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Giants vs. Cowboys: Watching for the future on defense

What will we see Sunday when Dallas has the ball?

NFL: New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A late season meeting between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys can occasionally mean a lot for the NFC East. But this week, it doesn’t mean anything. Dallas has the division looked up and the other thing that will change for the Giants is draft position, where they can end up anywhere from fourth overall to 12th.

Numbers that matter

Who’s going to play for the Cowboys?

The biggest question in this game will be who will play in the game and for how long? Everyone in Dallas is saying the starters will play in Week 17, even though they are looked into the fourth seed in the NFC. Ezekiel Elliott says he wants to play with the chance to clinch the rushing title — he’ll enter the week 183 yards in front of Todd Gurley and 236 in front of Saquon Barkley.

But there’s no guarantee if the starters start they’ll play a full game, especially if they have a late lead. In terms of game planning, it’s going to be a little different against Elliott, Dak Prescott, and Amari Cooper than against Cooper Rush, Rod Smith, and Tavon Austin.

Rookie watch

Throughout the 2018 season, the Giants have relied a lot on contributions from rookies on defense. That has continued to grow as the season progressed and should be something the Giants focus on in the regular season finale.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Giants have at the position:

  • B.J. Hill leads the team in sacks and has been a force against the run and the pass. He’s likely cemented himself as the team’s top interior defender.
  • Lorenzo Carter has the second-highest pressure rate on the team, 9.48 percent per Sports Info Solutions, and he’s rushed the passer on 85.4 percent of his snaps. He’s still learning how to play the position with only at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps played in two games and negative Points Saved on his rushes, per SIS.
  • R.J. McIntosh only played in five games due to his preseason injury but should continue to work his way into the interior defensive line rotation
  • Grant Haley has become the team’s starting slot corner. He’s gotten picked on lately, but the undrafted rookie from Penn State has not been overwhelmed in coverage, though his 43 percent success rate leaves room for quite a bit of improvement.
  • Other undrafted free agents like safety Sean Chandler and linebacker Tae Davis have also gotten more run in the second half of the season.

These will likely be the core pieces of the defense over the next few seasons and their development from Year 1 to Year 2 will be big in how successful the defense can become.

Expensive veteran watch

On the other side, the Giants have some veterans who could become cap casualties in the offseason. The two main players will be Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins. Vernon will count as $19.5 million on the cap in 2019 and the Giants could save $11.5 million by moving on. Jenkins would count as $14.75 million on the 2019 cap and the Giants could free up $7.75 million by cutting him. Both 2019 hits are currently in the top-5 for the Giants.

Neither player has lived up to expectations this season. Vernon has played better than his raw stats would indicate and his production has improved over the past few weeks, but with a growing injury history, the Giants might want to look elsewhere in the offseason. Jenkins is on his second down season after being one of the best cornerbacks in football during 2016. Among 63 cornerbacks with at least 50 targets, Jenkins is 32nd in coverage snaps per target and 47th in yards per coverage snap. Obviously, neither of those numbers are ideal.

Their production also makes the rookie impact more important to see if the Giants have players who can fill in. Lorenzo Carter is the No. 2 edge rusher, but does not yet look ready to be a No. 1 and carry a pass rush. B.W. Webb has been the No. 2 corner this season, but does not profile as someone who can routinely cover opposing top receivers. Behind him is Haley and fellow rookie Sam Beal, who missed all of 2018 with a shoulder injury after he was selected in the third round of the Supplemental Draft. That’s not a lot of experience to fill in for those players should this be their last game in blue.