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
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: It was basically a two-man show for much of the season for the New York Giants on the defensive line. Dexter Lawrence’s third professional coaching staff in four years finally moved him to his more natural nose tackle position. With that move, and being guided by arguably the best defensive line coach in football, Lawrence responded with a breakout season, earning second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition. Lawrence started 16 regular-season games, being a healthy scratch in the regular-season finale. He played in an astounding 82 percent of defensive snaps. Lawrence was credited with 68 tackles, seven tackles for losses, 7.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hits, three pass defenses, and two forced fumbles. Despite being regularly double-teamed, Lawrence was a difference-maker in many contests as both a run defender and pass rusher.
The other headliner up front was Leonard Williams, who played 75 percent of the snaps in the games that he played. The problem was Williams missed three games with a knee injury in the first half of the season and another with a neck/stinger injury that nagged him much of the second-half of the season, causing him to leave a number of games early. Williams finished with his least productive season since joining the Giants in 2019, being credited with 45 tackles, five tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries.
The best of the rest was Nick Williams, a run defender who the Giants signed from the Detroit Lions in late July 2022. He played in eight games before landing on Injured Reserve with a season-ending biceps injury. He started seven games, accruing 15 tackles, two quarterback hits, and two pass defenses. Williams played 45 percent of defensive snaps in games that he appeared. Fifth-round draft pick D.J. Davidson also ended up on Injured Reserve after tearing his ACL in Week 5.
The Giants signed Justin Ellis as an unrestricted free agent from the Baltimore Ravens in March 2022. Ellis played in all 17 regular-season games with four starts, receiving 32 percent of defensive snaps. He finished with 22 tackles, two tackles for losses, and one sack.
Undrafted rookie free agent Ryder Anderson split time on both the Practice Squad and 53-man roster, ending up playing in seven regular-season games with two starts. Anderson finished the season with eight tackles, two tackles for losses, and two sacks. He played 33 percent of defensive snaps in the seven games that he appeared. The Giants signed Henry Mondeaux to the Practice Squad in September 2022 and the 53-man roster in November 2022. He ended up playing in 11 regular-season games with four starts, being credited with 16 tackles. Mondeaux also played 33 percent of defensive snaps in games that he appeared. The Giants signed Vernon Butler to the Practice Squad in mid-November 2022. He played in one game in Week 13.
Overall, the Giants were in good shape when Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams were on the field together at full strength. But both played far too many snaps and Williams had to deal with two significant injuries that negatively impacted his season. Two of the top reserves were lost in the first half of the season. And there was a noticeable drop-off in talent and performance when the remaining players filled in for Lawerence and Williams. This was particularly noticeable with strong rushing teams like the Philadelphia Eagles.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Vernon Butler was re-signed. Nick Williams (Chargers) and Henry Mondeaux (Jaguars) departed in free agency. Justin Ellis remains unsigned.
The Giants signed Rakeem Nunez-Roches (3-years, $12 million), A’Shawn Robinson (1-year, $5 million), and Kobe Smith (1-year, $750,000). The team also drafted Jordon Riley in the 7th round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Usually depth isn’t a top tier story line, but the additions of Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson are two of the most significant moves the team made this offseason. Both are former starters who have stood out in run defense. This should encourage the defensive staff to lower the ridiculous snap counts of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. Indeed, the Giants may now choose to play with heavier defensive line packages with Nunez Roches and/or Robinson playing alongside Lawrence and Williams, especially against run-centric offenses.
The other area to watch is the potential development of young players such as Ryder Anderson, D.J. Davidson, and Jordon Riley. Anderson has bulked up this offseason. Davidson flashed in his limited snaps, but he has to prove he has rebounded from the ACL injury. Riley was a little-known prospect, but he has great size.
ON THE BUBBLE: The Giants began last season with only five defensive linemen on the 53-man roster. This season, they will likely carry somewhere between five and seven. Six seems like the sweet spot. Barring injury, Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and A’Shawn Robinson are the sure bets with the other five players fighting fighting for one, two, or three spots.
FROM FRONT OFFICE/COACHES/PLAYERS: Assistant General Manager Brandon Brown on improving the team: “We wanted to get better against the run, and you’ve seen what we did in terms of adding Nacho (Rakeem Nuñez-Roches) and A’Shawn (Robinson) and getting (linebacker) Bobby O(kereke) in free agency, adding (safety) Bobby McCain as a vet in the secondary. Those things are not being satisfied. It’s being reflective, looking in the mirror, being honest with each other and saying, ‘Hey, how do we give the coaches the best opportunity to put the best product in the field?’”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on the new additions: “I think with the size of them, and you’ve seen them, they’ll be able to collapse (the pocket). Everybody thinks, when they think pass rush, the tackle guys, the inside guys. They think of Warren Sapp and Aaron Donald. God touched those guys twice. These guys have just been touched once. So, just as long as they can collapse the pocket, just like Dex did last year, and get the quarterback off the spot, you’ll see a lot of good things happen. I think we’ve got the size and the ability to do that.”
Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson on Dexter Lawrence: “I’m proud of him. He came in and worked real hard to try to master the technique and fundamentals we were teaching him and continue to grow more and more through the course of the season. But I’m greedy. It’s just the beginning. It’s not the end. I know he understands that. He’s out here working hard to continue to improve and get better.”
Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson on Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson: “They add a lot to the room. They have a lot of experience playing in this league. They are both big, strong, powerful guys that enjoy playing the run… I know A’Shawn and Nacho pride themselves on being really good run defenders. And their demeanor is all about the run game. I think that’s going to add to our room and how they see themselves and how they carry themselves on the field.”
Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson on Ryder Anderson: “I’m really, really pleased and happy with what Ryder has done this offseason. Last year he was 282, 285 pounds. Now he is 305. So he has changed his body. He is a big, strong man. He has gotten better with his technique over the OTAs.”
Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson on Jordon Riley: “He’s got some gifts that you can’t give him as a coach. He’s 6’5”, he’s 335 pounds. He’s a big, strong man. He’s got some things, technique-wise that we have to work with him on to improve and he’s done a good job since he’s been here trying to grasp those things. With the gifts he has, a coach can’t give you that. That’s what stood out to us.”
Dexter Lawrence on playing with Leonard Williams: “We’re top tier. We’ve been playing together four, going on five years now. Sometimes we look at each other and know what’s about to happen and know what we want to do in that play. So, I think, you know, we both stayed healthy and grow through this time off and come back in the best shape of our lives and do something special… I think it’s really important just to keep the group together. Keep the core together. He’s a great leader. Guys respect him. He brings a lot of knowledge. It’s like year nine for him, wow, he’s getting up there. He’s always been that way. He’s always been a great leader, and just to have him around is a breath of fresh air.”
Leonard Williams on Rakeem Nunez-Roches: “I’ve known him for a while now. We went to the Combine together. Two old heads… He has a great personality. Outgoing guy. He fits in our room perfectly, in the defense perfectly. You can tell he has some experience under his belt. There’s a lot of times where not only is he helping out with the younger guys, but we also established that type of room where we hold each other accountable as vets as well. Even though he is new to the team, he still sees stuff that he can help out on and will be vocal about it.”
Leonard Williams on the new additions to the defensive line: “I feel great about it. Me and Dex a lot of times had to take a lot of snaps. I think this year we’re going to have a great rotation with those guys we just added, A’Shawn and Nunez. We trust those guys. I don’t care think going to be any type of drop-off when the rotation starts happening… D-linemen are usually not taking 100% or 90% of snaps. It’s better to have a rotation and keep guys fresh. It’s going to be fun that way when we’re rotating guys, just beating up on offensive lines together. It’s going to be fun.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: The Giants run defense was 27th in the NFL in 2022. That’s not going to get it done against teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. It’s very difficult for us average fans to adequately judge why a run defense is poor. Many will point to the defensive line without understanding that the second and third levels of a defense are often just as guilty, if not more so for breakdowns. When asked about the run defense this offseason, coaches like Andre Patterson have made it clear that it was more than the defensive line. That all said, it was pretty apparent that the team’s reserves were not getting the job done, particularly after Nick Williams and D.J. Davidson were lost due to injury. And then there was the hidden cost of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams playing far too many snaps, and thus not playing near their full potential due to fatigue. And in Williams’ case, the previous ironman missed a month of action. It should not be underestimated just how important the signings of Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson are defensively. Both are proven starters and there should be little to no drop-off in run defense with these two. The best defensive teams can attack with waves of fresh defensive linemen. Look for additional reinforcements in next year’s draft. Keep in mind that A’Shawn Robinson is only on a 1-year deal.
There are a number of areas to watch on the defensive line. Was 2022 Dexter Lawrence’s career year and inspired by his contract situation? Or can he continue to play at the same high level or actually even get better? The 29-year old Leonard Williams enters his ninth season. Can he still be that ironman who plays at a high level? He’s on the last year of his contract, which counts for an astounding $32 million against the salary cap in 2023. His best season was 2020 with 11.5 sacks, and 30 quarterback hits. How he plays in 2023, and his willingness to accept less money, will probably determine his future with the team. This is another reason why defensive line might be a priority in the draft.
The wild cards in any defensive line discussion are the youngsters. Do the Giants have something in Ryder Anderson, D.J. Davidson, and Jordon Riley? That remains to be determined in July and August.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, A’Shawn Robinson, Ryder Anderson, D.J. Davidson.
Look for the team to attempt to sign Jordon Riley and Vernon Butler to the Practice Squad.