Jan 292021
 
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Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants (November 8, 2020)

Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence – © USA TODAY Sports

Except for two outliers seasons (2013 and 1016), the New York Giants have struggled on defense for the past decade. The challenge for the team through four head coaches (Tom Coughlin, Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, Joe Judge) and four defensive coordinators (Perry Fewell, Steve Spagnuolo, James Bettcher, Patrick Graham) has simply to move New York out of the bottom tier of the NFL on defense:

  • 2011: 27th
  • 2012: 31st
  • 2013: 8th
  • 2014: 29th
  • 2015: 32nd
  • 2016: 10th
  • 2017: 31st
  • 2018: 24th
  • 2019: 25th

With the fourth new regime coming in six years and serious personnel issues in the defensive back seven, it seemed unlikely the Giants would be able to improve their defensive team ranking in 2020. There was also viable media and fan concern about new Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham. In his first season as defensive coordinator in Miami in 2019, the Dolphins had finished 31st on defense. Miami Head Coach Brian Flores had also let Graham out of his contract to join Judge in New York, which seemed like a curious move.

To the credit of the entire coaching staff, the New York Giants finished the year 12th in yards allowed an 9th in points allowed. This was a major accomplishment for a team with no dangerous edge rushers or starting-caliber cornerback opposite of James Bradberry. While the two major free agent additions (Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez) were the two best players on the defense, the best overall unit was the defensive line.

The line benefitted from the coaching of Sean Spencer, the highly-regarded defensive line coach who Joe Judge lured away from Penn State. But it’s also important to note that Graham himself was a defensive line coach with the Patriots (2012-2013) and Giants (2016-2017).

Graham had his defense run out of multiple fronts, but the bread-and-butter was still a 3-4 system that remarkably employed only five defensive lineman all season. The sixth man (R.J. McIntosh) spent the whole year inactive. As a whole, the Giants were big, strong, powerful group that was tough to move off of the line of scrimmage. They were generally better against the run (10th in the NFL) than rushing the passer (21 of the team’s 40 sacks).

Ironically, the headliner ended up being the team’s most controversial defensive acquisition in years. Leonard Williams had a career year, accruing over one-fourth of the team’s sacks (11.5) and regularly being a disruptive presences as indicated by his team-high quarterback hits (30) and tackles for loss (14). He was also tied for fifth in combined tackles with 57.

The other two year-long starters were second-year defensive end Dexter Lawrence and third-year nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. While Williams received 74 percent of all defensive snaps, Lawrence and Tomlinson each saw 60 percent of all defensive snaps. These two finished with almost 100 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, and 14 tackles for losses. Williams, Lawrence, and Tomlinson represented almost 1,000 pounds of beef up front, making life easier for the linebackers.

It’s also important to note the yeoman’s work of the only two reserves who saw action all year: B.J. Hill (34 percent of all defensive snaps) and Austin Johnson (21 percent of all defensive snaps). Both have started in this league, yet they accepted their back-up roles without complaint.

Looking past 2020, the offseason challenge for the Giants will be the retention of free agents Williams and Tomlinson.

THE STARTERS

In his sixth NFL season, Leonard Williams had his best season as a pro in 2020. Williams played in all 16 games with 12 starts (74 percent of defensive snaps) and finished the year with 57 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery. The 6’5”, 302-pound Williams was the sixth player taken overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. The Giants acquired Williams by trade from the in late October 2019. Williams is a stout, strong, physical run defender. While he lacks classic quick-twitch outside pass-rush skills, Williams can pressure the passer due to his combination of power and overall athleticism. He has the ability to line up inside or outside to create match-up problems.

In his second season with the Giants in 2020, Dexter Lawrence played in all 16 games with 15 starts (60 percent of defensive snaps) and finished the year with 53 tackles, six tackles for a loss, four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and two pass defenses. The Giants drafted Lawrence in the 1st round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team. Built like a prototypical run-stuffing nose tackle with excellent size and strength, the Giants play him more at defensive end. His size and power often force other teams to double-team him. While Lawrence can generate a power rush, he lacks dynamic pass rush moves to consistently reach the quarterback.

For the second year in a row, Dalvin Tomlinson served as the team’s primary nose tackle. He started all 16 games, playing 60 percent of all defensive snaps, and was credited with 49 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and four pass defenses. The Giants drafted Tomlinson in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Tomlinson has started all 64 games since he was drafted and has played both 3- and 1-technique roles with the Giants. Tomlinson is a big, strong, physical defender who flashes the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield.

THE RESERVES

In his third NFL season, B.J. Hill continued to see his playing time decline. He played in all 16 games with no starts, playing 34 percent of all defensive snaps (down from 59 percent in 2018 and 44 percent in 2019). Hill was credited with 32 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, three quarterback hits, and one pass defense. The Giants drafted Hill in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Hill has a nice combination of size and athleticism. He is a better run defender than pass rusher.

The Giants signed Austin Johnson as an unrestricted free agent from the Tennessee Titans in March 2020. He played in all 16 games, with no starts (21 percent of all defensive snaps), and was credited with 18 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one quarterback hit, one pass defense, and one forced fumble. The 6’4”, 314-pound Johnson was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Titans. In four seasons in Tennessee, Johnson played in 58 regular-season games with 13 starts, compiling 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and five pass defenses. Johnson is a big, strong run defender who never lived up to expectations in Tennessee.

In his third year with the Giants in 2020, R.J. McIntosh spent the entire season on the inactive list. The Giants selected McIntosh in the 5th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. After missing most of his rookie season with unpublicized medical condition, McIntosh played in 12 games as a reserve in 2019, playing 10 percent of all defensive snaps, and finishing the year with 13 tackles and two sacks. McIntosh combines good size and overall athleticism.

PRACTICE SQUAD

The Giants signed David Moa to the Practice Squad in early October 2020. The 6’3”, 296-pound Moa was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Minnesota Vikings after the 2020 NFL Draft. The Vikings waived him in early September and he then spent a week on the Practice Squad on the Atlanta Falcons.

Jun 012020
 
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B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants (November 25, 2018)

B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson – © USA TODAY Sports

With New York Giants training camp hopefully 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. Keep in mind that some of the players discussed may be cut as the 2020 NFL draft class signs their rookie contracts.

FIND A COMPLETE LIST OF ALL BREAKDOWNS HERE

POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Defensive Line

2019 YEAR IN REVIEW: As expected, the defensive line was the strongest unit on the New York defense in 2019. However, that was small consolation on a defense that finished 25th in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed. Once again, the Giants fielded one the League’s worst defenses. This has been a decade-long trend and probably the biggest reason why the team has become a doormat in recent years.

Quality run and pass defense relies on all three levels of the defense playing well together. So it is always unwise to judge each separate unit in a vacuum. Linebackers and defensive backs need to be in the right position and make the tackle in run defense. A good pass rush also depends on linebackers and defensive backs being able to cover backs, tight ends, and receivers. Long story short, the Giants defensive line did not receive much help from the back seven. This was exacerbated by a 3-4 scheme that puts the onus on the linebackers to be play-makers. The players also never seemed to fully embrace Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher’s system.

The Giants entered 2019 with what on paper looked to be a strong starting unit of RDE Dexter Lawrence (2019 1st-round pick), NT Dalvin Tomlinson (2017 2nd-round pick), and LDE B.J. Hill (2018 3rd-round picks). However, depth was very thin with only DE R.J. McIntosh (2018 5th-round pick) and Olsen Pierre (2019 free agent) in reserve. Oddly, two days after the Giants fell to 2-6, General Manager Dave Gettleman traded away two draft picks for soon-to-be-unrestricted free agent Leonard Williams, who had failed to live up to expectations with the Jets. A half-season rental was the type of move a team in the middle of a playoff fight would only be expected to make, not a team clearly needing every draft pick it could keep or acquire. Williams would soon take many of B.J. Hill’s snaps and Pierre Olsen was let go.

Overall, the Giants finished a disappointing 20th in run defense (allowing 113 yards per game) and 28th in pass defense (allowing 264 yards per game). The Giants generated only 36 sacks with only 11.5 coming from the defensive line. That said, Dexter Lawrence (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks) had a promising first season, being named to the All-Rookie Team. Dalvin Tomliinson (49 tackles, 3.5 sacks) became a more disruptive player as the season progressed. Leonard Williams (26 tackles, 0.5 sacks) started five of his eight games with the Giants. As advertised, he was a good run defender who only teased as a pass rusher. More was expected from B.J. Hill (36 tackles, 1 sack), who saw his playing time, tackles, and sacks fall from his promising 2018 rookie season. R.J. McIntosh only played in 10 percent of defensive snaps and finished with only 13 tackles, but did have two sacks in limited opportunities. 2019 7th-round Chris Slayton spent most of the year on the Practice Squad.

ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: This unit saw the least change during the offseason. Other than Olsen Pierre, who was waived last November, everyone returns. Gettleman doubled down on Leonard Williams, slapping a 1-year, $16 million Franchise Tag on him. The only newcomers are Austin Johnson (unrestricted free agent from Tennessee Titans) and Niko Lalos (undrafted rookie free agent).

TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The new coaching staff is being very coy about the new defense, vaguely repeating that it will be “multiple.” When asked if the Giants will be a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, new Defensive Patrick Graham responds, “yes.” But even a cursory look at the depth chart strongly suggests that the Giants will remain a  predominately 3-4 base as the team currently has nine defensive linemen and 17 linebackers. Nevertheless, expect Graham to constantly change fronts based on opponent, game plan, and down-and-distance.

Personally, I will be curious to see if Dexter Lawrence stays at end or plays more at nose tackle. He has the ability to develop into a truly imposing force in the League. Can Dalvin Tomlinson build upon his strong second half of the 2019 season? Can B.J. Hill return to his more disruptive play as a rookie in 2018? Most importantly, is Leonard Williams worth the the two draft picks and $16 million?

As part of an integrated defense, this unit will ultimately be judged on whether the team can dramatically improve its run defense and pass rush.

ON THE BUBBLE: For a team entering training camp with a 90-man roster, this team remains awfully thin on the line with only nine players. Assuming Niko Lalos spends him time with the defensive line (they gave him a DL jersey number), he clearly is on the bubble. Austin Johnson and Chris Slayton could also be fighting for one roster spot. Barring injury, everyone else should make the team.

PREDICTIONS: Patrick Graham is a relatively unknown commodity. The 41-year old coach has only served as defensive coordinator for one season at any level, that being his 30th-ranked defense with the talent-deficient Dolphins in 2019. Miami also oddly let him out of his contract to join the Giants. One gets the sense that the defensive line will thrive or fail depending on Graham’s overall effectiveness as a coordinator and whether or not the back seven can improve its play. There is talent on the defensive line, but the coaches, linebackers, and defensive backs need to step it up. Keep in mind that Graham served as defensive line coach with the Patriots (2012-2013) and Giants (2016-2017).

It will also be interesting to see how the players respond to new Defensive Line Coach Sean Spencer, aka “Coach Chaos.” Spencer has never coached at the NFL level but his relentless coaching style is vastly different from his predecessor with the Giants who was very low key (at least publicly). In addition, Outside Linebacker Coach/Senior Assistant Bret Bielema was the defensive line coach with the Patriots in 2019.

Do not expect any of the Giants’ current defensive linemen to become double-digit sack masters. None of them have that type of dynamic skill set. These are big, powerful linemen who can hold the point-of-attack, disrupt, and potentially control the line of scrimmage. But the best you can probably expect from each is 5-6 sacks in a season.

FINAL DEPTH CHART: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, R.J. McIntosh, Austin Johnson

Johnson was an under-the-radar singing who really could help the depth situation. Can Chris Slayton show enough to stick?

Mar 262020
 
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Austin Johnson, Tennessee Titans (August 29, 2019)

Austin Johnson – © USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK GIANTS SIGN DEFENSIVE TACKLE AUSTIN JOHNSON…
TheAthleticNYC is reporting that the New York Giants have signed unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Austin Johnson (Tennessee Titans). Terms of the deal are not currently publicly known.

The 25-year old, 6’4”, 314-pound Johnson was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Titans. In four seasons in Tennessee, Johnson played in 58 regular-season games with 13 starts, compiling 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and five pass defenses. In 2019, Johnson played in all 16 regular-season games with one start and finished the year with 23 tackles. Johnson is a big, strong run defender who never lived up to expectations in Tennessee. He played under current Giants’ defensive line coach Sean Spencer at Penn State.

For a complete listing of free agent comings and goings, see the New York Giants 2020 Free Agency Scorecard section of the website.