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.
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 9.5 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?