As things stand now, if you were to rank the best and deepest positions on the New York Giants roster, the defensive line would have to be at the top.
It shouldn’t be any surprise considering the wealth of talent and capital concentrated in that unit. The Giants’ defensive line depth chart is likely made up of two former first-round picks (Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence), two former second-rounders (Dalvin Tomlinson and Austin Johnson), a third-rounder (B.J. Hill), and a former fifth-round selection (Daylon Mack) in the top six spots.
But just because the majority of the Giants’ defensive tackles were highly regarded coming out of college doesn’t mean that they are automatically great. The Giants have always made sure to be well-stocked at the position, but while their run defense was stout a year ago, their pass rush was lacking.
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer knows the defense needs his unit to affect the quarterback in 2020, but also to do so within the larger structure of the defense.
Spencer said, “We need to stay within the framework of the defense, obviously. We cage the quarterback. We want to make sure that he’s uncomfortable at all times. You don’t ever want it to be like a seven on seven where he’s just patting that ball and throwing it. You want him to feel duress. Sometimes, the pressure of feeling those guys in your face is as good as a sack, because like you said, it’ll disrupt timing and throws and all that stuff.”
Influencing the quarterback and disrupting his timing is about more than just hitting him and putting him on the ground (although that’s a pretty good way to do it). Doing things like clogging passing lanes when linemen know they can’t get to the quarterback himself have an impact as well. And it’s something Spencer makes a point of emphasis in practice.
“Absolutely it’s [linemen getting their hands up] something we work on,” he said. “If you’re not getting to the quarterback, you can’t get to his spot, they jump you in the protection, it’s three-set protection, those types of things, or max protection where they use two guys on one, you get a push and then you should get your hands up. We have to alter the throw however we can. We either knock the ball down or change the course of it.”
Williams has always been a player with tantalizing potential, but he has never been able to consistently transform that potential into production. Spencer recognizes that Williams has the tools to be a productive player, but says that they’re working to refine those tools and hone his craft.
Spencer said, “I think one thing is he’s doing a great job of taking the classroom work, the work we do in the meetings prior to practice and being able to bring that out on the field and do the things we’re asking him to do. Clearly, as you guys know, he’s an unbelievable athlete. I think he’s starting to put it all together. He’s always had the tools. He’s working on refining his craft right now. He looks strong, powerful like you said. I’m just happy with his progress right now.”
“Obviously, as we stated before, he’s [Williams] a tremendous athlete,” Spencer added. “We need to take him from being just this tremendous athlete to refining him as a football player, and I think he’s working towards that right now. What I tell Leonard is the same thing I’ll tell Dex (Lawrence), the same thing I’ll tell Chris Slayton. Everybody is kind of coached the same. I don’t have a particular ‘this is a Leonard focus.’ Clearly, there are things that he’s going to do really well that you want to use those tools. But at the same time within the framework of what I’m teaching, he’s doing those things and trying to articulate those things on the field.”
Williams has always been proficient at pressuring quarterbacks, with 49 QB pressures over the last two seasons (per ProFootballReference). But if he is going to prove worth his $16 million price tag, he is going to have to finish far more of his rushes and convert those pressures into sacks.
“I think understanding your angles and understanding why you finished or didn’t finish on that rep,” Spencer said, when asked if “finishing” was something coachable or if it’s instinctive. “Sometimes the ball is out. You guys talk about getting pressure on the quarterback, sometimes the quarterback releases the ball. More so, it’s just a continuation of that motor. Keep that motor going at all times. If you’re going fast and you are going hard all the time, I really think that good things will happen for you. I know it sounds cliché, just go hard, but that’s a part of it, it’s a part of the basics of football. If you go hard on every play, good things will happen to you.”
The reserve DTs
As mentioned before, the Giants have a bunch of defensive tackles after their starters. And despite having starting time of their own in their careers, guys like B.J. Hill and Austin Johnson don’t get nearly as much talk as Lawrence or Williams — let alone the Giants bevy of backups fighting for roster spots.
On Austin Johnson
The Giants signed Johnson as a free agent from the Tennessee Titans this past offseason. He’s an experienced nose tackle, having started 13 games for the Titans at the position. And as a Penn State alum, Johnson is the player in the Giants’ defensive line room he knows best. He’s leaning on Johnson’s experience to help teach the youngsters on the Giants’ defensive line.
“Because he is basically a vet, I have a young room, a guy four years in the league is a vet now,” Spencer said. “He understands the game, he’s very very knowledgeable. He plays with really good pad level and his experience in the NFL has helped him. I think Tennessee and those guys did a great job with him in terms of him understanding the things schematically. What the offense is trying to do. He plays with really good leverage and it’s something that he did in college. Obviously, I was fortunate enough to coach him in college. He hasn’t really lost that. It’s even gotten better.”
B.J. Hill, R.J. McIntosh, and Daylon Mack
The one constant for the Giants over the years has been a steady pipeline of players at the defensive tackle position. While players like Williams, Dexter Lawrence II, and Dalvin Tomlinson have gotten the bulk of the off-season attention, the Giants still have a number of young players behind them. Having a strong group of starters is important, but having hard-working and prepared depth is almost as important. Giants fans know that you can’t leave a defensive tackle in all game long, and that a healthy rotation can only help a defense. So far Spencer likes what he’s seen from the players down the depth chart.
“I like what I see from all those guys throughout camp,” he said. “Everyone is working hard. We know it’s tremendous competition in that room. One of the things that I stressed in the meeting today is let’s not lose sight of that. We do things where sometimes we split the field up, and I don’t want those guys to ever think that I’m not watching. I want them to have tremendous competition within each other, day in and day out. They can’t take their foot off the gas ever.”
The Giants signed DT Daylon Mack shortly after camp started. He was a surprise cut by the Baltimore Ravens and became available on the open market after failing a physical with the Detroit Lions. The Giants jumped on the opportunity to add the 2019 fifth-round pick, hosting him for a workout and signing him almost immediately.