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Giants position review: Defensive line was a strength in 2019, but there are questions

What will happen with Leonard Williams? What does Patrick Graham want from his down linemen?

Washington Redskins v New York Giants
Dalvin Tomlinson (94) and B.J. Hill
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

If your eyes told you that the best unit on the New York Giants not good enough 2019 was the defensive line, you can take comfort in the idea that the Pro Football Focus grading system agrees.

In order, Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and B.J. Hill were the team’s highest-graded defenders.

PFF ranked the Giants sixth overall in run defense, largely on the strength of the defensive line. Football Outsiders ranked the Giants’ defensive line No. 7 in the league vs. the run.

Let’s look back at the performance of the 2019 line and ahead to what the group might look like in 2020 as we continue our position-by-position reviews.

The roster

Starters: Dalvin Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams (unrestricted free agent), B.J. Hill
Reserves: R.J. McIntosh, Chris Slayton (practice squad)
Futures contract: Kevin Wilkins

Let’s go player-by-player.

Dalvin Tomlinson — Tomlinson’s third NFL season was his most productive as a pass rusher. He garnered 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits after compiling just one sack and one quarterback hit over his first two seasons. Tomlinson’s run stop percentage of 7.7 was 48th among qualifying tackles graded by PFF, and second-best among the linemen to Hill’s 7.9. He should enter his fourth season as a valued and important member of the defensive line rotation for new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. What will be interesting, given the Giants history of moving on from defensive tackles after their rookie contracts, is whether or not the Giants retain Tomlinson beyond 2020.

Dexter Lawrence — When the Giants made the 6-foot-4, 342-pound Lawrence the 17th pick in the draft they did so believed he was far more than a monstrous run-stuffing nose tackle. He showed throughout 2019 that the Giants were right, and he was named to the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team and named by PFF as one of the league’s top 10 rookies.

Lawrence is still developing as a pass rusher, but had 2.5 sacks, a pass rush productivity score of 4.3 percent (31st of 45 qualifying interior defensive linemen per PFF) and 30 total pressures. As a run defender, he finished second among Giants defensive linemen with 21 run stops and had a run stop percentage of 7.4.

Lawrence showed flexibility by playing all across the line in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. His snaps were split as follows: Left tackle (285), right tackle (145), nose tackle (189), left end (44), right end (28), LEO (9). That is something Graham will want to take advantage of.

B.J. Hill — PFF scores, where Hill was the Giants’ highest-graded run defender, tell you one story. The fact that his pass rush production went from 5.5 sacks and 27 pressures as a rookie in 2018 to 1.0 and 16 last season, while seeing his playing time severely slashed over the final 10 games, tell another. Inability to rush the passer, combined with the arrival of Leonard Williams for the final eight games, saw Hill’s role decrease.

What will his future be? Like Lawrence, he has flexibility to fill a number of roles in both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. To be a true impact player, though, Hill needs to show that the pass rush ability he flashed as a rookie wasn’t just a mirage.

R.J. McIntosh — The 2018 fifth-round pick is really just a spare part. He did have a pair of sacks, but played sparingly over the second half of the season. It wouldn’t be any surprise if McIntosh is not part of the Giants’ plans going forward.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Leonard Williams — OK, so I saved the Williams discussion until the end of our individual player reviews.

Williams’ free agency provides the Giants with a real conundrum. After making the fairly strange decision to give up draft capital for a player who was heading to free agency while steaming toward a losing season, the Giants now have to decide just how much they are willing to shell out to avoid losing both the player and the draft capital.

Williams is a good player. He’s probably one that analytics-driven evaluators love. He finished the season with 48 pressures between the Jets and Giants and a pass-rush productivity score of 5.8 that was the best among Giants interior linemen. He had, though, only one sack. His run stop percentage of 7.0 was OK, and he had 11 stops in eight games. Tomlinson had 26 for the full season.

Williams is a good player. He is still young enough as he will be 26 next season. He has versatility and is impactful enough to help the players around him. He just doesn’t make many plays of his own.

How do you value and how much do you pay a player like that? We’re about to find out what the Giants think.

Is this an area of need for 2020?

That is a complicated question. Pass rush, wherever it comes from, is undeniably an area of need. Whether or not defensive line itself is depends on several factors. What does Patrick Graham want from his defensive linemen? What happens with Williams? How will the new coaching staff feel about Hill and McIntosh?

Other than whatever it costs them to retain Williams, if they do that, I can’t see the Giants spending heavily on interior defensive linemen. Perhaps they would look to add a low-budget free agent or someone in the middle to back end of the draft.

Finding a dominant edge rusher, even if that player is primarily a 4-3 defensive end is the priority. Not necessarily finding interior players.