Honestly, I can't remember us having an Elite Defense under Perry Fewell, who took over the D.C. position in 2010. The last time i remember seeing a truly amazing defense in NY was during our 2007 Super bowl run. A still dominant Michael Strahan, a young Justin Tuck, and a crazy fast Osi Umenyiora providing a pass rush that was a thing of beauty. That's also the last year i remember us having a competant LB corp, with Antonio Pierce manning the MIKE, Kiwi at the SAM, and Kawika Mitchell at the WILL, each one of them could cover, play the run, and rush the passer, it was perfect. A smart and athletic secondary consisting of Aaron Ross, Corey Webster, Sam Madison, Gibril Wilson, and James Butler complimenting the fierce pass rush, by smothering WR's and being aggressively opportunistic when it comes to turnovers.
In recent years, we've only had part of the equation. Since Pierce retired following the 2009 season, our LB corp has been a joke. Year in and year out, we find ourselves fielding a group of UDFA's (Paysinger, Herzlich), Late round picks (JWill, Greg Jones) and ineffective castoff's from other teams (Dan Connor, Keith Rivers), with the lone bright spot being Jon Beason. Our Secondary and Defensive Line have never been on the same page, in 2011 we were a dominant pass rushing team, leading the league with 48 sacks, but not great on the back end. This year we fielded arguably the best secondary we've had since 2007, with the best Safety duo in the NFL (Yea Seattle, Suck it), and Prince Amukumara finally developing into a quality cover man, while the Pass rush was mediocre at best.
So the question is, how do we get every defensive group on the same level and turn our respectable 8th ranked defense into an elite top 5 unit? It may not happen this year, considering how much work our offense needs, but within the next 2 years, we can have a defense reminiscent of the Giants of old. The nasty, physical, hard-hitting, leg breaking dominant defense's we all came to love and admire. Now I'm trying to be practical in regards to money and draft picks we can allocate to the defense in Free Agency and the 2014 draft, so forgive me if i don't say "Let's sign Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo, and Vontae Davis, problems solved."
First things first, Perry Fewell's defense lives and dies off the pressure created by the 4-man rush. If you haven't noticed, he's not the biggest fan of blitzing, that's not to say that if we had a dominant pass-rushing OLB that he wouldn't use them to their strengths, it's just that in his time here he's never had one of those, so he doesn't call many blitzes. Most importantly, we need JPP to get healthy and start man handling Left Tackles like he did in 2011. Since he decided to forgo surgery this offseason, he needs to take these next 3 months to heal his shoulder and back, get back into shape, and come to camp determined to be the best Defensive End in the NFL. We also need Damontre Moore to progress rapidly and become not only a solid contributor in the pass rush, but an impact player in the run game as well. These needs are asking a lot, but they're not unfathomable, they can be done and hopefully will be.
Now Justin Tuck is a Free Agent, and given his age and inconsistent production over the last 3 years, I'm hesitant to give him a contract exceeding 2 years in length or $4mil per year. Yes he is a team captain, a locker room leader, and a solid player against the run, but we've made the mistake of keeping ineffective veterans around a year too long because of some misguided sense of loyalty in the past, we can't afford to do that again, especially after a 7-9 season. So if he turns down our 2 year-$7-8 mil deal, then goodbye. Kiwi is a different case though, he is on the books for another 3 years, until 2016, and counts $7 million against the cap. He was graded as the 3rd worst 4-3 DE in the NFL in 2013, but cutting him would only result in a $1.8 million savings and a nearly $6 million dead money hit. In my opinion, if Tuck is retained, wave goodbye to Kiwi, if Tuck walks in Free Agency, keep Kiwi as depth but renegotiate his contract to gain more financial flexibility. I believe that we need to add another pass rusher either thru the draft of thru FA. Considering there are only 2 elite 4-3 DE's in the draft (Clowney and Ealy) and a plethora of other needs in the 1st round, i think Free Agency is the best way to get an impactful Defensive End that can immediately get playing time. Within our price range and under the age of 30 there are only a few names: Lamaar Houston, Everson Griffen, Robert Ayers, Matt Shaughnessy, Willie Young and Corey Wooten. Of those names, only a few got positive PFF grades as pass rushers, Everson Griffen, Robert Ayers, and Willie Young. At 6'5'' 251lbs with long arms and a lot of speed, Willie Young seems to fit the bill of what we're looking for. Sure he could stand to gain about 10 pounds or so, but in 801 snaps this year, the former 2010 7th round pick racked up 4 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 41 hurries en route to being graded as PFF's 16th best 4-3 DE. He's got the length, speed, and instincts to develop into a quality speed rusher opposite JPP and should cost sufficiently less that Justin Tuck while also being 4 years younger. In the mid-late rounds of the draft there are also prospects such as Kareem Martin, Marcus Smith, Aaron Lynch, Larry Webster, Taylor Hart, and Will Clarke that could become difference makers in the DE rotation with some professional coaching and time in the weight room.
Linval Joseph is almost guaranteed to get a more lucrative deal on the open market than we can afford, so unfortunately we'll have to wave goodbye to a young and productive player. Good news is Jonathan Hankins looks like he can take over for Joseph as the 1 technique, lane clogger without much drop off in talent. Resigning Mike Patterson would be a good depth move as well. So our DT corp is now comprised of Hankins, Jenkins, and Patterson. We need another 3-technique interior pass rushing Defensive Tackle to compliment Hankins solid run stuffing abilities. The best option in our price range this offseason would be Clinton McDonald, the interior pass rushing specialist of the Seattle Seahawks. At 6'3'' 300lbs he is built very similarly to Cullen Jenkins and is 5 years younger. He had 5.5 sacks this season and a PFF pass rush rating of 8.9 making him the 16th best interior pass rusher in the NFL. Draft options in the mid-late rounds include Caraun Reid, Dominique Easly, Jay Bromley, and Lawrence Virgil.
Linebackers are a completely different story considering they are completely derived of 3-down talent. Spencer Paysinger, Mark Herzlich, Keith Rivers, and Jon Beason are free agents this year and none of them are game changing 3-down linebackers. Beason is the best of the bunch and a force in the run game and a great locker room influence, yet he is down right awful when he's asked to cover anyone. Paysinger is a decent all around LB, but better suited for depth than a starting job. Herzlich has had 3 opportunities to win the starting middle linebacker job and has blown it each time, granted he is a valuable special teamer, i don't think we waste money on him. Rivers actually stayed healthy most of this season, which is quite an accomplishment, yet provided 0 impact plays, he's gone as well. Beason will most likely be resigned on a multi year deal, but because of his injury history and lack of coverage skills, the price shouldn't be too high, no more than $4mil per. We also have Jacquain Williams, who is one of the best cover linebackers in the league, yet a liability on running downs. We could use a pass rushing OLB, and a guy who could both cover and play the run would be nice. This years draft is packed with solid linebackers. If Khalil Mack is available in the 1st round, he would be a great pickup. In the mid round guys like Kyle Van Noy, Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Shayne Skov, Yawin Smallwood, Christian Jones, Christian Kirksey, Jordan Zumwalt, Adrian Hubbard, Telvin Smith, Ronald Powell and Carl Bradford would all make nice additions to our LB corp. I'm going to asume Mack is far gone by the time the #12 pick rolls around, and Van Noy and Shazier are gone by 43, so i think a 3rd round beezer like Borland, Skov, or Jones would be the preferred route.
There are also a number of under-the-radar free agents at the linebacker position that would be worth a look. Arthur Moats is 25 year old 6'0'' 245lb middle line backer who has most recently played for the Bills. He played 301 snaps in Buffalo this season and ranked as the #12 ILB in the NFL, with positive grades in coverage and against the run. The same is true of Akeem Jordan, the 28-year-old former Eagle, who has most recently played with the Chiefs, is a 6'1'' 230lb ILB who graded out at #11. He was #5 against the run and #20 in coverage. Both are relatively young, and played less that 500 snaps last season, meaning they should still have plenty of tread on their tires. Both could also be had on the cheap, which is perfect for a team looking to rebuild its LB corp in a hurry.
The secondary was a pleasant surprise in 2013, the only pleasant surprise for us Giants fans actually. Our safety tandem of Antrelle Rolle and Will Hill is statistically the best duo in the NFL, Rolle was an All-Pro this season and if Hill can keep his nose clean, has many All-Pro caliber seasons ahead of him. We will very likely resign the ballhawk, Stevie Brown, and Cooper Taylor, the 6'4'' 230lb safety who ran a 4.4, is the most intriguing young player on our team and somebody i need to see more of. Safety is solid.
Cornerback on the other hand is kind of a mess. Prince Amukumara is the only guaranteed starter we have. Corey Webster's contract will most definately be voided and Aaron Ross will most likely not be resigned. Jayron Hosely, going into his 3rd year in the league, hasn't been able to stay healthy long enough to see meaningful playing time, but as an undersized yet extremely athletic and fluid corner, should have the skill set to be an impact player. Terrell Thomas played in all 16 games this season after twice tearing his ACL in consecutive seasons. He played well enough this year to earn another short-term incentive laden contract. Trumain McBride, the 5'8'' journeyman corner, surprised everyone this year by winning the starting spot when Webster went down and playing very well. Still his size limitations make him a liability when facing the taller receivers that are en vouge in the league right now. Basically we have a #1 corner, a slot corner, and some good depth, but we need another starter to play across from Prince.
The draft is littered with quality corners, especially in the first 2 rounds. If we choose to go corner in the 1st round, Darqueze Dennard is the easy choice, if he's not available then Justin Gilbert makes a lot of sense as well. In the 2nd round players like Jason Verrett, Bradley Roby, Marcus Roberson, Louchiez Purifoy, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Kyle Fuller, and LaMarcus Joyner. There is some good Free Agent talent out there as well in Walter Thurmond, Nolan Carroll, Tarrel Brown, Sam Shields, and Captain Munnerlyn that should all be affordable. I see #2 CB as a definate need this year, but with regards to free agents, Offensive and Defensive Lines, as well as Linebacker, and maybe tight end need to be addressed before we get to corner. If we have enough money, i think Tarrell Brown or Walter Thurmond would be perfect, if we don't have enough money, i think we target one of the 2nd round corners like Marcus Roberson.
So in conclusion, without splurging on the biggest names on the market, we've quietly yet effectively filled all our defensive holes and added a ton of depth in the process. The final depth chart should look like this:
DE JPP/ Moore/ Kiwi/ Young/ Clarke
DT Hankins/ Jenkins/ Patterson/ McDonald/ Kuhn
WLB JWill/ Paysinger
MLB Beason/ Moats
SLB Jones/ Bradford
CB Prince/ Roberson/ Hosley/ McBride/ Thomas
FS Hill/ Brown
SS Rolle/ Taylor
Of course these moves alone won't put us on the same level as the Seahawks or the Panthers, but it will help us improve on #8 total defense. Another couple high draft picks on the defense and a few key free agent signing next offseason, and we should be back to being a top 5 defense.