For the last couple of years, the Giants defensive line has been the undisputed top unit on the team, offense or defense.
One might have thought that would still be the case, especially considering PFF named Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence as two of its top 32 interior defensive linemen ahead of the 2021 season.
But for some reason, the defensive line didn't look as potent as it had in 2020. New York traded B.J. Hill to the Bengals, and they also lost Dalvin Tomlinson, two players who provided some firepower during their time here.
And we don't need PFF's grades to tell us that Lawrence didn't have as solid a season as he did in 2020 despite increases in quarterback pressures and tackles.
To us, it always felt like the defensive line was missing something. Maybe it was another dynamic force in the rotation, which they didn't really get from Danny Shelton, yet another veteran player with prior ties to now-former head coach Joe Judge.
Maybe it was how the unit's personnel was part of the scheme or the fact that the linebackers behind them lost Blake Martinez and his consistent ability to shoot through gaps.
Whatever it was that was missing, it was one of several factors that contributed to the Giants defense falling from No. 12 in 2020 to No. 21 in 2021.
Although the second year of Leonard Williams's contract will jump up to a $27.3 million cap hit, the Giants' total 2022 cap liabilities for their defensive line position currently stands at just $35 million. Besides Williams, Dexter Lawrence ($4,215,286) and Elerson Smith ($1,014,572) are the next two highest cap hits on the defensive line.
That's not a lot in the grand scheme of things, though Williams alone counts for most of that money.
It wasn't that long ago that the Giants defensive line monetary liabilities were among the lowest in the league, and the production was among the highest. That hasn't necessarily been the case, according to Football Outsiders.
In 2020, the Giants ranked 13th in adjusted line yards in the rushing game (13th), 17th in stuffed runs (17 percent), and 14th in 2nd level average yardage allowed (1.18).
In 2021, those rankings declined. The Giants finished 31st in adjusted line yards allowed in the rushing game (4.78), 28th in stuffed runs (13 percent), and 23rd in average second-level yards per rush (1.28).
Injuries to the linebackers didn't help, as in 2020, the defensive linemen were taking up blocks while linebackers were shooting gaps. But there were far too many instances where the defensive linemen got swallowed up this year, unlike last year.
Should they pick up Dexter Lawrence's option year?
With all the focus on whether to exercise quarterback Daniel Jones's option year, many people forget that Lawrence was the No. 17 overall pick in that 2019 draft, and thus, a decision needs to be made on his option year as well.
Lawrence had a strong year statistically. Per Pro Football Focus, he has 43 pressures in 427 pass-rush snaps. He’s also finished one stop shy of his career-best (33) set in 2020.
But when you take a defensive lineman that high, the expectations tend to be higher. At times this season, Lawrence has been handled one-on-one without shedding on too many downs, and while he’s taken up space, we haven’t seen as many plays made in pursuit as we have from him in the past.
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There was also hope that some of Lawrence's pressures might turn into sacks. He finished with 2.5 sacks this season, down from the 4.0 he logged in 2020. Considering his option year would cost the Giants $10.067 million in 2023, that might be a bit steep to allow for a player who thus far has been more of a run-stopper than the complete package the team was likely hoping it would get.
The Giants historically have let high-priced defensive interior linemen that they developed walk without giving them a second contract--Cornelius Griffin, Barry Cofield, Linval Joseph, and Dalvin Tomlinson all come to mind. With a new general manager coming in from the outside, perhaps that practice changes moving forward.
Then again, with a new head coach also coming in, the Giants might be better off not exercising any option years right now until they figure out how they are going to deploy the talent they do retain this year.
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Do they need to adjust Leonard Williams' contract?
With a new general manager coming in, one of his first objectives will be to fix the salary cap that has spiraled out of control thanks to the Giants' free-agency spending spree that left the team extremely top-heavy for 2022.
Williams leads the way with his $27.3 million cap hit, the biggest hit currently on the Giants' 2022 books. Williams's sack numbers might not have come close to what he logged in 2020, his contract year, but they also weren't horrible.
Williams finished the season with 6.5 sacks, which is the third-highest total in his career, following his 11.5 sack season in 2020 and his 7.0 sack showing in 2016 with the Jets. He has, however, set a new career-high in tackles with 81, though his tackles for a loss were at five, his third-lowest career total.
Williams certainly earned brownie points by playing through a triceps injury that was initially reported to be costing him at least one game, if not the rest of his season. The last thing the new general manager wants to do is to push a lot of money into 2023's cap, even though the cap is expected to increase as the new television broadcast revenues come flowing in.
But let's take a look at something that might be able to be done with Williams' $27.3 million cap figure that comes with his entire $19 million base salary guaranteed.
In the above example, which was calculated using Over the Cap's contract constructor tool, $10 million of Williams' base salary is turned into a signing bonus which he'd receive upfront.
An additional voidable year is added to the contract to help absorb the $3.333 million additional prorated signing bonus from the restructure. Meanwhile, the Giants save nearly $7 million on the restructure for the coming year.
Although this inflates Williams's $26.3 million cap hit in 2023 by about $3 million, if the Giants decide to cut him in 2023, they can designate him a post-June 1 transaction if they want to optimize their savings.
This all being said, since Williams has been a solid performer for the Giants, they might leave his contract alone for now and only touch it if they have to later in the season.
Keep, Tweak or Dump?
Tweak--no make that overhaul. Shelton, who was signed to a one-year "prove it" deal, showed that he wasn't much of a factor. Johnson will be a free agent this off-season. Elerson Smith, listed as a defensive end/outside linebacker, was a non-factor due to injuries.
Williams is a keeper and Lawrence will be back as he continues his quest for a second contract from the team. But the Giants need more on this unit--a lot more, which now that I think of it, maybe that's what was missing from this unit after all--the lack of different skills sets that kept this group from becoming too vanilla.