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Position preview: The Giants’ new-look defensive line

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Will the defensive line be the foundation for a renewed Giants’ defense?

NFL: New York Giants at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the New York Giants 2018 training camp is less than two weeks away.

We have been previewing the Giants’ 90-man roster throughout the spring and summer in anticipation of training camp. Now that we’re in the home stretch, it’s time to take a step back and see what the Giants’ roster looks like position group by position group.

It all starts up front with the defensive line for the Giants, as the team hopes for a defensive renaissance.

Let’s take a look at how things stand as camp opens.

(note: Given the prevelence of sub-packages around the league and particularly for James Bettcher, I am foregoing the traditional “Starter” and “Backup” designations. Whoever plays the first snap might not play the majority of snaps, or a larger role than a player who comes on in a sub-package.)

First team

Damon Harrison - There isn’t much to be said about Harrison that shouldn’t already be widely known. He is the rock upon which the Giants’ defense is built. Harrison is quite simply the run stopping defensive tackle, and the best nose tackle in the NFL. Neither of those roles get much in the way of adulation, but they are absolutely vital for a defense. Harrison’s ability to command double teams, dominate single blockers, recognize the play and hustle in pursuit are rare.

While there are criticisms to be made about Jerry Reese’s tenure as the Giants’ GM, making Big Snacks a Giant is not among them. [90-Man Roster Profile]

Dalvin Tomlinson - The Giants’ 2017 second round pick proved to be one of the (if not the) best rookie defensive tackles in the NFL last year — not bad for a player many thought was a reach at 55th overall. Tomlinson was considered to be a nose tackle coming out of college, but played nose tackle, 5-technique, and 3-technique (in nickel situations), in Alabama’s 3-4 front.

Comments from players like Landon Collins and Lorenzo Carter, as well as head coach Pat Shurmur suggest that the Giants’ new defense will be similar to Kirby Smart’s (who coached Alabama’s defense before becoming Georgia’s head coach). So we should expect to see Tomlinson play a variety of roles based on down, distance, and sub-package.

The bigger question might be whether or not Tomlinson will take a step forward as a pass rusher in his second season. He spent more time in the backfield than was anticipated, and his balance, leverage, power, and short-area quickness suggest some upside as a disruptor, if given the opportunity.

B.J. Hill - The Giants’ second third-round pick surprised this spring by — apparently — securing a job with the first team alongside Harrison and Tomlinson. Like Tomlinson, Hill was pegged as a nose tackle coming out of college, but he has surprising athleticism and movement skills which could help him thrive as a 3-4 defensive end or defensive tackle in nickel situations.

Hill was overshadowed by the rest of North Carolina State’s talented defensive line, but as pretty much everyone who has watched him agrees: The young man can play. [90-Man Roster Profile]

Second team

Robert Thomas - Thomas was an undrafted free agent who was originally signed by the Carolina Panthers before being signed by the Giants in 2016. A mysterious illness kept him off the field for an extended period that year, but he proved a solid backup for Harrison once finally got in games. Thomas has a competition on his hands for the role of back-up nose tackle.

Will his dependability keep him on the roster?

A.J. Francis - The Giants pounce to sign Francis as a free agent when the Washington Redskins cut him in April. The 28 year old, 337 pound nose tackle bounced between Washington’s practice squad and active roster throughout the 2017 season, compiling 18 tackles on 164 snaps. Francis was a reliable player for Washington, despite his inconsistent usage last year, and publicly ripped his former team upon being signed by the Giants. He will be Thomas’ primary competition for Harrison’s backup at nose tackle. [90-Man Roster Profile]

Josh Mauro - The Giants signed Mauro, a veteran of James Bettcher’s defense in Arizona, early in free agency. Mauro is a strong and dependable defensive end in the 3-4 defense. He might not offer much in terms of pass rush, but he is stout in the run game and very capable of holding blocks to set up teammates to make plays.

Mauro will be with the team throughout training camp and the preseason, but will be suspended for the first four games of the season. The Giants knew about Mauro’s pending suspension when they signed him, which should speak to just how highly Bettcher regards him. [90-Man Roster Profile]

Question marks

Kerry Wynn - Wynn has been a reliable, high-motor run stopper at defensive end for the Giants ever since making the squad as an UDFA out of Richmond back in 2014. He never seemed to be a good fit as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, with his stiffness and lack of athleticism holding him back. However, he might have found a home as a 5-technique defensive end in the 3-4 front. Wynn is an easy player to root for and has received some kudos for his play throughout OTAs.

R.J. McIntosh - The other defensive lineman drafted by the Giants in April, McIntosh is still something of a mystery. An undefined illness has kept him off the practice field this spring, so we don’t really know what he has. At Miami he showed the kind of length and quickness the Giants need at the 5-technique and nickel 3-technique. The Giants are surely hoping that once McIntosh gets on the field, they will get the player who put on a clinic against Quenton Nelson. [What Does McIntosh Bring To The Giants?]

Kristjan Sokoli - A hyper-athletic former UDFA out of Buffalo, Sokoli has played all over both lines of scrimmage, playing tackle, guard, center, defensive end, and now defensive tackle. He has the prototypical build for a 5-technique and legitimately freakish athleticism, running a 4.84sec 40 yard dash and a 38 inch vertical leap. Sokoli has bounced around the league, but the Giants hope that he can finally harness that incredible athleticism as a defensive end in their new defense. [90-Man Roster Profile]

Tyrell Chavis - The Giants’ third rookie from Penn State, Chavis wasn’t a starter in college, but regularly saw the field as a part of their defensive line rotation. A JuCo transfer, Chavis improved considerably over the course of his college career. Playing both 1 and 3-techniques, he was one of Penn State’s most disruptive linemen, with 6.5 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks in 2017, including 2 sacks in their final three games.

Like Sokoli, Chavis might be a wild card in the battle for the Giants’ final 53-man roster. [90-Man Roster Profile]