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How can the Giants replace Olivier Vernon? A look to free agency and the draft

The Giants have a pass rush to rebuild

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

After not placing the franchise tag on Landon Collins, the New York Giants were in desperate need of a safety. After trading Olivier Vernon to the Cleveland Browns — for a good return in Kevin Zeitler — the Giants are in desperate need of an edge rusher or two. Maybe more. This is a rough place for the Giants — a defense that was already 24th in defensive DVOA last season — to be in without their two best defensive players. Luckily there is a deep group of players both in the draft and free agency at both of those positions. However, it will likely to take a significant investment in cap dollars, draft capital, or both to improve the defense from last season.

While the Giants were among the worst in the league at getting sacks on defense last season, they were better at creating pressure, which is more predictive from year-to-year. Most of that, though, was due to Vernon’s production, so with the Giants currently sporting a pass rush of Lorenzo Carter and Kareem Martin, that unit now looks as poor as the sack numbers would suggest.

Let’s take a look at a few possibilities for the Giants to bring in as pass rushers in free agency and the draft.

Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs

Ford has been franchise tagged by the Kansas City Chiefs, but there was a rumor connecting him to the Giants around the time of the Combine. The speculation included Olivier Vernon in the trade, which would have reunited him with current Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Without Vernon as a trade chip, the connection between Ford and the Giants seems less likely, but if they could find a way to keep the Chiefs interested, Ford would be a significant addition to the defensive line. Ford was second in the league in pressure per Sports Info Solutions, behind only Aaron Donald. He had 29 quarterback hits, which ranked seventh, and six forced fumbles. Because Ford is considered an outside linebacker and franchise tag designations are outdated, he would only cost $15.4 million on the tag for 2019.

Za’Darius Smith, Baltimore Ravens

There might not be a more versatile defender available than Za’Darius Smith. During his four seasons in Baltimore, he’s lined up at defensive tackle, defensive end, and outside linebacker. He did his best work as an edge rusher this season, ranked 26th in pressures per Sports Info Solutions, and his 25 quarterback hits ranked tied for 10th with J.J. Watt. Smith, who had 8.5 sacks in 2019, could be in line for a boost to that number. He converted just 34 percent of his hits to sacks last season when the league average is around 43 percent and a number that tends to regress to the mean from year-to-year. One concern with Smith is playing time. He’s only started 16 games in his career, though he’s played in 58, and last year he set a career high with 66.7 percent of the defensive snaps played.

Full free agency profile.

Preston Smith, Washington Redskins

A former second-round pick, Smith fits the responsibilities of a more traditional 3-4 outside linebacker. Last year with Washington, he rushed on just 78.6 percent of his pass snaps per SIS and dropped into coverage quite a bit. Compare that to Vernon, who rushed on 96.6 percent of his pass snaps and Za’Darius Smith, who rushed on 92.8 percent. Preston Smith was still productive on his pass rushes, though, ranked 33rd in pressure rate among 97 players with at least 300 pass rush snaps. Smith also has at least three passes defensed in each season of his career.

Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

This could be an interesting place for the Giants to look for pass rush help, especially if they intend to go hard at it in the draft (that’s coming). Houston just turned 30 years old in January and is still one of the most productive pass rushers in the game. He only played in 12 games during the 2018 regular season — his injury history is why he was released and why you might have been surprised when you read he only just turned 30 — but still had nine sacks. He was also 18th in pressure rate last season among the group with 300-plus pass rushes. Houston won’t be cheap, but grabbing him to go along with Lorenzo Carter and whatever the Giants pick up in the draft could keep him fresh enough in a rotation to limit the injury concerns.

Montez Sweat, Mississippi State

Now we get to the draft prospects and if the Giants are going to target EDGE, it’s likely to be in the first round — at least if they want the impact they’re looking for. Sweat killed the combine — his 4.41 40-time at 260 pounds equals a 137.5 Speed Score, which is unreal — and his mix of size and athleticism is what James Bettcher looks for in an edge rusher. Per SIS, he ranked 10th among this edge class in pressures and tied for third in quarterback hits. Combine that with athletic testing that put him second in the class by SPARQ and you can see why the Giants started to show interest in Sweat all the way back at the Senior Bowl.

Brian Burns, Florida State

Burns falls into a similar category as Sweat, but hasn’t gotten quite as much hype. He’s a little smaller — he weighed 249 pounds at the combine — but his speed and athleticism test incredibly well for that size. His 4.53 40-time resulted in a 118.3 Speed Score, which was the third-best in this class. He was also fourth in SPARQ, still in the 94th percentile of NFL edge rushers. Burns was second in this draft class in pressure behind only Josh Allen and was tied for third in quarterback hits.