thompson, S, San Diego State
Read any scouting report on San Diego State safety Trenton Thompson and you’re sure to see the words “hard hitter.”
“It comes up because I’ve had some targeting calls,” Thompson said. “I knocked someone out of a game one time. I’m a hard hitter, but there’s a lot of hard hitters in college and especially the NFL. It’s part of my game. I was always trying to hit somebody hard, but overall, just wanted to make a play.”
The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Thompson makes no apologies for his physical style of play.
“The coaches were never upset when I got a targeting call,” Thompson said. “They’d rather have us play full speed than go in a little scared and making little bullshit tackles. I never got chewed out for a targeting call because it was just me playing full speed.”
One of the best plays of Thompson’s college career resulted in a targeting penalty, which triggered an ejection and a suspension for the first half of San Diego State’s next game. The Aztecs were leading No. 23 Arizona State 28-21 with 14 seconds remaining when the Sun Devils threw a bomb on fourth-and-10 from midfield.
Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby somehow got open between two San Diego State defensive backs and was set to make a catch at the goal line. But Thompson bolted from the other side of the field and delivered a blow to Darby’s head that caused the pass to fall incomplete. Thompson was penalized, but Arizona State was unable to complete a second desperation pass into the end zone from the San Diego State 35-yard line on the final play of the game.
“I just saw the ball was chucked and I just turned that way and started running. I was like, ‘Oh, it looks like he’s going to catch it.’ I just hit him,” Thompson said. “There was really nothing else I could do about it, but just lunge into the guy. It was a game-saving play, for sure.”
Thompson’s physical traits and mindset naturally translate to special teams. He blocked two punts and returned two other blocked punts for touchdowns in college.
“Special teams is fun to me,” Thompson said. “I don’t see why a lot of guys don’t take it that serious in college. It’s a way to get on the field, it’s a way to just make plays. I take serious pride in it.”
That mentality will be music to the ears of Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey. The Giants’ lack of depth at safety made them an appealing destination for an undrafted free agent, but Thompson knows special teams will be his path to a roster spot.
“I’ve always had that planted in my head,” Thompson said. “I just always knew if you make it to the NFL, the first thing I would go for is special teams, just watching a lot of “Hard Knocks” and talking to other guys that got the experience. I always knew that would be my go-to route if I was to make it this far.”
Zyon Gilbert, CB, Florida Atlantic
Zyon Gilbert knew he would turn heads with his athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine. There was only one catch: Gilbert didn’t receive an invite to the biggest pre-draft showcase.
“I would say it kind of hurt me, just a little bit,” Gilbert said. “I could have gone to the combine and put up the same numbers I did at (my) pro day. If I would have gone to the combine, I would have been on top of the charts of everything.”
Instead of running the 40-yard dash and conducting other agility drills in front of the entire NFL world in Indianapolis, Gilbert had to wait a month for his opportunity to shine at Florida Atlantic’s pro day. Only 20 NFL teams were represented when Gilbert ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash with a 40-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot-6 broad jump.
The 6-foot, 193-pound Gilbert would have tied for the 13th-fastest 40 time among corners at the combine, while ranking second in the vertical jump and first in the broad jump. The results weren’t a surprise for a player who ranked 35th on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks” list last summer.
“I was just thinking all the scouts saw all those guys at the combine,” Gilbert said. “So when I come around and do my pro day, it will look better because they already got the looks on those guys. When they see me, it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ The pro day was definitely the most important part of the process for me, especially when the coaches and scouts came out there and saw me. I most definitely left there with people saying, ‘He could have been at the combine.’”
NFL evaluators often say that a standout performance in pre-draft testing will cause them to revisit a player’s tape. Interest increased in Gilbert, who took pre-draft visits to the Chiefs and Bengals.
“A lot of teams had me (graded as) undrafted,” Gilbert said. “But after (my) pro day, a lot of those guys had started giving me draftable grades.”
Gilbert was a cornerback coming out of Jefferson Davis High in Montgomery, Ala., but he was moved to safety for his first three years at FAU. But a coaching change in 2020 brought a defense that leaned heavily on cornerbacks, so Gilbert shifted back to his natural position.
“With the situation we had and with the players we had on our team, Coach came to me and was like, ‘Do you want to move back to corner?’ because he knew I played corner in high school,” Gilbert said. “It went real well. Anything to help the team. I was very confident in making the move, so I was pretty hyped about everything.”
Gilbert played in 60 games over five seasons at FAU, which is over a quarter of the games in the young program’s history. That experience has him ready to try to earn a spot at one of the thinnest positions on the Giants roster.
“I feel like it will help me tremendously,” Gilbert said. “Getting all those games, it’s a lot of snaps, a lot of plays and experience. There’s a lot of things I’ve seen on the field. So once I see it again, it won’t be my first time seeing it.”
Darren Evans, CB, LSU
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Darren Evans used to drive by LSU’s Tiger Stadium regularly.
“I always knew I could play there,” Evans said.
Others weren’t as convinced. Evans believes his recruitment was hindered because his high school team went 1-19 combined in his junior and senior seasons. Also, he shifted to safety as a senior, which limited the film of him at his natural cornerback position.
“I didn’t really have that many offers,” Evans said. “My biggest offer was maybe ULL (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and Nicholls (State). ULL took their scholarship away due to something that happened. So my only option was Nicholls or ULM (University of Louisiana Monroe). Those were the two biggest schools. I had already taken a visit with Nicholls. I never went to visit ULM. The coaches and everything were great and we just connected, so I decided to go to Nicholls.”
Playing for Nicholls in the FCS was a far cry from LSU in the SEC, but Evans remained positive.
“I didn’t let it get me down because I was blessed to have a scholarship to play football,” Evans said. “I still had another chance to get an education for free. My mindset going into Nicholls was just go out and play and take over, which I did.”
Evans excelled for three seasons at Nicholls before the COVID-19 pandemic altered his course. Nicholls’ conference postponed its fall 2020 season, which caused Evans to consider other options.
“They were saying they were going to play in the spring, but they weren’t sure,” Evans said. “I love football and I hate sitting out from football. The talk around everywhere was that the SEC was still playing, so I was trying to make a move. One of my trainers told me that LSU was interested in me, so I was talking with him a lot.”
Evans entered the transfer portal in August of 2020 and LSU followed through with a scholarship offer. He enrolled at his dream school three weeks before the start of the season.
“It was definitely tough, especially leaving somewhere I had been all my years,” Evans said. “But it was me just loving football and not knowing if we were going to have a season or not. And LSU, it’s hard to pass up.”
Evans immediately carved out a role on defense and special teams in his first season at LSU. He had a bigger role last season, stepping in as a starting outside corner when No. 3 pick Derek Stingley was sidelined with a foot injury.
“It gave me more of an opportunity,” Evans said. “I think it went well for me. I always have confidence in myself.”
The 6-foot-2, 179-pound Evans teamed up with Giants third-round pick Cor’Dale Flott in LSU’s secondary for the past two seasons.
“It’s going to be crazy because me and him and our work ethic, especially being back together, we know what we can do,” Evans said. “It’s going to be a boost and it’s going to propel us through the season and help us get better.”
The Giants also signed Kentucky safety Yusuf Corker as an undrafted free agent, but he wasn’t available for an interview. Also, the Giants had agreed to sign Florida defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell, but he didn’t sign after failing his physical, according to a source.
(Photo: Scott Winters / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)