Defense has not been the New York Giants’ primary problem this season. Anyone who has watched them play as they have staggered to a 1-7 record knows that.
The Giants are 21st in the league, surrendering 25.6 points per game. That isn’t great, but consider that in five games this season the defense has given up no more than 13 points through three quarters, and has held opponents to less than 20 points through three quarters in six games.
A little more help from an offense that is 28th in points and 27th in time of possession and the defense might look a bit better.
Still, there are issues. The pass rush isn’t good enough. The linebackers aren’t dynamic enough. The cornerbacks aren’t good enough. Free safety is s problem.
Let’s go through the state of the roster as the Giants are at the midway point of a disappointing season.
For purposes of definition, I’m placing any player in this group who lines up all — or nearly all of the time — with a hand in the ground as a lineman.
Current roster: Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, Kerry Wynn, John Jenkins, Josh Mauro, Mario Edwards
Injured reserve: Kristjan Sokoli
Practice squad: None
Reserve/Non-Football Illness: R.J. McIntosh
Ex-Giants of note: Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul
There are still fans smarting from the Giants’ decision to trade Damon Harrison to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round pick. We don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes, but I do believe that the presence of solid, young interior defenders like Dalvin Tomlinson and rookie third-round pick B.J. Hill was a major factor in the decision. Both are quality run defenders, though no one in the league is currently as good in that role as ‘Snacks’, and Hill in particular has shown some interior pass rush potential.
The other reason for moving Harrison, in addition to building draft capital and dumping some salary, was to pave the way for R.J. McIntosh to get some playing time should the Giants judge him healthy enough when his current roster exemption runs out.
Even without Harrison, the Giants are not hurting for interior defenders. Kerry Wynn continues to give the Giants more than they could have hoped for. Mario Edwards has had his moments. Let’s see if McIntosh can show something, whether he gets a chance this year or that waits until 2019.
A word about Jason Pierre-Paul. There are those who point out the fact that the Giants have only 10 sacks while he has 8 by himself for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and want to say that GM Dave Gettleman made a mistake by trading Pierre-Paul.
That’s not the view here.
It’s far more nuanced than simple sack numbers. The Giants didn’t see Pierre-Paul the way they saw Olivier Vernon, as a player who could play on the edge both standing up as an outside linebacker and with a hand in the ground as a 4-3 defensive end. That made him an awkward fit for defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
They saw a 29-year-old player who hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2012 and who really hasn’t been a dominant player since 2014 with a bloated contract (cap hits totaling $39.5 million from 2018-2020) who they didn’t think could live up to that deal. Gettleman got a nice haul in return for Pierre-Paul and the Giants’ fourth-round pick. He got a third-round pick that he turned into Hill, who should be a quality player long after Pierre-Paul. He used that fourth-round pick on quarterback Kyle Lauletta. We still have to see how that plays out.
There is also this. Yes, Pierre-Paul’s 8 sacks are nice. It has been a long, time since he played like for the Giants, though. No guarantees he would be doing that in New York. Sometimes a change of scenery helps a player. Especially when the player goes home, like JPP did in going to the Buccaneers.
2019 need: This depends on your viewpoint. Jenkins and Mauro are probably one and done. If McIntosh is a player, though, the Giants will have a young, solid front three to build with. At least when it comes to run defenders. That said, the Giants can use pass rushers, whether they are pure linemen or more versatile edge guys. Nick Bosa, anyone?
Yes, with the Giants using both 3-4 and 4-3 looks that have some players standing at times while in three-point stances at other times we will adopt the “edge” designation in looking at the roster.
Current roster: Olivier Vernon, Kareem Martin, Connor Barwin, Lorenzo Carter
Injured reserve: None
Practice squad: Avery Moss, Myles Humphrey, Jordan Williams
Ex-Giants of note: Devon Kennard, Romeo Okwara
The Giants did not move Olivier Vernon at the trade deadline, and the 28-year-old figures to be an anchor of the defense for the next couple of seasons. The ankle issue that forced him to miss four games last season and five so far this year is frustrating, but when he is on the field you clearly see that right now the Giants have no one else like him.
He is the only pass rusher they have who draws a double team. Still, despite the double teams and having only played in three games, he is tied for the team lead with 10 quarterback pressures. After trading Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden admitted that when it comes to pass rushers “it’s hard to find a great one.” Vernon might not be a great one, but he’s a very good one. The Giants were wise to keep him.
Third-round pick Lorenzo Carter is another building-block player who shows potential. He played a season-high 39 snaps in Week 8, and his playing time should increase when the Giants return to action for the second half of the season.
Let’s talk about two player vs. player decisions that, on paper, don’t appear to be working out.
Devon Kennard vs. Kareem Martin
The Giants chose to move on from Kennard, a 2014 fifth-round draft pick. The 26-year-old fifth-year player signed a three-year, $17.25 million deal ($7.5 million guaranteed) with the Detroit Lion. They signed Martin, a 26-year-old fifth-year player, to a three-year, $15 million deal ($5.75 million guaranteed).
Both are roughly the same player, with the same contract, though Kennard has 14.5 career sacks to Martin’s 4.0.
In all honesty, I would have been happy to see the Giants keep Kennard. He is flexible enough to be both a stand-up edge player and a hand-in-the-ground pass rusher, both of which he did for the Giants. I think the Giants would have been happy with him, too.
The move to Martin, though, is plain and simple a regime change thing. The Giants hired James Bettcher, former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator, to run their defense. They chose Martin, a player Bettcher knew and trusted and who could help teach his defensive scheme, over Kennard. Right now, Kennard has better stats. I’m not willing to say that makes this a bad choice.
Romeo Okwara vs. Connor Barwin
Unsure that Okwara could function as a stand-up edge player, the Giants let him go this preseason. The Lions picked him up and, being used strictly as a 4-3 rush defensive end, Okwara has a career-high 5 sacks. After having only 1 in 22 games with the Giants. There was no way to predict that kind of production.
The Giants signed the 32-year-old Barwin for a couple of reasons. They hoped he still has some pass rush gas left in the tank. He has played in a similar system to what Bettcher runs, played for Giants linebackers coach Bill McGovern in Philadelphia, and also knew Pat Shurmur from their Philly days. The Giants believed he was a fit, and believed he would have a positive influence the young players, particularly Carter. Understandable.
The fly in the ointment is that the Giants are bad, the 23-year-old Okwara is out-producing Barwin and any snaps Barwin plays now won’t help the Giants long-term. He’s part of their present, but not their future.
2019 need: It will be nice if Carter develops, but the Giants still need more pass rushers. So yes, this is a need. See my above comment regarding defensive linemen and Nick Bosa.
Current roster: Alec Ogletree, B.J. Goodson, Tae Davis, Nathan Stupar
Injured reserve: None
Practice squad: None
Ex-Giants of note: None
Truthfully, I’m not sure the Giants have any of the players they want as long-term answers at this position right now.
I applauded the trade for Alec Ogletree. He’s a former first-round pick, still only 27, and the Giants love his leadership.
“Special player, great character, unbelievable work ethic,” Bettcher said. “We are fortunate Tree is here and Tree is going to be one of the biggest reasons that we get things turned around and going in the direction we all want to go in. Tireless worker in terms of watching film. One of the best individual leaders I’ve ever been around, and just love working with him.”
Still, it’s fair to question just how good Ogletree is. He had 15 missed tackles in 2017 and tsackling efficiency (a miss every 7.1 tackles) was 50th among 60 qualifying linebackers who played at least 50 snaps. This year, he has missed one of every 6.1 tackle attempts, 47th of 57 qualifying linebackers. Coverage-wise, he gives a reception every 7.1 snaps, 46th of 52 qualifying linebackers. His passer rating against of 102.2 is 24th.
The Giants could save $6.5 million against the cap for 2019 by cutting him, but would still carry $5.25 million in dead money. He is probably a Giant in 2019. After that? I wouldn’t count on it.
B.J. Goodson? I’m not convinced Bettcher and the Giants see the third-year linebacker a player they want to build with. First, the Giants took signal-calling away from him and gave that to Ogletree. Then, they took a lot of his playing time — first giving it to Ray-Ray Armstrong and then a combination of Tae Davis and Nathan Stupar. With Ogletree sidelined in Week 8, Goodson played a season-high 59 snaps. When Ogletree returns it will be interesting to see if Goodson’s playing time diminishes again.
Davis is an intriguing former undrafted free agent who was a collegiate safety. Stupar is really just a special teamer.
2019 need: I believe this is a big area of need. The Giants are trying, but they still haven’t found themselves a three-down inside linebacker who can play the run and hold up in coverage.
Current roster: Janoris Jenkins, B.W. Webb, Grant Haley, Antonio Hamilton, Tony Lippett
Injured reserve: Sam Beal
Practice squad: Ronald Zamort
Ex-Giants of note: Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Janoris Jenkins, somewhat surprisingly from this vantage point, remains a Giant after this week’s trade deadline. That means he will be in New York for 8 more games. Will he be a Giant for the final two years of his contract, which carry cap hits of $14.75 million in both 2019 and 2020?
Probably not at that price. Especially if the cornerback, ranked 60th out of 66 qualifying corners by Pro Football Focus, doesn’t show the form that made him a Pro Bowl player in 2016.
Whether any other cornerback on the roster is in the team’s long-term plans is also a good question.
B.W. Webb is having an OK year, but he’s a placeholder. Antonio Hamilton is pretty just a guy filling a roster spot. Grant Haley might be a useful slot corner. Tony Lippett? He has history with Pat Shurmur and defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo. If he hasn’t lost a step after losing the 2017 season to a torn Achilles tendon, maybe he can be in the team’s plans.
One player undeniably in the team’s plans is Sam Beal. Spending his rookie season on IR, Beal was selected in the Supplemental Draft with the Giants admittedly thinking ahead to next season. Will Beal make Dave Gettleman’s gambit pay off?
2019 need: High. Whether Beal is a player or not, the Giants can use help here. I have always believed that with the way offenses spread receivers around these days teams need as many quality cover corners as they can collect. The Giants don’t have enough.
Current roster: Landon Collins, Curtis Riley, Michael Thomas, Sean Chandler
Injured reserve: None
Practice squad: A.J. Howard
Ex-Giants of note: Darian Thompson, Andrew Adams
This conversation starts with the future of Landon Collins. The Giants apparently had offers for the fourth-year safety at the trade deadline, but turned them down. The question now becomes whether or not they can sign the free-agent-to-be to a long-term deal that will keep him off the market.
Collins is an excellent player, especially close to the line of scrimmage against the run. He has emerged as a team leader, a defensive co-captain for the first time in 2018. He ranks 50th of 56 qualifying safeties in snaps per reception allowed, per Pro Football Focus. He isn’t a great coverage player outside of the short areas of the field or a safety who should be used as a center fielder.
Still, the Giants figure to want to keep him around. If they didn’t, they would have moved him at the deadline.
Beyond Collins, the Giants still have a free safety problem. They chose Curtis Riley over holdovers Darian Thompson and Andrew Adams, and I understand why. Thompson, a 2016 third-round pick, couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t play all that well when he did get on the field. Adams wasn’t really the center fielder type safety the Giants were looking for, and they chose the veteran Michael Thomas instead. There really shouldn’t be a problem with choosing Thomas over Adams — Thomas has been a valuable player for several years and he is a good addition to the Giants.
The problem is, honestly, that Riley can’t tackle. He is a converted cornerback with the range and coverage skills to play the single-high safety Bettcher appears to prefer. He just doesn’t tackle well, which is a huge problem for the guy who is often your last line of defense. He misses too many tackles because of poor angles, and many times when he does tackle he pretty much just hangs on and waits for help.
Out of 57 qualifying safeties, Riley is 53rd in tackling efficiency per Pro Football Focus. He has missed 7 tackles this season, one every 4.3 attempts. He has awful PFF grades of 30.5 in run support and 30.6 as a tackler.
Against the Washington Redskins in Week 8 the Giants began getting undrafted rookie free agent Sean Chandler some defensive snaps. Perhaps he will earn more as the second half of the season unfolds.
2019 need: High. First and foremost, they need to get a deal done with Collins. After that, whether it’s via the draft or free agent market, the Giants need to find a safety with the speed, range, ball-hawking and tackling skills to complement Collins’ work near the line of scrimmage.