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Better or worse? Giants edge group gets reinforcements

Giants deeper, more talented at this position

NFL: SEP 20 Giants at Bears
Lorenzo Carter (left) and Oshane Ximines
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants watched Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines fall victim to season-ending injuries early in the 2020 season. They traded 2019 sack leader Markus Golden back to the Arizona Cardinals. They spent most of the season mixing and matching at the edge position, getting some solid play despite not having top-notch talent there.

Could 2021 be different? The Giants certainly prioritized trying to upgrade the position, drafting Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith and adding free agents Ifeadi Odenigbo and Ryan Anderson. Let’s take a closer look as we continue our position-by-position look at the Giants entering training camp.

Key losses: Kyler Fackrell, Jabaal Sheard
Key additions: Azeez Ojulari, Elerson Smith, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Ryan Anderson

Why the Giants might be better

The personnel is better, deeper and more athletic. They should, honestly, be able to get more done based on natural ability.

The Giants should not have to ask a limited inside linebacker like David Mayo to play on the edge, as Mayo did for 99 snaps last season. They should not need to pick up veteran castoffs like Jabaal Sheard and Trent Harris to fill snaps. They should not have to move a player like Carter Coughlin, who they really seem to want to be an inside linebacker, back to the edge. They shouldn’t have to turn to an unknown like Niko Lalos.

The Giants are now deep enough at linebacker that I left Ximines, a 2019 third-round pick, off my post-mandatory mini-camp 53-man roster projection. That may or may not end up being correct, but it is an indication that the Giants currently look like they have more capable players at the edge position that they will be able to keep.

Kyler Fackrell gave the Giants a nice season last year, but his limited athleticism showed up in space as he had a 28.9 tackling grade per Pro Football Focus, missing nine tackles (24.3 percent of his tackle attempts) and had a 48.2 coverage grade while giving up completions on all 14 throws that targeted him.

Let’s look at the edge defenders (I dislike the term “edge rushers” because players at that position do far more than rush the passer).

Lorenzo Carter — The Giants have been hoping the athletically-gifted Carter would turn those traits into dominant production off the edge. It hasn’t happened. After four-sack, 43-tackle and 4.5 sack, 45-tackle seasons in his first two years, Carter was on track for a projected four-sack, 46-tackle season last year when he tore his Achilles tendon.

Could a leap to dominance still happen for Carter? It did for both Shaq Barrett and Leonard Floyd in their fifth seasons. Even if he remains good but not great, the Giants benefit from his presence on defense. He is a solid three-down linebacker who contributes in the pass rush, coverage and run defense. [Profile]

Oshane Ximines — It is going to be interesting to watch what unfolds with Ximines during training camp. As a rookie third-round pick in 2019 he flashed some promise, with 4.5 sacks, 25 pressures and a pass-rush win rate of 6.1 percent per Pro Football Focus, 71st among 118 qualifying edge defenders.

It appeared to take the new coaching staff time to warm up to Ximines last season, and he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Ximines could end up starting and turning into the Giants’ best edge rusher. He could end up not making the team, bypassed by players brought in under the current coaching staff.

Azeez Ojulari — I’m still blown away that the Giants were able to get Ojulari with the 50th pick in the draft. I will never pretend to be an NFL scout or a defensive coordinator, but when I looked at all of the edge defenders in the 2021 draft class I always thought Ojulari was the perfect choice for Patrick Graham and the Giants. [Profile]

Now, how big a role will he play?

Fans are certainly optimistic that the 21-year-old former Georgia Bulldog will have a big impact on the pass rush.

Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is also optimistic about Ojulari’s NFL future.

“There’s not a lot of times you can say a guy’s going to contribute and you know what he’s going to be at the next level,” Lanning said. “To me, you know what you’re getting with Azeez. He’s very consistent, he’s very deliberate in what he does from a work ethic standpoint. I know there’s no such thing as a ‘can’t miss,’ but he’s as close as you could get in my opinion.”

Ojulari can play going forward and backward, and has experience playing with his hand in the ground. He appears to have done everything at Georgia that Graham asks his edge rushers to do in New York.

This is the most exciting pass-rushing prospect the Giants have drafted since Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010. He is likely to get as much responsibility as he proves capable of handling.

Elerson Smith — The Ojulari pick did not satisfy the Giants’ appetite for edge defenders. They selected Smith out of Northern Iowa in Round 4. Coming from a small school and having not played in 2020 when his team’s season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith is more of a project than Ojulari. The Giants haven’t hit on a mid-round pass rusher in the draft since taking Justin Tuck in Round 3 of the 2005 draft. Could Smith end the drought? He figures to be a depth piece in 2021, perhaps working as a sub-package pass rusher. [Profile]

Ryan Anderson — A former second-round pick, Anderson never ascended to a full-time role in Washington. He eventually got pushed out by the arrivals of Montez Sweat and Chase Young. Like many of the depth players the Giants added this offseason, Anderson has extensive special teams experience. His defensive role is unclear, especially since an apparent injury kept him out of mini-camp. He could end up a key contributor on defense. He could end up not making the 53-man roster. [Profile]

Ifeadi Odenigbo — The Vikings let Odenigbo go despite the 26-year-old having turned into a useful pass rusher with 10.5 sacks over the past two seasons. The Giants pounced. He has the flexibility to line up across the line or play standing up on the edge, and Odenigbo figures to find a role as a sub-package pass rusher. [Profile]

Cam Brown — After drafting Brown in the sixth round a season ago, the Giants moved him from off-ball linebacker to the edge. He played 93 defensive snaps, 70 as a pass rusher. Brown produced zero sacks and only seven pressures. Brown has terrific length and athleticism and may yet develop into a quality edge defender. For now, though, he figures to be depth and a critical special teams player. Brown is a tremendous on special teams, and there might be Pro Bowl appearances in his future in that role. [Profile]

Niko Lalos — Lalos was a terrific story last season. An undrafted free agent out of Dartmouth in the Ivy League, he made the Giants’ practice squad out of training camp. A 6-foot-5, 270-pound bundle of energy, he had a critical interception in his NFL debut during a Week 12 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He followed that with a fumble recovery Week 13 vs. the Seattle Seahawks. He ended up playing in six games. Is there space for Lalos on the 2021 Giants? [Profile]

Trent Harris — Picked up from the Miami Dolphins as depth when injuries struck last season, Harris is really just a placeholder. He played four games and had a half-sack and five tackles for New York. If he is on the roster, the Giants are ravaged by injuries on the edge. [Profile]

Why the Giants might be worse

What if Fackrell is missed more than I think he will be? What if Carter doesn’t have the same athleticism after his Achilles injury? What if Ojulari’s knee explodes? What if Elerson Smith is closer to Owa Odighizuwa than Tuck? What if Ximines or Cam Brown don’t develop as hoped? What if Odenigbo and Anderson don’t help?

I think the Giants have enough talent and enough options that should one or two of those things happen they should still field a productive edge group. But, that’s the worst-case scenario.

Final thoughts

I think you know what I think about the edge group. On paper, it is the deepest and most exciting group the Giants have assembled at this position in a long time. I am fascinated to watch both how the young players develop and how Graham uses the multitude of pieces at his disposal.