With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Defensive Ends
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW: Ever since the New York Giants transitioned to the 4-3 defense from the 3-4 in 1994, the defensive line has been the heart of a New York Giants defense. But for the third time in the last four seasons, the defense gave up over 6,000 yards (the only times in franchise history the defense has done so). Everyone is to blame, including the defensive ends.
The headliner up front, Jason Pierre-Paul (JPP) started the season off slowly and didn’t really impact games the way he should until the Giants were already out of playoff contention. Mathias Kiwanuka started 11 games at left defensive end, but did not play well and finished the season on Injured Reserve. Free agent acquisition Robert Ayers flashed as a pass rusher at both defensive tackle and end, but was inconsistent against the run and also finished the season on IR. The coaching staff did not appear to trust Damontre Moore, who did not start a game. By year’s end, he was surprisingly passed on the depth chart by undrafted rookie Kerry Wynn. Jordan Stanton was a rookie free agent who spent a couple of stints on the Practice Squad.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants waived Mathias Kiwanuka in February. The team signed George Selvie (1-year, $1.2 million) in free agency. The Giants drafted Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft and signed Brad Harrah as a rookie free agent after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Even before the July 4th fireworks accident that caused severe burns to one of his hands, Pierre-Paul was going to be the main focus given that it was likely (now certain) that he was going to play out the season on his $14.813 million Franchise tender. JPP had a bounce-back year in 2014 but everyone is still looking for the 2011 version of the player who dominated. The Giants are most likely concerned about his inconsistency, previous back injury issues, dedication and focus, and now judgement if he signs a huge, multi-year contract. At this time, it is unknown how Pierre-Paul’s hand injuries will impact his availability and performance in training camp, the preseason, and the regular season. ESPN is reporting that JPP may not return to the line-up until after the beginning of the regular season.
That all said, Pierre-Paul is still one of the very best defensive ends in the NFL, the best player on the Giants defense, and one of the few impact players on the team. How well he plays in 2015 will most likely determine if he remains a New York Giant after the season.
“If you just watch tape with JPP out there, it is evident to me that he is an elite defensive end and fits a 4-3 system, which is exciting,” said Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in June.
The other big issue is who starts at left defensive end opposite of Pierre-Paul? Mathias Kiwanuka is no longer in the picture. Though he has bulked up to about 255 pounds, Damontre Moore appears to lack the size and strength to anchor the strongside. So unless Steve Spagnuolo moves JPP to left end, Moore will probably be relegated to a situational pass rusher when JPP returns to the starting lineup. Moore does believe his pass rushing skill set is better suited to Spagnuolo’s system.
Robert Ayers was arguably the team’s best pass rusher until he got hurt and JPP improved down the stretch, but he was up and down in run defense in 2014.
George Selvie was a solid strongside run defender in Dallas who occasionally flashed on the pass rush. “George is going to fill in that gap that we have on that other side,” said Pierre-Paul, who played with Selvie in college. “He is going to fight for that starting spot. That’s a good thing. That will make everybody work harder.”
The dark horse could be Kerry Wynn, the 2014 rookie free agent with a nice combination of size, strength, and athletic ability. He received significant playing time in the final month of the 2014 season. The initial impression of his overall game is that he is a better run defender than pass rusher.
Physically-speaking, Owa Odighizuwa may be the most talented of the group. It would be difficult for a rookie to win the starting job, but Odighizuwa has the tools to become a very good two-way defensive end. He could surprise early.
ON THE BUBBLE: There will be some extremely tough decisions at defensive end. Normally the Giants would only carry four or five defensive ends. Barring injury, the only sure bets to make the roster are Pierre-Paul and Odighizuwa. Complicating matters is that JPP may not be on the active roster early in the season. It would be difficult to see the Giants giving up on Moore and Wynn just yet. Ayers is on the bubble, but he is a very good situational pass rusher. If Selvie plays in camp like he did with Dallas in 2013, he will be difficult to cut. Jordan Stanton has talent, but he and Harrah are extreme long shots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Robert Nunn on Jason Pierre-Paul: “You would hope (JPP starts 2015 like he finished 2014). His numbers increased there at the end. I thought he did some good things throughout but just didn’t have the numbers to show for it, and I have said that over and over, sacks are a little overrated, but his quarterback hits and his pressures, he was doing some good things. They were counting for him in a lot of different ways and he took advantage of some opportunities there at the end and got his numbers up. His tackles had to be up there in the top of the league. I don’t know where he was, but he had to be top two or three as far as the production and as far as in the run game and his pass production there at the end. I think it is just coming in healthy and in the right frame of mind and getting ready to start, he is going to be behind (due to missing the spring offseason work) but that is where we will start.”
Nunn on George Selvie: “Selvie is solid, he is a solid pro. He played well last year in Dallas and he has been steady.”
PREDICTIONS: With the signing of George Selvie, the drafting of Owa Odighizuwa, and the likelihood that Jason Pierre-Paul will miss training camp, I am guessing that Pierre-Paul will stay at right defensive end. Because of that, I have a hard time seeing Damontre Moore starting once Pierre-Paul returns to the starting line-up. Ultimately, Owa Odighizuwa will start at left defensive end, but I doubt it happens early in the 2015 season and may not happen until 2016. Unless Ayers dramatically improves his consistency against the run or Odighizuwa really surprises early, I think the starting left defensive end job will be between George Selvie and Kerry Wynn.
JPP was in great shape and looked primed for a big season before the July 4th accident. Now it remains to be seen how the hand injuries will impact his game. Even if he is ready physically for the season opener, the time he missed with the team in the spring and now potentially in the summer will set him back in the new defense. Another question is will the Giants get a solid consistent pass rush on first and second down from the player opposite Pierre-Paul? Selvie and Wynn have flashed in that area but their overall pass-rush ability remains a question mark. Situationally, Ayers proved to be a disruptive pass rusher particularly from the defensive tackle position and I think Spagnuolo will use Moore far better than Perry Fewell did.
If the Giants can get opposing teams into a lot of third-and-long situations, they will present problems with pass rushers like JPP, Moore, Ayers, and Odighizuwa, not to mention Devon Kennard and possibly Jay Bromley. But first and second down could be a problem. All three NFC East rivals like to run the football.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Even before Pierre-Paul’s accident, I was going to go out on a limb and say the Giants would keep six defensive ends: Pierre-Paul, Odighizuwa, Moore, Wynn, Ayers, and Selvie. Now I’m even more convinced. All six can have important roles on the team. Ayers is too good of an inside pass rusher to cut. The Giants were really high on Wynn when they signed him as a rookie last year and thus far he hasn’t disappointed. Selvie could be vulnerable if he does not flash in the preseason and Wynn does, but my guess is the coaches will be more comfortable with his veteran presence in the line-up on opening night. I’m really hoping things work out for Pierre-Paul and the Giants long term because replacing JPP in 2016 would be extremely difficult.