Defensive end is today's focus in our continuing series of New York Giants position-by-position breakdowns. It was supposed to be a position of nearly-unparalleled strength for the 2009 Giants. Instead, as a whole the DEs mirrored the rest of the defense -- they were disappointing.
I'm pretty certain this review will spark some argument, especially when it comes to Osi Umenyiora. One ground rule. No 'so-and-so would be great in the 3-4' in this thread, please. The Giants have been a 4-3 team, Perry Fewell has been a 4-3 coordinator and until we are told otherwise we will assume the Giants will remain a 4-3 team. So, let's keep the hypothetical scenarios out of this one.
Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka were supposed to be the cornerstones of a dominant 2009 New York Giants defense. Instead, we all know what happened. The defense collapsed in historic embarrassing fashion -- and the defensive ends have to take their fair share of the blame for that.
Umenyiora did not play up to his reputation, especially against the run. Thanks to Flozell Adams, Tuck played most of the season with one arm. He was good, but not the dominating player he had been the year before. Kiwanuka was solid, but did not take the leap forward as a play-making force we were all hoping to see.
The news at this position is not all bad, however. Despite the disappointment of 2009, these are still three very good players you can build a defense around. So, let's look at each player individually.
Osi Umenyiora: Contrary to what you might expect, I have not come to this discussion to bash Umenyiora. Or to demand that the Giants banish him to the NFL Siberia known as the Oakland Raiders for, say, a seventh-round pick and a couple of K Balls. To the probable surprise of many of you, I still believe Osi can be an important member of the Giants defense in the seasons to come.
First, let's be realistic about a few things. Umenyiora cannot be an every-down lineman if he continues to play the run as poorly as he did in 2009 (a -4.1 grade from Pro Football Focus). As I stated a few weeks ago, Umenyiora needs to look in the mirror and understand that he is not the same dominant player he was a few seasons ago.
Umenyiora has never been a great run defender, but he has usually been adequate. He graded a -0.2 in 2007, his last full season. He will still be just 28 when the 2010 season starts. Maybe, just maybe, another year removed from knee surgery and -- hopefully -- happier with new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell Osi will get closer to being the player we remember.
I have often said Osi doesn't show up on every play, or in every game. That was even more obvious in 2009. He still remains a pass-rushing force, though. He had just seven sacks in 2009, but many of his other pass-rushing numbers were still elite among 4-3 defensive ends.
He had 14 quarterback hits in 2009, tied with Minnesota's Jared Allen for seventh in the league. Add 19 pressures (a pedestrian 29th in the league) and Osi ended up with a +11.1 grade as a pass rusher, according to PFF. That ranked him 12th among pass-rushing defensive ends overall.
Osi still, obviously, has the ability to make difference-making plays coming off the edge as a pass rusher. It is not a skill that you simply toss away easily. Fewell's challenge here will be to maximize what Umenyiora does well, and find a way not to allow his deficiencies against the run to hurt the defense.
Mathias Kiwanuka: His sack number fell from a career-best eight in 2008 to just three in 2009. I have to wonder if that is more a function of Kiwanuka being used inside in pass-rush situations, where he is not as effective, and playing more defensive end in running situations than it was his actual performance.
By all other measurements, Kiwanuka actually played pretty well in 2009.
- He made a career-high 76 tackles.
- He had 14 quarterback hits (7th in the league) and 26 quarterback pressures (11th) despite playing fewer snaps than almost all of the players ahead of him.
- Overall, PFF graded him at +1.4.
How to best utilize Kiwanuka seems to be a perennial question with the Giants. He is a good player, and the Giants have to find ways to utilize both him and Umenyiora.
Justin Tuck: We know the story with Tuck. He played most of 2009 with a torn labrum. He still played effectively, grading out at +13.9 in PFF's ratings, 7th among 4-3 defensive ends. He had eight sacks. Those numbers are OK, but not what Tuck can do with two good arms.
In 2008, Tuck had 13 sacks and graded at +26.2, 3rd in the league. The Giants have to hope that is the kind of performance they get from their best defensive player in 2010.
I would also like to see Tuck take a more vocal leadership role, calling out players for making mistakes or not working hard enough.
Dave Tollefson: I am pretty ambivalent when it comes to Tollefson. He's a decent role player, but whether the Giants keep him for veteran depth and special teams play, or jettison him in favor of a draft pickup or veteran free-agent acquisition really makes no difference to me. Tollefson is not going to make or break the Giants defense, or special teams. Statistically, this was the worst of Tollefson's three Giant seasons, as he graded out at -8-5, according to PFF. Like I said, whether he stays or goes I don't think Tollefson is, or should be, a major concern.
Keep: Tuck, Kiwanuka, Tollefson, Umenyiora
Draft/Free Agency Priority (1 being the highest, 5 the lowest): 3-4. I can see taking one somewhere along the way in the draft, but it isn't a huge need.