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Giant Needs: Examining the defensive personnel

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We've looked at the offensive personnel, so now it's time to see how the defense fairs going in to the 2015 off-season, and where help could be found.

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Last time we took a look at the New York Giants' roster needs on the offensive side of the ball.

Outside of a starting left guard, a change of pace running back, and another receiver that defenses have to fear, the offense's needs are best summed up with the words "Depth" and "Health".

Coming in to the 2014 season, the Giants defense was supposed to be the strength of the team. Their best player would be healthy again, John Hankins appeared to be a nascent  stud, and the front office invested heavily to create one of the most formidable secondaries in the league.

But as the 2014 season unfolded, holes appeared in the defensive roster, and whether it was holding on to a lead or getting off the field on 3rd down, they didn't perform when the team needed them to.

Defensive Line

Defensive End - Need Level: 7/10

As of right now, the Giants are okay at defensive end. Or they would be if Robert Ayers got Mathias Kiwanuka's snaps, and DaMontre Moore got Ayers'.

But looking ahead, Jason Pierre-Paul is a free agent, leaving only Kiwi, Ayers, Moore, and Kerry Wynn as the Giants' defensive ends. There is a notion floating around that it would be no big loss to let JPP walk. However, for a defense that only has a passing acquaintance with the concept of "containment" with regards to the run game, losing one of the game's truly elite run defenders would be a massive blow.

It is true that JPP's pass rushing stats have fallen off following his monster 2011 campaign. It is also true, however, that the defensive game-plan does little to put him in position to succeed. He is rarely (if ever) moved from the right end position, and rarely given help in the form of blitzes or stunts.

Anyone watching the Giants' final defensive series against the Dallas Cowboys knows they need another pass rushing presence. That could be found in playing Robert Ayers and DaMontre Moore more, as both of them are very efficient pass rushers. The Giants could, however, look to the draft to add to the depth of their defensive line.

Picking out prospects is difficult without knowing who will be designing and calling the Giants' defense in 2015. If the Giants are looking to add pure pass-rushing firepower to their defense, adopting a 4-3 Under alignment -- which plays a linebacker on the line of scrimmage as a stand-up rusher -- and drafting a player like Shane Ray (Mizzou), Vic Beasley (Clemson), Danielle Hunter (LSU), or Nate Orchard (Utah), could be the way to go.

Defensive Tackle - Need Level: 10/10

Going in to the 2013 off-season, the common thought was that the Giants could let defensive tackle Linval Joseph walk. Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson played well last season, and John Hankins is better, younger, and cheaper.

The second part is certainly true. Big Hank has quietly become one of the top defensive tackles in the whole league. However, Jenkins and Patterson (along with Markus Kuhn) have been mediocre at best, leaving the Giants rather squishy up the middle. They did draft Jay Bromley out of Syracuse, but opportunities for the rookie have been few and far between.

Looking ahead, the Giants will likely need to replace both Jenkins and Patterson. Both of them are on the wrong side of 30 and are generally ineffective. One of the pressing needs is a good second or third tackle to rotate with Hankins and Bromley to keep the line fresh throughout the game. In 2013, part of the Giants' defensive success was a stout defensive tackle rotation that controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed the linebackers the freedom to flow to the ball.

There will likely be few prospects in the 2015 draft that will fit the Giants' needs. One who might is Carl Davis (Iowa), who is both powerful and disruptive, and has the combination of size and length the Giants like in their defenders.

A better place to look is the free agent market.

The obvious prizes here are Lions Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Either one is incredibly talented and would have a huge effect on the Giants' defense. But along with that comes a sizable price tag.

A couple less well known options are Dan Williams (Arizona) and Jared Odrick (Miami). They are both young former first-round picks, but they play very different styles of football. Williams is a massive nose tackle, who is a force in the run game, but not much of a pass rusher. Odrick, on the other hand, is a long interior pass rusher.

Linebacker

Need Level: 9/10

The Giants need a true impact linebacker, and have since, well ... Jesse Armstead retired. Rookie Devon Kennard looks to be a good player, but the rest of the Giants linebacking corps in 2015 is as follows: Jon Beason, Jameel McClain.

Much like the defensive line, the type of linebacker -- or linebackers -- the Giants will need to acquire is largely dependent on who the Gaints' defensive coordinator is next year. If the scheme stays relatively similar, the linebackers need to be athletic enough to play in space while still being stout in the run game.

Current starting outside linebacker, Jacquian Williams, is a free agent, as are back-ups Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. All three should be easily re-signed if the Giants want to bring them back. Herzlich has played relatively well as a down-hill strong-side linebacker, and both are good special teams players. Williams is by far the Giants' most athletic linebacker, but his play is inconsistent. Part of that is because he is asked to do everything from take on and beat offensive line blocks to covering wide receivers down the field.

In the draft, there are a few interesting names that could intrigue the Giants. Shaq Thompson (Washington), is an undersized but tremendously athletic play-maker with a knack for forcing turnovers, who is even finding success as a running back. Benardrick McKinney (Miss. St.) is a big, long, and athletic inside linebacker. He is dangerous going downhill, but can struggle playing in space. Later in the draft, the prospects like Ramik Wilson (Georgia), Jake Ryan (Michigan), or Mike Hull (Penn St.) could also interest the giants.

There are also a number of intriguing linebacker options in the free agent market. Following the wisdom of Sun Tzu, the most intriguing is current Cowboy Bruce Carter. With big investments in Tyron Smith and Tony Romo (and soon in Dez Bryant), they could let Carter walk. He struggled up to this year, but has performed better as a strong-side linebacker in Marinelli's defense. Carter isn't particularly instinctive, but he is highly athletic, and possesses the frame the Giants love in their defenders. Another interesting name is Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta). Weatherspoon is coming back from knee and achilles injuries, but he was tremendously athletic and a play-maker. He had issues dealing with blockers, but an improved defensive line could cure that. Other interesting names are: K.J. Wright (Seattle), Mason Foster (Tampa Bay), and Akeem Ayers (NE).

Secondary

Cornerback - Need Level: 5/10

Coming in to the the 2014 season, the Giants boasted one of the, if not the, fiercest group of cover corners in the entire league. With Prince Amukamara, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Walter Thurmond as the starters, and Trumaine McBride and Zack Bowman as their back-ups, the Giants had quality starters throughout their depth chart.

Then the injuries hit, and put Amukamara, Thurmond, and McBride on the shelf while severely limiting DRC.

Going forward, Thurmond and Bowman are free agents and Prince is on a one-year team option.

While the secondary is currently struggling, if the Giants simply re-sign Thurmond and Bowman, while extending Prince, they will once again be in excellent shape. None of the injuries should limit the players at all in 2015, or even cut into the off-season schedule.

Safety - Need Level: 10/10

This has become a familiar refrain for the New York Giants: The safety position is once again in dire straits going forward.

After cutting Will Hill before the 2014 season, the Giants have found themselves without a true free safety. Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps, while adequate third safeties, have struggled with coverage breakdowns as starters. Both are free agents, as is Antrel Rolle. Rolle will be 32 next year, and he will likely best be used as a strong safety, or a moveable piece -- provided his contract demands don't force the Giants to move on from him.

As it stands now, rookie Nat Berhe and injured sophomore Cooper Taylor are the Giants' safeties moving forward. Berhe has mostly been a special teamer in 2014. He was a very active player in college, and might have the upside to be a contributor on defense. On the other hand, Taylor has an exceptional blend of size and athleticism. He showed himself to be a potential difference maker in pre-season, but was sidelined with a foot injury. He has struggled with injuries since becoming a Giant.

The Giants also drafted cornerback Bennett Jackson out of Notre Dame. He is unpolished as a corner, but his experience in Notre Dame's zone schemes, as well as his prototypical size and athleticism for the position, could make a transition to safety possible.

Other than Rolle, the only big name at safety in free agency is New England's Devin McCourty. McCourty is a difference-maker at free safety, but teams with good safeties rarely let them go unless their contract demands are more than the team is willing or able to pay -- or if there are extenuating circumstances. If McCourty is too expensive for New England, he will likely be too expensive for the Giants.

The draft, however has a few intriguing safety prospects. Jerry Reese has a habit of picking defensive backs early in the draft. It is a position where both skill and athleticism are at a premium, and top-flight players rarely fall through the cracks. The free safety position is highlighted by Cody Prewitt of Ole' Miss. He is a big, active, athletic player with the ability to see the whole field and understands route combinations. He can be a playmaker as well as an enforcer over the middle. Derron Smith (Fresno St.) is a bit undersized for the Giants, but he is a true ballhawk, entering his senior season with 14 interceptions. Another interesting prospect is Durrell Eskridge. Eskridge is a long, rangy safety who is effective in run support and in deep coverage. Also, he hails from the Giants' apparent farm team, Syracuse University.

Final Thoughts

With the Giants half-way through a two-year rebuild of their offense, they had hoped that a defense that was stout in 2013, and reinforced in the 2014 off-season, would carry them through the 2014 season. However, due to a variety of factors, the defense has fallen woefully short this season.

With it increasingly likely that the Giants defense will have a new coordinator in 2015, it's difficult to tell exactly how the Giants will go about filling the holes in their defense that have been exposed. They will need an infusion of youth and talent at every level of their defense, and in every unit but cornerback, where a simple return to health is the biggest need.

Going in to the 2015 off-season, it appears as though the Giants will have at least $20 million in cap space available. Looking at the state of their roster and the expected draft and free  agency classes, it seems likely that most of that money will go into their defense.