Building a championship Giants roster: Defensive line

Despite their 7-2 record, the New York Giants still need to add pieces to become true Super Bowl contender. In a previous post we compared the Giants’ offensive line to some of the best the NFL has to offer and considered the pieces they already have on the outside, the financial challenges involved in keeping those players long-term, and what the approach should be for the interior line positions.

In this post we ask the same questions on the other side of the ball, the defensive line. Edge defenders and interior defensive linemen are often thought of separately in the modern NFL, but let’s look at them as a group, because in a Wink Martindale “positionless” defense, the chess pieces move around from outside to inside and back from one play to the next, because the edge defenders sometimes rush and sometime drop back in coverage, and because Martindale, like his predecessor Patrick Graham, runs a dizzying assortment of defensive groupings with anywhere from zero to four defensive lineman on the field for a given play.

Positionless defense by the numbers

Here’s evidence for the 2022 Giants to date, from Joseph Hefner’s offensive/defensive formation app:

Courtesy of https://josephjefe.shinyapps.io/formations_app/

What “position” do you call a player when he is the only one lined up on the defensive line, as in the Giants’ 69 plays in 1-3-7, 1-5-5, 1-4-6, or 1 -2-8 formations?

Here’s another related bit of information about the fluidity of DL positioning. @clt_ny noted an article by @JordanRaanan about how Dexter Lawrence was playing a lot more at nose tackle recently:

Here are the numbers for all the Giants’ DLs from Pro Football Focus:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The last four columns indicate alignment in the A-gap, B-gap, over tackle, and outside tackle, respectively. Dexter Lawrence has played the most snaps of anyone at nose tackle (A-gap) but quite a bit in the B-gap, and even a few in a traditional defensive end position and one at what we would call an edge defender position. Similar things can be said for almost all the Giants’ DLs – they line up all over the place. Kayvon Thibodeaux even has taken 4 snaps each in the slot and at corner, though he hasn’t played inside at all.

Interior defensive line

Let me begin with the following assertion: The Giants have no real building to do on their defensive line. I’ll walk that back just a bit at the end, but for now I will claim that, given the funds available to be allocated to any one position group in a salary capped NFL, the Giants have one of the best defensive lines in the league, one worthy of a Super Bowl champion. The issue is not what pieces to add, but how to keep it together going forward.

Brian Baldinger believes that Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams are the best pair of IDLs in the NFL:

Pro Football Focus agrees. Here are their rankings of IDLs for 2022 through 10 weeks:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The Giants are the only team with two IDLs in the top 10, with Sexy Dexy at No. 2 and the Big Cat at No. 9. Lawrence and Williams are perfect complements, with Lawrence being truly elite as a pass-rusher this year ( 91.6) while still being above average as a run-stopper (78.7), and Williams being elite – actually, best in the NFL – in run defense (89.7) while performing above average in rushing the passer (70.1). Thank you, Andre Patterson.

Edge defenders

The situation is a bit different at edge defender, where the Giants are amazingly young and inexperienced except for veteran Jihad Ward:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

At the present time, the Giants do not have a Myles Garrett, a Nick/Joey Bosa, a Von Miller, a Micah Parsons (I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me – notice that PFF doesn’t even call him a LB anymore). But what they do have is a pair of starting edge defenders (Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari) who are among the most promising of their classes but have both been limited by injury; a fourth-year player (Oshane Ximines) who had one foot out the door a few months ago but has been above average this year in four of the five PFF defense categories; other young players who have potential (Elerson Smith, Quincy Roche, Tomon Fox); and one veteran, Jihad Ward, who hasn’t played well in total according to PFF but who seems to make a lot of big plays.

Thibodeaux has had a modest start to his NFL career, with only one sack so far. But his overall stats are in line with the other rookie edge defenders who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps even though he has played two or three fewer games than them because of his training camp MCL injury:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

His pass rush grade (64.8) actually leads the rookie group above. A more direct statistic is pass rush win rate (“win %” in the chart below) overall and in true pass sets (ie, ignoring play action, screens, rollouts). Thibodeaux leads all rookies in both of those too:

Data courtesy of PFF

Of particular note to fans who were worried about Thibodeaux’s reputation for “taking plays off” is that we have seen no evidence of this since he put on the blue. Exhibit A was his running down Jaguars running back Travis Etienne (4.45 40-yard dash at the combine) 50 yards downfield even though Etienne ran outside left while Thibodeaux was lined up on the opposite side:

A final point is that Thibodeaux takes on more responsibilities in the Giants’ defense than is typical for a rookie edge defender, as outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins explains:

And Wink points out that Thibodeaux is often called upon to do the dirty work to free other players up to rush the passer – the “can opener” that opens the “can of whoop ass”:

It’s all about the Benjamins

Although the edge defenders have not been very high-profile themselves this season, the Giants’ DL overall may actually be in an ideal position for the future. The reason is the same as we discussed earlier for the offensive line: You can’t pay everyone given the NFL’s salary cap. Here are the cap numbers for the four key players each on the IDL and edge:

Data courtesy of OverTheCap

For the most part, the Giants’ DL is performing at a very high level relative to the amounts they are getting paid. This is because the DL is composed primarily of young players on rookie contracts and unheralded veterans. The Giants are getting great value.

The one exception of course is Leonard Williams. Most agree that Dave Gettleman paid too much in draft picks to get him, gave him too big a contract to stay, and was too willing to punt costs for that contract into the future. That is in the past and cannot be changed. What is in the present is the fact that Leonard Williams has been one of the best DLs in the NFL this year. He doesn’t get the attention that other top DLs get because he is not an elite pass rusher. But according to PFF he is still a good pass rusher (12th in the NFL among IDLs in pass rush win rate in true pass sets), and he is an absolute stud stopping the run.

If you don’t want to keep Williams around to collect that $32.3M in 2023 (Joe Schoen can cut him in 2023 for a cap savings of $12M and $20.2M in dead money), who do you replace him with that will be as productive for less? Here are the top IDL salaries in the NFL right now, from Over The Cap:

Data courtesy of OverTheCap

Of those, only Chris Jones, DJ Reader, Aaron Donald (who makes $10M more than anyone else), and Cameron Heyward are ranked higher than Williams by PFF this year – and not by much, as the chart near the top of this post shows. Ex-Giants Dalvin Tomlinson or BJ Hill, lower down in the pay chart, could have been kept by the Giants instead. Both are good players. But they are ranked 21st and 67th respectively among IDLs by PFF. They are not as good as Leonard Williams.

We can regret a couple of million in average annual value that might not have been necessary to offer to retain Williams last year, but that again is in the past, and the GM who made that deal is gone. By this year’s performance standards – the only thing that matters now – Williams is pretty fairly paid. Cutting him in 2023 and swallowing the remaining $20.2M dead money means finding an IDL who can replace the ninth-ranked IDL in the NFL for $12M or less in a year you hope to compete for a Super Bowl.

Draft someone like Georgia’s Jalen Carter or Clemson’s Bryan Bresee? If the Giants collapse and finish 7-10, maybe. But if the Giants make the playoffs, both will be long gone before they draft. And do you want to wait until Day 2 to address positions of need like wide receiver or cornerback (or quarterback, if it comes to that)? Sign a free agent replacement? Here are the top five 2023 free agent DTs according to Spotrac:

Data courtesy of Spotrac

Cox has declined steadily since 2018 – his PFF grade this year is 57.2. No thanks. Hargrave (84.4) is a great pass rusher but a poor run defender. The other three are average to below-average players.

The fact is that Joe Schoen can afford to keep Williams at that $32.3M cap hit in 2023 because the rest of the DL costs so little. Better yet, since Williams is only 28 years old, he might try to negotiate a contract extension that spreads the combined $38.3M cap hit for 2023 and 2024 more evenly between the two years while adding several more years at the “going rate.” According to the Over The Cap chart, that is about $21M for anyone not named Aaron Donald, with yearly adjustments to track increases in the salary cap. Schoen may even have some leverage since Williams has not put up the sack numbers that some of the others have.

The Giants have Dexter Lawrence under contract for 2023 at a fifth year option price of $12.4M. There was some question about whether Schoen would, or should, pick up that option, but in retrospect he made a very wise decision, since Lawrence is playing off the charts. That bargain $12.4M price might be the catalyst for a contract extension that puts Lawrence into the $20M club at a higher price than Williams.

If both Williams and Lawrence are Giants in 2023, then the fact that the Giants’ edge defender room consists of young and/or cheap players is a godsend. There is probably no way the Giants could afford both of their top-tier IDLs and a star edge defender at the same time. The rubber will really hit the road when Ojulari and Thibodeaux near the ends of their rookie contracts. Top edge defenders live in a higher-rent district than top IDLs:

Data courtesy of Over The Cap

If we assume that Schoen can afford to pay top-of-market salaries to only two of Lawrence, Williams, Ojulari, and Thibodeaux once the latter two near the ends of their rookie deals, then he may have to draft replacements for two of them at that time.

All of that is down the road, however. For now, the combination of two veteran IDLs balling out plus a bunch of promising young edge defenders on rookie contracts puts the Giants in a sweet spot. Arguably their DL is already Super Bowl-contention quality, and all that is needed is for the edge defenders to mature to make it one of the most imposing fronts in the NFL. It’s hard to see the need for the Giants to draft one any time soon.

The only possible exception is that the Giants’ middle has been susceptible overall to opponents’ running games, especially when Williams is not on the field. This may be more the fault of a subpar off-ball linebacker group, a position the Giants may need to address no later than Round 3, than of the DL. But drafting an IDL who is stout against the run early on Day 3 to be part of the DL rotation may be a worthwhile strategy. This is especially true since the Giants’ unfortunately will not have gotten a sufficient chance to evaluate injured 2022 fifth-round draftee DJ Davidson by the time April 2023 rolls around.

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