Resetting the New York Giants' Roster on Defense

The Giants added a lot of new faces to the defense. Let's see how those new faces potentially fit into what defensive coordinator Patrick Graham hopes to accomplish.
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 Even though the Giants ranked 11th in rushing yards per game, 16th in passing yards per game, and ninth in points allowed per game, they still recognized their defense must improve, and I love to see that. Dave Gettleman put a high priority on the defensive line when he first arrived in New York, but he is now really focusing on stopping opposing passing attacks this could be a Joe Judge influence.

Judge comes from New England, where they have always invested a lot of assets into the secondary. Before the 2021 NFL Draft, the Giants had, arguably, a top seven secondary in the NFL, and they have now added Aaron Robinson from UCF and Rodarius Williams from Oklahoma State, both cornerbacks.

Robinson is a fluid cornerback who profiles a bit more for a slot role or the STAR role (hybrid safety/LB in the box). Williams may be nothing more than a special teamer if he cracks the roster, but he offers solid disruptiveness at the catch point, physicality in run support, and he has a lot of experience playing press-man coverage.

The Giants ran a lot of zone coverage concepts last season. There was a glaring liability at the second cornerback spot, opposite James Bradberry. The Giants signed Adoree Jackson and now drafted both Robinson and Williams; Patrick Graham now has the personnel to run a lot more press-man and man-match concepts, something his pedagogue would often run in New England. 

The scheme should have some tweaks to it with the infusion of quality personnel the Giants acquired this off-season in the secondary.

Defensive Line

The departure of Dalvin Tomlinson hurts this group; he was an anchor as a two-down run-stuffing player who allowed Patrick Graham to run two-gapping concepts upfront. 

Those concepts allow linebackers to scrape easier and clog the interior gaps. In base personnel, the Giants ran a lot of 3-4 tight fronts, with the strong side of the formation having a 4i-technique and the weak side having a 3-technique, with both outside linebackers dropped to a two-point stance on the line of scrimmage.

This front spills runs outside and allows the force or secondary force defenders to rally to the football. The Giants added Danny Shelton in free agency, and he can be the poor man's version of Tomlinson on early downs. 

Dexter Lawrence profiles as a player that can fill that role, but the Giants like to use him as the 4i-technique whose job is to stack, read the play, and react, albeit Graham switched his personnel groupings upfront well.

Leonard Williams was the versatile weapon that aligned all over the front and was a true three-down player for the defense. In base, he would be the 3-technique to the backside, but he also aligned as the 4i-technique at times. 

Williams had 11.5 sacks and was insanely valuable to Graham’s ability to generate pressure, mainly on twists and stunts. The combination of Williams’ length, size, bend, and athletic ability is rare to find.

Lawrence and Williams are the two main defensive linemen, and I believe Shelton will have a significant early-down role. Then there’s B.J. Hill, a 2018 third-round draft pick and underrated player who has been used situationally and on specific drives. 

Hill has violent, powerful hands that he uses well to rush the passer and shed blocks. He also has quality upfield burst, and the current scheme/situation might not optimize his talents.

Austin Johnson is another situationally player that the Giants use to spell the starters if the Giants' offense doesn’t sustain a drive, and the starters need breaks. I think he’s good in this role, but I wouldn’t want him on the field for more than 20 snaps a game. 

Johnson should be safe to make the roster after the team brought him back on a cheap deal; plus, he has a good history with the defensive line coach Sean Spencer.

There could be another roster spot up for grabs between R.J. McIntosh, Niko Lalos, Breeland Speaks, and David Moa. McIntosh was a Gettleman draft pick that has dealt with many injuries in his career and hasn’t seen the field since 2019. 

Lalos is an undrafted player out of Dartmouth (2020), and he played well down the stretch of the year in the little snaps he received.

Speaks and Moa are longshots for the roster, but the Giants targeted Speaks, a 6’3" 285-pound defensive lineman drafted in the second round by the Chiefs but who has hardly played due to injury. Moa is the longest shot out of the position group. He’s an undrafted guy in 2020 out of Boise State.

Edge

The Giants Edge players were a huge topic for the team heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. It may have been a dereliction of duty of the position group was entirely overlooked since the presumed starters, Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, are battling back from injury. However, the Giants added Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith in the second and fourth rounds, respectively.

Carter is coming off a season-ending Achilles tear, one of the more devastating injuries to overcome. He’s still only 25-years-old, but the questions about his 2021 role are understandable given the circumstances. Ximines had a solid rookie year but spent most of his sophomore year on IR. I like the quickness and active hands that Ximines possesses, but he needs to become better at setting the EDGE and stopping the run--he’s not a power player.

I would argue that Smith struggles with run defense as well, but there’s a ton of potential with him. He’s still growing into his body; if the Giants want him to put weight on, he could (if they want him to maintain his quick nature as a pass-rushing specialist, he could). I believe he’ll be used as a situational pass rusher early in his career until he gets a bit stronger.

Ojulari can rush the passer, drop into coverage, and defend the run - he brings a lot of physicality to the table for a 6’2 EDGE. He should start year one, possibly week one depending on Lorenzo Carter’s health. 

I can see the Giants using Ryan Anderson on early downs and maybe bringing Ojulari in on pass-rushing downs for the first few weeks until he’s up to speed with everything. His transition to the defense shouldn’t be that difficult, for the terminology is similar to Glenn Schumann's defense at Georgia.

Anderson shouldn’t receive too many snaps on obvious passing downs, but he probably will get some. However, Ifeadi Odenigbo should be used on early and passing downs. I won’t be shocked if he’s a Week 1 starter on the EDGE because he too can execute many of the assignments that Graham asks of his EDGE rushers. Odenigbo had 42 pressures last season, which would have ranked second on the Giants behind Leonard Williams. He may be the sleeper addition of the Giants 2021 free-agent class.

I believe Cam Brown is virtually a lock for the roster as well, with Carter Coughlin more than likely making it too. The former is vital on special teams and is a leader with ties to Coach Sean Spencer and Coach Pat Flaherty. Coughlin has juice off the EDGE but is just too light and lacks pop in his hands. Coughlin also played 147 special teams snaps last year.

Behind Brown and Coughlin is Trent Harris and Raymond Johnson III. I don’t think they’ll be much room for Harris on the roster, but Johnson is an interesting player who went undrafted in 2021 and quietly signed with the Giants. 

He played his football at Georgia Southern and was very productive. Through four seasons, he had 147 pressures and 14 sacks. He’ll probably end up on the practice squad and then get called up if more injuries develop at this position group.

Linebackers

The addition of Blake Martinez in the 2020 free-agent period was a remarkable upgrade over Alec Ogletree. The former Green Bay Packer racked up 151 combined tackles, and he tied for third in the NFL in STOPS (a PFF stat that measures a negative offensive play). Martinez was a centerpiece in Patrick Graham’s 2020 system.

The Giants also invested in the linebacker position in other ways during the 2020 off-season. The team drafted T.J. Brunson and Tae Crowder in the 7th round, the former was often inactive, while the latter being the starter next to Martinez for most of the season when he was healthy.

I expect Brunson to be on the bubble with a chance to crack the roster if he developed during the offseason--he also could be a practice squad option which makes sense. The Giants failed to address the position in the draft, so Crowder should still have the inside track on the starting job in base personnel.

New York also added former Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, most recently with the Detroit Lions, a defense that ran similar concepts to Patrick Graham's defense. I think Ragland will fill the void on the roster left by the release of David Mayo. I think things get interesting when we examine personnel on the defense in sub-packages.

The majority of snaps are in sub-packages these days since the league tends to thrive with quick passing concepts. I won’t be shocked if the second linebacker next to Martinez’s snaps gets scaled down for the likes of a STAR, safety/linebacker role that can be executed by Jabril Peppers, Xavier McKinney, or Aaron Robinson. Ultimately, I expect the Giants to have two linebackers (EDGEs excluded) on the field a lot, but we may see a bit more dollar.

There could be a special teams spot for either Cale Garrett or Devonte Downs, but I’m honestly hoping that spot would be essentially only for specials. I can’t speak much on Garrett’s skills, but Downs played 233 defensive plays last season, and that’s 233 too many.

Secondary

Arguably, the most significant liability on the defense was the starting cornerback spot opposite of James Bradberry, who played like a top-five cornerback in the league last year. The second outside spot was a revolving door involving Isaac Yiadom, Ryan Lewis, and Julian Love towards the end of the season, with Darnay Holmes manning the nickel position.

Love was used a lot as a safety last season due to the injury to Xavier McKinney. After the second-round pick returned from his foot injury, Love transitioned back to the position he played in college  (outside corner). Love was solid against the Browns and Cowboys at cornerback, but didn’t show enough for the Giants not to invest heavily into his position group.

The Giants had to upgrade their cornerback spot to allow Patrick Graham to run more man coverage concepts. They signed Adoree Jackson, a former first-round pick by the Titans who was released earlier in the off-season, to a 3-year, $39 million deal. Jackson can play inside or out but will be the second outside cornerback opposite Bradberry; it should be a significant upgrade over the players from last season.

In the slot, there is going to be an intense camp battle between Darnay Holmes and third-round rookie out of UCF, Aaron Robinson. Holmes showed a lot of grit and toughness in his first season while also being a solid cover corner. If Holmes wins, I still believe Robinson will find his way onto the football field.

The secondary was allocated ten active roster spots on week one of 2020. It’s a very deep position group, and there may be only two roster spots available for a group that includes Isaac Yiadom, Rodarius Williams, Jarren Williams, Madre Harper, Quincy Wilson, Montre Hartage, Chris Milton, Joshua Kalu, and Sam Beal because the Giants are projected to keep a lot of safeties on the roster. 

Obviously, this is all contingent on injuries which can change a lot. Beal is a complete unknown at this point who was billed as a press-man, so he may have an uphill climb.

Hartage and Harper have some positional flexibility at safety, with Harper being a player that the coaching staff enjoys. Hartage was with Patrick Graham in Miami, for what that is worth. I believe with the pay cut, Yiadom secures one of the two spots, leaving the rest in an interesting fight for one roster spot.

This secures Bradberry, Jackson, Holmes, Robinson, McKinney, Love, Jabrill Peppers, and Logan Ryan as virtual locks. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Giants go Yiadom and rookie sixth-round pick Rodarius Williams, but training camp will be telling.

The safeties are going to be used creatively, as they’ve been. McKinney has the serious single-high ability if the Giants run Cover-1, and Ryan does a great job operating in the robber role. Peppers has box qualities and can certainly play the star position, while Love can step up and play multiple secondary roles if injuries materialize. This secondary has the upside to be a top-five unit in the NFL.

Final Thoughts

This Patrick Graham-led defense added a brilliant defensive mind, Jeremy Pruitt, while also adding secondary pieces that should transition to a more man coverage based defense. These additions will allow the Giants to diversify their coverages, and it will keep quarterbacks guessing. 

The five-man pressure packages should remain the same, and the stunts should be more fun with better athletes like Ifeadi Odenigbo, Elerson Smith, and Azeez Ojulari opposite Leonard Williams. New York’s flashed quality defense on all three levels in 2020 - now it is time to take the next step towards consistent football at all levels. 

Jackson is an upgrade on the outside, and hopefully, Crowder, or Ragland, rises to the top next to Martinez. The Tomlinson departure is unfortunate, but if Danny Shelton can be half of Tomlinson, then the Giants should be on the right path defensively in 2021. 


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