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The Giants’ defensive to-do list for the second half

What do the Giants need to accomplish on defense over the final eight weeks?

NFL: New York Giants-Training Camp TODAY NETWORK

The New York Giants will once again return to the field this Monday night to take on the San Francisco 49ers.

While nobody on the Giants’ side of things would, or should, say that their season is (for all intents and purposes) over, they are no longer playing meaningful football. So, rather than preview the upcoming game from the defensive side of the ball, I thought it would be better to go over their “to do” list for the remainder of the season.

While the playoffs might be out of reach, there is plenty the Giants can still accomplish this season, if only in preparation for the 2019 off-season.

Financial decisions

The Giants are faced with a number of financial decisions across the roster, decisions like whether players are worth extending or if veterans should be cap casualties. There are a pair of each which could be big decisions going forward.

  • Landon Collins - Collins is likely going to be one of the biggest decisions for the Giants this off-season, and probably the biggest on the defensive side of the ball. He told reporters over the bye week that contract negotiations have not yet started. Collins was voted a team captain this year, and while he hasn’t played up to the heights he set for himself in 2016, he remains a very good strong safety. After the injury to nickel linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong forced something of a change in how Collins was used, he has begun to make more plays like he did in his break-out season. However, the Giants need to decide if an extension fits in to their salary cap plans, and if how he needs to be used to maximize his skillset fits in Bettcher’s plans going forward.
  • Alec Ogletree - The Giants took on a lot of money when they traded for Ogletree, frankly more than his play warrants. However, it has been rationalized that they had to make some kind of move based on the state of their linebacking corps. Ogletree has stepped into a prominent leadership position on the defense, and hasn’t played poorly when asked to go downhill and into the opposing backfield. Unfortunately, he has proved to be a liability in coverage as the “moneybacker,” which necessitated the adoption of a nickel linebacker in place of B.J. Goodson, who is a talented run defender. Complicating matters, the combination of Goodson and Tae Davis played well together when Ogletree missed the Giants’ Week 8 game against the Washington Redskins. There is an “out” in Ogletree’s contract after this season though it would leave the Gisnts with $5.25 million in dead money, and the Giants need to decide whether Ogletree can justify his contract going forward or if they need to move on.
  • Janoris Jenkins - The Giants reportedly tried to trade Jenkins before the deadline, but were unable to get a deal done. It seems likely at this point that the veteran corner isn’t in their plans for the future. Releasing or working out a trade for Jenkins would provide the Giants with cap relief, but it would also create another void in their secondary.

Cornerbacks with the ability to hold up one-on-one in press coverage play a vital role in Bettcher’s defense, and the Giants don’t have any proven options beyond Jenkins at this point. The question they need to answer over the remainder of the season is whether they can afford to move on from Jenkins, or if parting ways would be more trouble than it’s worth.

  • Olivier Vernon - Another potential cap casualty, Vernon showed his worth to the Giants in his absence to start the season. The defense’s pass rush was virtually nonexistent while Vernon was recovering from the sprained ankle he suffered during the pre-season. It might be a bit much to say that he has been the spark which ignited the Giants’ pass rush, but his return has had an impact. Vernon has quickly shown himself to be the team’s best edge defender and a player who can create opportunities for his teammates.
  • Tony Lippett - A new addition to the Giants’ secondary, the Giants need to find out if Lippett is fully healed from his torn Achilles. A receiver turned corner, Lippett showed upside as a cornerback with the Miami Dolphins before his injuries. If he can regain that form, he could be a future piece for the Giants’ secondary. But first he needs to find his way on to the field, prove that he is healthy, and that he has a fit in the Giants’ coverage schemes.

Find out what they have in the rookies

  • Lorenzo Carter - Carter has already flashed the upside that made him a favorite of Bettcher’s throughout the draft process. His length, agility, and freakish athleticism give him sky-high upside as a pass rusher. The Giants desperately need him to realize that potential, so they will have another rusher who can inspire fear in offenses apart from Vernon. However, he has only flashed that potential and still has to learn how to fully harness and unleash his considerable physical tools. He saw a significant increase in snap share before the bye week, and the Giants’ best bet is to continue that trend. At this point experience is the best teacher, and the team will be looking for any hints that Carter is inching toward his ceiling.
  • B.J. Hill - It was a surprise when Hill claimed one of the starting spots on the Giants’ defensive line in the spring, but after a few months of seeing him on the field, it probably shouldn’t have been. Tagged as a “nose tackle” coming out of NC State, the reality is that Hill was likely under-used by his college team. He is much more athletic than is expected of nose tackles, and he is able to play virtually any position on the defensive line. Like Carter, the Giants need to keep giving Hill regular reps in both base an nickel packages to nurture his development.
  • RJ McIntosh - The Giants haven’t seen their fifth round pick on a football field since scouting him at the University of Miami, but he is finally healthy and activated to the 53-man roster. Of the Giants’ defensive line additions, McIntosh offers the most upside as a pass rusher. At 6-foot-4, 291 pounds, his size and athleticism (he was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine), suggest that he should be disruptive as either a 5-technique in base defenses or a 3 (or 2i) technique in nickel packages. With eight games left, the Giants need to get him on the field and find out what he might bring.
  • Tae Davis - Davis stepped in as the nickel linebacker when Ray-Ray Armstrong went down with an injury. Armstrong had played well enough on passing downs — surprisingly so, considering he was an emergency mid-season pickup the year before — but the Giants obviously felt good enough about Davis to let Armstrong go. So far Davis has flashed in coverage and on special teams, playing well next to Goodson when Ogletree was out before the bye week. Considering their weakness at the linebacker position over the last decade or so, finding an under-the-radar contributor could be big for the defense.
  • Grant Haley - Many expected Haley to be drafted back in April, albeit on the third day. So it wasn’t surprising when the Giants made a concerted effort to make him a priority free rookie free agent signing. Haley mostly played outside in college, but at 5-9 he has primarily played in the slot for the Giants. Haley has the long speed to hang at cornerback, and makes use of his low center of gravity to be remarkably quick in short areas. The Giants have churned their secondary heavily searching for a viable slot corner, and they should give Haley every chance to prove that he can be a piece for the defense going forward.
  • Sean Chandler - Curtis Riley has not yet proved to be an answer at free safety in his first season after converting from cornerback. Unfortunately for the Giants, it is impossible to hide poor safety play in an blitz-heavy defense which relies on press-man coverage. The Giants clearly want a free safety with a cornerback’s skill set, and they should find out if Chandler can be that player. He is a natural safety, but has some experience playing slot corner. This is another area where the Giants could certainly benefit from finding an under-the-radar answer to a serious problem which is already on the roster.

As with so many of these young players, if none of them are able to step forward and take a role, the team could find itself in need of as many as five or six new starters between now and 2019.

Refine the scheme and improve execution

Finally we get to the X’s and O’s portion of the Giants’ To Do list. Certainly, the Giants’ defensive scheme has been better than that of the offense. The Giants’ generally know who they are, and who they want to be, on defense. When at all possible, James Bettcher’s defense has been aggressive and swarmed to the football. He hasn’t hesitated to send pressure, even if it has burned the team for a big plays, and it is common to see every defender in the area hustling to the ball carrier.

However, that doesn’t mean that the scheme can’t be refined and better tailored to players’ skill-sets. As mentioned above, this could be particularly important for the decision on Landon Collins. For most of the first half of the season, Bettcher used him similarly to Tony Jefferson when he was a Cardinal, but Collins truly thrived in more of a “Troy Polamalu” role, in which he roams the tackle box. Will we see Collins shift away from being a “jack of all trades” safety to more of a box role? It’s something the Giants should explore.

There is also the matter of execution.

The first problem that leaps off the tape is the Giants’ tackling. Too often players have failed to wrap up and deliver a proper tackle, leading to yards after first contact and small plays turning into chunk yardage for the offense. There have also been issues with communication and coverage breakdowns on the back end. With the Giants relying on the blitz to power much of their pass rush, breakdowns in coverage on the back end take a risky decision and make it a potential disaster if an offense can take advantage. Regardless of who is manning the Giants’ secondary going forward, they need to tighten up their coverage if the scheme has any hope of functioning as intended.

Final thoughts

The Giants have a game to look forward to against San Francisco on Monday night. And that is where their concentration should be. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t also be self-scouting and evaluating with the 2019 offseason in mind. They have a number of decisions to make after the season ends, decisions which could have an impact well after the 2019 season. They also need to evaluate their young players and find out just how many holes they have yet to fill on the defense.

If they’re lucky, the youngsters will step up and grow to be reliable contributors. If not, their rebuild becomes much longer and more difficult.