The trade of Jason Pierre-Paul sent shockwaves through the NFL on Thursday. While it came as a surprise, one thing it did do was clear up the picture of what the New York Giants defense could potentially look like under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
As soon as Bettcher was hired questions arose about how current players on the roster would fit into the base 3-4 scheme, much of them focusing around Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon. Those concerns were mostly overblown considering how versatile Bettcher’s defenses can be. Bettcher and the Giants could have fit both under the new scheme, but it was unlikely that would have lasted for more than a season. With a combined $34.5 million allotted to those two in 2018, per Over The Cap, and a combined $39 million in 2019, the likelihood of both being on the 2019 roster was slim. One option could have been to try both out with their new responsibilities and see which one fit better — something the Indianapolis Colts did in 2012 when Bettcher was the linebackers coach who transitioned Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney to a 3-4 base — but the Giants instead pulled the trigger a year early.
At a listed 270 pounds, Pierre-Paul profiles a little too big to be a standup outside linebacker and a little too small as a 3-4 defensive end — of course there are many ways this could have been worked around. Now the focus can be on Vernon making the change with others filling in who are already familiar in the scheme, such as free agent signings Josh Mauro and Kareem Martin. Vernon could be looking at a similar transition as Chandler Jones did when he went from New England to Bettcher’s system as an outside linebacker. Jones came into the league as a 260-pound defensive end and was between 270 and 275 pounds in his first year in Arizona. Last season he cut weight and played between 255 and 260 pounds, per the team’s website, and it’s what he attributed his increase in production during the 2017 season. Vernon is listed is currently listed at 262 pounds on the Giants’ website.
A new-look defense
With the main edge spot now accounted for, what might the Giants defense actually look like for the 2018 season? Well, there’s really no one answer to that question, but we can take an educated guess at what the most common packages would be with players currently on the roster.
First up would be the typical 3-4 base. It would be safe to assume the three-man defensive line would feature Dalvin Tomlinson, Damon Harrison, and former Cardinal Josh Mauro. At the edge/outside linebacker spots would be Vernon and Kareem Martin with B.J. Goodson and Alec Ogletree inside. Then, the secondary would be filled out with Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Landon Collins, and Darian Thompson.
But with more than 63 percent of plays in the NFL happening with at least three wide receivers on the field, nickel have effectively become the base personnel for defenses around the league — a major reason the 4-3/3-4 debate is often overblown. The Giants’ nickel look would most likely take Mauro off the field and replace him with a slot corner, in this case B.W. Webb. Both Martin and Vernon could slide down and take on a more traditional four-man front, or one could, or neither, leaving a two-man front and two stand-up edge rushers. There’s a lot of possibilities even by just changing out one player.
What the Giants could also do is unleash the dime/moneybacker defense with an extra defensive back on the field. Here the Giants can switch out Goodson at the linebacker spot for another cornerback — Curtis Riley, here — while moving Landon Collins closer to the line of scrimmage and rolling Darian Thompson over to a single high safety role.
This could also be achieved by swapping in an extra safety — perhaps Andrew Adams — while keeping a two-deep look while still moving Collins closer to the line.
Where to upgrade
Just looking at those names, there’s certainly room for upgrades at a few positions. Between the draft and free agency, let’s take a look at a few available players who could fit in perfectly with what Bettcher looks for on defense.
EDGE: The main name to pop up is going to be North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb. Chubb is widely considered to be the best pass rusher in this year’s draft class. He had 10 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in his senior season at NC State after 10 sacks and 21 tackles for loss during his junior year. Chubb would be worth the second overall pick, where the Giants currently sit, and there’s definitely interest.
While much of the focus during Chubb’s Pro Day was on Bill Belichick running drills and coaching, Giants defensive line coach Gary Emanuel was also front and center.
Like both Pierre-Paul and Vernon, Chubb brings value against both the run and the pass. He weighed in at 269 pounds during the Combine and tested in the 78th percentile per SPARQ. SPARQ, a composite athleticism score based on positional baselines, will likely be something the Giants look at for defenders. Bettcher led a meeting back in February to teach scouts and others in the organization what he’s looking for on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona’s previous two first round picks, Robert Nkemdiche and Haason Reddick, were both SPARQ superstars above the 90th percentile with positional versatility.
Another edge rusher who could fit this mold in the draft in Florida State’s Josh Sweat. At 251 pounds, Sweat would profile more positively as a 3-4 linebacker and he has shown the ability to play both standing up and with his hand on the ground. He even took some pass rush snaps in the interior last season despite his weight. Sweat had the most prolific Combine among edge rushers with a SPARQ score in the 95th percentile. His 14th percentile weight and 98th percentile 40-time also profile like a Bettcher defender.
In the later rounds, the Giants could also look at Wisconsin’s Leon Jacobs, who was in the 80th percentile of SPARQ with a position-leading 122.1 Speed Score.
Defensive Line: The two tackle spots are set with Harrison and Tomlinson, but the base end position could certainly be upgraded. One possibility is Taven Bryan of Florida. Bryan played on the interior and some edge at 291 pounds, similar to Nkemdiche who was 294 pounds. Bettcher viewed Nkemdiche in the Calais Campbell role and could see the same with Bryan, who is in the 97th percentile of SPARQ.
Bryan is projected by some as a late-first or early-second round pick, so the Giants could possibly see him on the board with a trade back into the first (Buffalo’s 22nd overall pick) or possibly in the second where they pick 34th.
A late-round target for this spot could be John Franklin-Myers from Stephen F. Austin. Franklin played defensive end at 283 pounds and still ran a 4.75 40-yard dash at that weight (111.2 Speed Score). He only measured in the 45 percentile of SPARQ, but that was among edge rushers. He could be more impactful as a 3-4 end, especially with Bettcher. He had 13.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his final season and was a standout at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Secondary: There’s might not be a bigger sign the Giants should seriously consider bringing back Ross Cockrell than listing B.W. Webb and Curtis Riley as the nickel and dime defenders above. Cockrell was outstanding last season and would bring versatility to play both inside and outside.
If the Giants move back to 12, they’d still likely miss out on Ohio State corned Denzel Ward. But at 22 or 34 Louisville’s Jaire Alexander could be available. Alexander is another player with the ability to play on the outside and in the slot and even after an injury ravaged 2017 season, he tested in the 91st percentile per SPARQ among cornerbacks.
Arizona’s Dane Cruikshank could be a late-round option. The 6-foot-1 corner has experience outside, in the slot, and at safety and tested in the 89th percentile at the Combine.
At safety, Stanford’s Justin Reid could be an early Day 2 pick. The brother of Eric Reid tested in the 95th percentile with the ability to play deep, close to the line, and in coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. An upgrade at safety could also allow more freedom for Landon Collins on the field, possibly the biggest chess piece for Bettcher’s defense.