Unit Review | More Pass Rushers, Please
Remember the good old days of Super Bowls XLII and XLVI? Besides being fun teams to watch, those two teams had one thing in common that the Giants teams of late haven’t had.
A consistent pass rush.
The success and failure of pass rush aren’t solely on the edge rushers. If the defensive line is getting a push up front, is occupying multiple blockers and is doing its job, that all makes it a lot easier for the guys commonly designated as pass rushers to do their jobs.
The problem with the Giants is that they haven’t had a set up where one pass rusher has been so damn good that he has drawn double- and triple-team blocks, which will ideally make things easier for the others to get a push.
Let’s look at some numbers—and not just sack totals either as while sacks are the desired result, pressures, hits, and hurries are just as much a part of the pass rush picture as anything.
In 2007, Pro Football Focus had the Giants finishing with 407 total pressures, with 53 of those (13%) turning into sacks.
In 2011, the Giants generated 336 total pressures with 48 sacks (14%).
Since 2011, the total pressures—and hence the sacks—have declined. Since peaking at 302 pressures in 2016, when they had a dynamic duo of Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul to force opponents to "pick their poison" regarding whom to double, the Giants pass rush, from 2017-19, has generated 211, 255 and 280 total pass-rush pressures respectively.
Their best sack rate in those three years was the 36 they recorded in 2019, up from the 30 the year prior and the 27 in 2017. Not surprisingly, in 2019, the Giants had their first double-digit sack holder, edge Markus Golden (10.0), since Pierre-Paul recorded 12.5 for the team in 2014.
Now again, the inconsistencies of the pass rush aren’t all on the edge rushers, but as they are the ones generally expected to lead the team in sacks, it’s certainly fair to say that the Giants group of 2019 struggled.
A big part of the problem is that the team lacked a “Batman and Robin” tandem—think back to the days of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora in 2007, and Umenyiora and Pierre-Paul in 2011 in 2011—duos who also had a viable third pass rusher who could come on the field and make life even more miserable for opposing offenses (Tuck in 2007 and 2011).
Hopefully, the Giants will be able to address that need this off-season. Re-signing Golden would be a start, though despite his well-earned double-digit sacks from 2019, Golden’s forthcoming payday, which Spotrac projects to fall in the neighborhood of $13.5 million per year.
If the Giants can add another young pass-rushing stud via the draft (who would come on a cheaper, rookie deal and who offers a little more explosiveness around the edge), and if they can get one (or both) of Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter to take the next step toward consistency, then they might have that missing pass-rushing group that was a staple in the team’s last two championships.
Speaking of the two youngsters, Carter’s most significant shortcoming in his second NFL season was a lack of improvement in his power and physicality. All too often, he was ineffective against solo blocking.
Although he didn’t make enough impact plays as a rusher, he did show progress in coverage and against the run and used his long arms to muck up the quarterback’s passing lanes.
Ximines, acquired with the third-round draft pick the Giants received in the Odell Beckham Jr trade with the Browns, had to hit the ground running thanks to nearly season injuries, the game appearing too fast for him, especially in run defense. But when things went back to normal, the game started to slow down for him, and he began to get much better.
Ximines has a quick first step off the snap and the ability to play low, which allows him to duck under a taller offensive tackle looking to greet him with a bear hug. Ximines’ hand punch also improved, and by season’s end, he was fighting off would-be blockers from latching on to him.
One of Ximines’ primary goals this off-season will be to get bigger and stronger so he can better anchor and hold up in the scrum. Considering the jump that he had to make from Old Dominion to the NFL, it was primarily a positive rookie campaign for the youngster.
Where Do They Go From Here?
I didn’t mention Kareem Martin, who is an outside linebacker and technically part of that edge group. Martin is a tremendous individual who, behind the scenes, was a big help to Ximines and the other young players, but it does the Giants no good if all the positive stuff going on behind the scenes doesn’t come to the forefront on Sundays.
If the Giants trim Martin from the books, they would save $4.8 million and only need to take a $1.166 million dead money hit. That $4.8 million could go toward Golden’s first-year cap figure on a new contract, a contract that we’d probably cap at four years total in length.
Some are going to want the Giants to sign a proven pass rusher like 6-foot 2, 246-pound Yannick Ngakoue of the Jaguars, a 24-year-old who already has 37.5 sacks in four seasons and who has never had a season with less than 8.0 sacks (plus he’s only missed one game in his career, that coming in 2019.
Ngakoue might very well make for a good addition, and, because he’s a few years younger than Golden, an investment in his talents might be money better spent if the Giants have to choose.
But let’s remember that the Giants thought the same of another young pass rusher who recorded 29.0 sacks in his first four seasons and who had never missed a game as he approached his prime: Olivier Vernon.
That isn’t to suggest that Ngakoue might end up on the same path as Vernon did in terms of injuries and effectiveness, nor is it to indicate that the Giants should avoid Ngakoue.
The point is the Giants cannot make the same mistake of spending wildly in free agency on players because it will create cap issues down the line. They are not one pass rusher away from contending, and it’s unlikely that they’d be able to afford both Golden and Ngakoue plus be able to address their other needs.
General manager Dave Gettleman has been trying to rebuild this team through the draft. There is any number of promising pass rushers that can be had in this year’s class.
For those who think it’s a gamble to go that route as opposed to going with an established NFL player, the reality is that both are gambles that will require in-depth investigation and evaluation into the options, both for the short and long term.
The Bottom Line
Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi was once mocked for drafting defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka to a group that already included Strahan, Tuck, and Umenyiora, to which he said a team could never have too many pass rushers.
The Giants of late haven’t had enough pass rushers, and if they want to get back to contending again, this has to be addressed, right up there with the need for more hog mollies and a speedy receiver capable of stretching the field.
If Golden comes in at the market value projected by Spotrac, bringing him back and teaming him up with a stud pass rusher—yes there are other prospects in the draft beside Chase Young who can fill this need (and yes, we’ll be looking at some of them in our draft prospect profiles).
Then if one (or both) of Ximines and Carter finally has that breakthrough season, this group will take a significant step forward in new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s multiple schemes.