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Giants’ defensive line: Dexter Lawrence, and then question marks



Giants’ defensive line: Dexter Lawrence, and then question marks

The New York Giants have recently had a deep defensive line room. Names like Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson, and B.J. Hill have donned Giants’ blue over the last decade. Every defensive coordinator since Steve Spagnuolo had at least two above-average starters with adequate rotational depth. It’s debatable if current defensive coordinator Shane Bowen possesses that luxury.

What is not debatable, however, is the true star power of 26-year-old Dexter Lawrence, who has 135 pressures over his last two seasons — most coming from the nose-tackle position. Although the defensive coordinator has changed, Bowen stated on ‘Hard Knocks’ that his base personnel will consist of three defensive linemen, two defenders, two linebackers, and four defensive backs.

That 5-2 personnel will be similar to Wink Martindale’s base fronts, where Lawrence was able to feast directly over the center, but Bowen’s passing defensive structure with the Tennessee Titans did not always consist of a nose tackle. That may change with the Giants; either way, offensive protections find it difficult to stop Lawrence, and the addition of Brian Burns on the edge should only help.

Key losses: Leonard Williams, A’Shawn Robinson
Key additions: Jordan Phillips

Why the Giants might be better

Lawrence is entering his prime, beginning his sixth season. There may still be another level to his game. The acquisition of Burns and another year of development from Kayvon Thibodeaux might help Lawrence reach it.

That said, the losses of Leonard Williams via trade and A’Shawn Robinson via free agency were huge for the Giants. The latter only had nine pressures with the Giants but was an above-average run defender; he is now a member of the Carolina Panthers. The former had 22 pressures for the Giants before the Seattle Seahawks traded Joe Schoen a second-round pick.

New York added Jordan Phillips, who had 19 pressures in just 250 pass-rushing snaps last season for the Buffalo Bills. It’s difficult to expect much from a 31-year-old journeyman, but he’s long been an underrated pass-rusher for a man of his size (6-foot-6, 341 pounds).

Three young defensive linemen — D.J. Davidson, Jordon Riley, and Ryder Anderson — will compete for a role in Bowen’s defense. Of the three, Davidson played the most last season with 244 snaps.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches is 31 years old and only had seven pressures last season for the Giants. He is more of a run defender but is likely a roster lock due to his contract. Releasing Nunez-Roches would cost the Giants just under $5 million in dead cap and would only relieve the Giants of about $500,000. He still has value as a player and should earn snaps in base personnel.

Essentially, the Giants might be better due to youth progression, Lawrence accessing another level of elite play, and additions at edge defender that could alleviate the pressure on the defensive line.

Why the Giants might be worse

The Giants traded Williams last season and lost Robinson — who played 515 defensive snaps. The Giants filled those voids with Phillips and the hope of young development. A combination of Phillips and Nunez-Roches — along with the ascension of one of the young players — should give the Giants options for competence next to Dexter Lawrence.

However, the Giants still lack an upfield penetrating 1-gap shooting defensive lineman, which Bowen and the Giants discussed during the first episode of ‘Hard Knocks’. A player of that archetype would not only complement Lawrence, Burns, and Thibodeaux in a drop-seven play but also mesh very well with Bowen’s play style.

Anderson and Boogie Basham, an edge defender, are players Bowen mentioned during ‘Hard Knocks’ as possibilities for that role. Nunez-Roches isn’t a true one-gap penetrator.

Two young players — UDFAs Casey Rogers (Oregon) and Elijah Chatman (SMU) — fit the body archetype of that play style. Rogers had 56 pressures and six sacks in 681 pass-rushing snaps at Oregon and Nebraska. Chatman had at least 20 pressures in the last three seasons at SMU. He finished his five college years with 82 pressures and 17 sacks on 1,112 pass-rushing attempts.

Rogers and Chatman are long shots to make the final 53-man rosters but could be candidates for the practice squad. If one of those two players, or Anderson/Basham, seizes that one-gap penetrating role and becomes a difference-maker on the defense, the Giants could be better in 2024. However, that remains undetermined, which is one reason I believe the Giants’ defensive line will be worse in 2024 than in 2023.

Roster projection

Locks: Dexter Lawrence, Jordan Phillips, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, D.J. Davidson
On the bubble: Jordon Riley, Ryder Anderson
Long shots: Timmy Horne, Casey Rogers, Elijah Chatman

Final thoughts

As previously mentioned, the Giants are worse now in their defensive line room than they were entering the 2023 season. However, that can be wrong if certain young players seize the 1-gap penetrating role, and the overall depth proves stable behind Lawrence and whoever wins the camp battle next to him.

I would also imagine that Riley is more of a lock than a long shot, but the addition of Phillips could affect his presence on the roster if the Giants believe he could slip through waivers and onto the practice squad.

Schoen valued large men with knockback ability when Martindale was the coordinator; that’s still the case to some degree with Bowen, but first-step explosiveness and the ability to “get skinny” through narrow crevices are valued and not in abundance on the Giants’ roster. Perhaps the Giants find that from someone who is not a defensive lineman.

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