With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Defensive Line
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: After a quarter of a century of playing the 4-3 defense, the New York Giants shifted back to a 3-4 defense in 2018 under new Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher. While not the old 2-gap defense of the 1980s, the new defense did place more of the pass-rush onus on the outside linebackers than defensive ends. It was anticipated that the big, strong, tackle-like trio of nose tackle Damon Harrison and ends Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill would dominate the line of scrimmage. While the defensive line was arguably the strongest unit on a disappointing defense, much more was expected. Former All-Pro Harrison was surprisingly traded away in late October after a dreadful 1-6 start. The Giants publicly claimed this was done to move Tomlinson and Hill to more natural positions, but there was also speculation, fueled by senior official comments of bad team chemistry, that the Giants considered Harrison a locker room cancer.
Tomlinson began the year playing the 3-technique position (9 starts) before being moved to the 1-technique spot (7 starts) after Harrison was traded. He finished the season with 59 tackles and no sacks. The rookie Hill played in all 16 regular-season games with 12 starts, finishing the season with 48 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and two pass defenses. Hill was shifted from the five-technique position to the three-technique after the team traded away Harrison. Others to receive significant playing time included Josh Mauro, Kerry Wynn, and Mario Edwards. 5th-rounder R.J. McIntosh missed most of the season with an undisclosed medical condition.
In the end, the numbers were not good. Team defense “improved” from 31st in 2017 to 24th in 2018. The Giants were 20th in run defense in 2018, allowing over 118 yards per game and 4.3 yards per rush, which were very similar to their 2017 numbers. Of course, much of the blame for this disappointing result must also rest with the linebackers and defensive backs, who were often out of position and missed too many tackles. Pathetically, the defensive line was only credited with 10 sacks.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants did not show much interest in re-signing any of their free agent defensive ends and Josh Mauro (Raiders), Kerry Wynn (Bengals), and Mario Edwards (Saints) all left in free agency. The Giants did re-sign nose tackle John Jenkins, who hardly played in 2018.
The Giants signed Olsen Pierre from the Cardinals, Jake Ceresna from the CFL, and street free agent Alex Jenkins. The team drafted Dexter Lawrence in the 1st round and Chris Slayton in the 7th round. Rookie free agent Freedom Akinmoladun was signed after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The New York Giants have invested significant draft resources to rebuild their defensive line, including 2019 1st-round pick Dexter Lawrence, 2017 2nd-round pick Dalvin Tomlinson, and 2018 3rd-round pick B.J. Hill. These three are expected to form the strength of the team’s defense, stuffing the run, generating some interior pass rush, and enabling quicker defenders to get after the quarterback. It’s not exactly clear who will play where, and even the coaches have suggested it will change from game-to-game. It’s fair to say that more has been expected of Tomlinson and it will be important for him to step it up this year. Hill is coming off of a solid rookie season and it will be interesting to see if he can build upon his 5.5 sack rookie performance. The 340-pound Lawrence could develop into a Haloti Ngata-like difference-maker. The book on him is that he is strictly a run defender, but there are those who insist he is more than that.
Entering camp, the Giants are a bit thin at the position with just 10 players. It was a bit surprising that the Giants let all of their reserve ends walk in free agency. Because of that, there is pressure on R.J. McIntosh to develop quickly in what will essentially be his rookie season. Olsen Pierre could also have a bigger role than many fans anticipate. Other than the starters, the only nose-tackle-type linemen on the roster are rookie Chris Slayton and journeyman John Jenkins, who was virtually ignored in free agency, only re-signing in May.
ON THE BUBBLE: There are only 10 defensive lineman on the roster. The Giants will carry at least six. The obvious players on the bubble are Jake Ceresna, Alex Jenkins, Freedom Akinmoladun, and John Jenkins.
FROM THE COACHES: Head Coach Pat Shurmur on the defensive line this Spring: “There is no contact, so it is really hard to fully evaluate both lines until we start banging around a little bit. We like the way they are moving around. There are some youthful guys that are in there and doing a good job. They are picking up the system really well. We are pleased with what we are seeing.”
Shurmur on R.J. McIntosh: “He is caught up. He is doing well. With defensive linemen, we will see more once we can get in more hitting situations. He is moving around well and has gotten much stronger since he has gotten here. He fits well in the defense and looks like he is getting himself right for training camp.”
Shurmur on Dexter Lawrence: “I think he gets it… The first thing that jumps out about Dexter is he’s a pretty big man. He’s got a feel for things. He’s a guy that can play the run and rush the passer. We’re looking forward to getting him going. When you pick a guy from Clemson, and he’s played on the biggest stage there is in college football. The other thing that struck me is this isn’t going to be too big for him.”
Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher on the defensive line: “They are working extremely hard and doing everything they are asked to do. Very aware of things they need to improve on.”
Bettcher on the players being more interchangeable up front: “I think you have to be the way the league is now. I think there is enough motions, adjustments and offensive guys are good enough now. For the most part, they are not going to let a nose just sit there and play nose the whole game. They are going to make him slide and extend the play on guards and edges of guards. They are going to motion and do enough to have to be interchangeable enough to defend what we see from an offensive standpoint. Number two, I think they all have enough position flex to do that. We want guys to have the flexibility to play up and down the line. A really good NFL defensive line room has a great rotation. The four, five and six hole spots, whoever those guys are, gaining reps, 15 snaps, 12 snaps, 20 snaps depending on the game, those are important snaps just like the other snaps… It will be competing each week to see who gets the most snaps, who will be the starter in different packages. I love that part about it.”
Bettcher on Dexter Lawrence: “One of the biggest humans that I have ever seen, moves as quick as he can move. A 330-pound guy that is going to come in and compete, help us be the type of run defense that we want to be. Also, don’t forget the guy ran about five flat at 345 pounds. That does not happen very often. A lot of people got to see him move at rookie mini-camp. We are excited to have him.”
Defensive Line Coach Gary Emanuel on Dexter Lawrence: “We think Dexter will develop into a three down player… His ability to stop the run excites everybody. For a guy that size to move as well as he does, you have to get excited about that.”
Emanuel on Chris Slayton: “Chris is a great young man and we think Chris has a great upside… He’s an inside guy who brings some versatility. He can play the nose position, he can play the 3-technique and he’s an interior defensive line player. I don’t think we’ll see him much on the edge but he has a great capacity to improve out there in the interior.”
PREDICTIONS: On paper, this should be a really good group. They are young, big, strong, and athletic for their size. They look like what you want a 3-4 defensive line to look like. But the proof is in the pudding and the team needs to improve what has been a subpar run defense. When Lawrence was drafted, I thought he would immediately be the starting nose tackle, but he appears to have spent perhaps even more time starting at end this Spring. That would suggest that the coaches are truly impressed with his movement skills for a big man. If he can push the pocket on a consistent basis, and if B.J. Hill continues to evolve as a pass rusher, this unit could surprise attacking the quarterback. Two wild cards are Dalvin Tomlinson and R.J. McIntosh. Tomlinson should be making more impact plays; he is capable of breaking out. Fans saw very little of McIntosh last year. He’s built more like a pass rusher than the starting three and could become an important role player. Don’t be surprised to see Olsen Pierre get significant playing time as a reserve.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Dexter Lawrence, B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson, R.J. McIntosh, Olsen Pierre, and Chris Slayton.