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Giants’ positional battles: Fourth defensive tackle

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This should be B.J. Hill’s job

Minnesota Vikings v New York Giants Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The deepest and most talented position group for the 2020 New York Giants is the defensive tackle unit. The defensive line consists of Williams, the sixth overall pick in 2015, Dexter Lawrence, the 17th overall selection in 2019, Dalvin Tomlinson, a second-round pick in 2017, and B.J. Hill, a third-round pick in 2018. The room has both pedigree and players who have struggled to consistently perform.

Other than the players listed above, the Giants also added former second-round pick from the Titans Austin Johnson, a solid run defender with limited pass-rush upside. Chris Slayton, R.J. McIntosh, and Niko Lalos round the roster out for the position group. The Giants may be in for more of a rotation with the talented players that they have at the position.

In the 2019 James Bettcher defense, the Giants had a rotation that looked like this in terms of snap percentage, according to Pro Football Focus:

  • Dexter Lawrence: 63 percent
  • Dalvin Tomlinson: 53 percent
  • B.J. Hill: 44 percent (it was 32 percent after the Williams trade and 56 percent before the trade)
  • Olsen Pierre: 16 percent
  • R.J. McIntosh: 11 percent

This is with Leonard Williams playing 63. percent of snaps after arriving in Week 9, which is impressive nonetheless since Bettcher’s system is notorious for being more complex (even for the lineman). It’s interesting when we look at Patrick Graham’s defense in 2019 with the Miami Dolphins:

  • Christian Wilkins: 66 percent
  • Davon Godchaux: 64 percent
  • John Jenkins: 43 percent

Most of the other guys that played on the defensive line were more EDGE players like Taco Charlton, Charles Harris, and Avery Moss through varying parts of the season. It’s difficult to precisely gauge how Graham will employ the personnel with Big Blue because the 2020 Giants have a much more talented unit than the 2019 Miami Dolphins.

Furthermore, a player like Leonard Williams is much more versatile and different from the personnel that Miami had on their roster. With that being said, I expect the percentages to look something like this at the top of the unit:

  • Leonard Willams: 75 percent
  • Dexter Lawrence: 65 percent
  • Dalvin Tomlinson: 60 percemt

With that in mind, we’re going to be looking at the fourth defensive line position. Who will earn the bulk of those snaps? Because I see Tomlinson, who is very underrated, getting around the same snap share as Lawrence, with Williams being the most utilized player, mainly because of his versatile skillset. Let’s dive into the roster and see who else is most likely to earn snaps on the 2020 Giants’ defensive line.

Front runner: B.J. Hill

There’s no debating that Hill’s snap share was minimized by the acquisition of Williams. He went from snaps that averaged at 38 per game in the first eight weeks o 23 in the latter half of the season.

It’s certainly difficult to shine when you’re playing next to talented studs like Tomlinson and Lawrence. Throw on an ill-advised trade of another talented player at your position and it’s likely that there will be a diminution of snaps for you. Hill went from starting four of the first five games of the season, before being relegated to a substitution role for the rest of the year.

There’s nothing wrong with being a pivotal part of a good defensive line rotation, but you have to make a noticeable impact in the snaps that you earn and Hill didn’t necessarily do that in 2019. After the Giants acquired Williams, Hill earned only four quarterback pressures in 104 pass-rushing reps, whereas Williams earned 31 in 231 pass-rushing reps in a new system.

I still believe in his skill set. Hill is a 6-foot-3, 311-pound, athletic defensive tackle, with a solid first step, quick hands, and good strength at the point of attack. His 27 pressures in 2018, most coming in the latter half of the season, were impressive.

I hope he gets a solid opportunity to showcase his talent because I do believe in the potential, but in Graham’s defense, with all these talented defensive linemen, it is uncertain to know how many snaps he’ll play in 2020. Hill is going to need to make an impression early on the coaching staff to take snaps away from Williams, Lawrence, and Tomlinson, but he’s still a talented player who should see the field, even if it is in a limited capacity, on Sundays.

Potential candidate: Austin Johnson

Giants’ defensive line coach Sean “Coach Chaos” Spencer was a very underrated hire by Joe Judge. He’s heralded for his up-tempo relentless nature, and Austin Johnson was one of his players at Penn State. Coach Chaos helped Johnson amass 15 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks in his junior season back in 2015; these stats led to him being a second-round pick.

With Tennessee, Johnson never tallied over one sack in a season and was much more of a situational run defender. Johnson lacks athletic ability and quickness to create interior pressure consistently,. His role in Tennessee should be similar to the one he’ll have in New York. He’ll play a lot on early downs, spelling the four defensive tackles when necessary, but will only play significant snaps if the defensive line unit suffers injuries.

Johnson has heavy hands, is strong at the point of attack, and doesn’t get bullied in the trenches, but the lack of a pass-rushing plan isn’t ideal. Johnson has said that he hopes to reach the “next level” by reuniting with Coach Chaos. Everything about his competitive toughness in his tape suggests that he’ll try to unlock something special, but I expect him to mostly be utilized as a situational run-down defender.

Underdog: R.J. McIntosh

McIntosh was a Gettleman fifth-round selection out of Miami back in 2018, but injuries have derailed his career thus far. He missed his entire rookie preseason with an undisclosed injury/illness that sidelined him and a result of the illness was a massive loss of weight. At the combine, it was discovered that McIntosh was diagnosed with a thyroid condition and people speculate that the illness may have been that, but I’m not Dr. Falato.

The rocky start to his career landed him on the reserve/non-football injury list until Week 12 when he was activated. Since then, McIntosh has been a reserve lineman who comes in during mop-up duty. He played 11 percent of the snaps last season for the Giants and recorded two sacks last season. He’s a bit light in the trunk and I believe that could hurt him, but he does possess some burst and length for a defensive tackle.

He’s only 24 years old and he has a lot of physical traits that pose intrigue: quick first step, 33 ⅞-inch arm-length (71st percentile), and a massive 82 ¾-inch wingspan (97th percentile). There’s a possibility that he earns a back-end roster spot behind Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson, Hill, and Johnson, but it’s going to be very difficult for him to earn snaps in this rotation. If he can prove that he’s fully recovered from the illness, keep weight on and hold up at the point of attack, while continuing to develop his pass-rushing repertoire, then maybe he will see the field if an injury affects the unit.

Final thoughts

The Giants have a good problem at the defensive tackle position - a lot of skilled players to choose from. Williams’ skill-set is a bit more unique than the others and will provide versatility to any area along the defensive line. Tomlinson and Lawrence are much more suited for the 1-technique/Nose role, with some ability to play 3-technique as well (situations dictating).

Hill and Johnson should be the two to duke it out for the fourth defensive tackle role, cause the top three should all be playing a solid percentage of snaps; Hill should win given his previous pass rushing upside and his athletic ability, but Johnson’s relationship with Coach Chaos may help him out if he proves that he can play at a higher level.

McIntosh shouldn’t see the field too often unless injuries hit the Giants or if he takes a significant step and really improves his ability to get after the quarterback, something that he has shown a bit in the past. The Giants are entering the 2020 season with a very talented defensive line unit. I’m not sure if that will be the case in 2021 when Williams and Tomlinson will both be free agents. Nevertheless, let’s hope the unit shores up the run defense as they did towards the end of the 2019 season. They may not all play at the same time, but let’s hope they can maximize the time they do have on the field.