The interior defensive line was without doubt the true strength of the New York Giants in 2020. Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill gave the Giants solid run defense and, in general, enough pass rush disruption to allow the Giants to play excellent defense in Patrick Graham’s first season as defensive coordinator.
With Williams, Tomlinson and Austin Johnson heading to free agency the question with this group is whether or not the Giants can keep it together.
Let’s go player-by-player through this position group.
Starters: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson
Reserves: B.J. Hill, Austin Johnson, R.J. McIntosh
Practice squad: David Moa
Williams said at the end of the season that he played for the respect of his teammates and coaches, not for the money.
“I’m not going to lie, going into this season, throughout the season, at the end of the season, today it’s never been about money for me,” Williams said. “I was kind of drafted high, made a lot of money already in my career. I feel like I was smart enough and I could retire now and still have enough money for the rest of my life, but it’s never been about the money. I think I just more wanted the respect and to show guys the reason why I’m in this league. Like I said, it’s just more about the respect to me than the contract.”
Still, the way Williams played in 2020 and the respect he commanded is going to earn him a ton of money in free agency this offseason.
Williams had a career-high 11.5 sacks, his first double-digit total in six seasons. He was third in the league in pressures, per PFF, with 62. Williams’ pass rush productivity rate of 7.8 was fifth among 72 qualifying interior defensive linemen. Williams was only 32nd in sacks created — sacks where he was the first defender to create pressure — but the knock on him over the years has been an inability to finish plays. He did that in 2020.
Williams figures to command a rich multi-year contract with an average annual value of at least $17.5 million, which would put in the top 10 in annual contract value for defensive linemen.
Will the Giants be the ones shelling out that money?
Lawrence, picked 17th by the Giants in 2019, took a step forward in his second season. His PFF run stop percentage of 9.1 was best among Giants defensive linemen and 12th among 72 qualifying interior defensive linemen. That’s up from 7.4 percent as a rookie. Lawrence’s sacks went up from 2.5 to 4.0, his tackles from 38 to 53 and his stops from 24 to 33. Lawrence’s pass rush pressure rate also rose moderately, from 4.3 to 5.0 percent.
It is perhaps possible to make a compelling argument for why the Giants should have used that 17th pick on Montez Sweat, an edge rusher with 16.0 sacks over two seasons for the Washington Football Team. Still, Lawrence is an ascending player who figures to be productive for the Giants for several seasons to come, provided he remains healthy.
Tomlinson is one of those players whose value extends far beyond the modest stats he posts. In 2020, Tomlinson had 3.5 sacks and 49 tackles — the exact totals he accumulated in 2019.
Tomlinson, though, was a defensive captain for the first time in 2020. He was the Giants’ nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year. He was a player who commanded double teams in run defense that helped allow linebacker Blake Martinez to compile 151 tackles.
Martinez called Tomlinson “one of the smartest football players I’ve been around” and added that Tomlinson’s work “allows me to make a lot of tackles.”
Hill was the fourth wheel in the Giants’ three-man defensive front. He played 34.47 percent of the defensive snaps while Lawrence, Tomlinson and Williams each played at least 60 percent. Hill, though, is a pretty good spare tire.
Hill finished fourth on the team in total pressures (19). Hill’s 73.1 PFF run defense grade in 127 snaps was third on the team.
Hill was a starter before the Giants acquired Williams in 2019. His role figures to increase if either Williams or Tomlinson moves on.
Johnson was for the Giants pretty much what he had been for the Tennessee Titans in his previous four NFL seasons. That being a run-stuffing reserve defensive tackle who didn’t give the Giants a whole lot in terms of pass rush. He’s good depth, not a whole lot more. Johnson can be a free agent, and whether or not he is back might depend upon whether or not the Giants can re-sign both Williams and Tomlinson.
A big ole blank slate. McIntosh got paid all season for doing pretty much nothing. The Giants carried him on the 53-man roster for 17 weeks, and he was not active for a single game. In three seasons, the 2018 fifth-round pick has played in 18 of 48 possible regular-season games, with 2.0 sacks and 18 tackles. In other words, he hasn’t done much.