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Better or worse? Giants defensive line

How well Giants overcome loss of Dalvin Tomlinson will be key to figuring that out

New York Giants v Washington Football Team
Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The defensive line was the best part of the New York Giants’ defense in 2020. Can this year’s group, minus one key player from a year ago, still be as good or better than its predecessor?

As we position-by-position through the Giants’ roster asking if each spot is better or worse than a year ago, the defensive line is up next. So, let’s get to it.

Key losses: Dalvin Tomlinson
Key additions: Danny Shelton, Ifeadi Odenigbo

Why the Giants might be better

The idea that this year’s defensive line might be better than the 2020 version starts with accepting two premises. Those are that Leonard Williams will play much more like he did in 2020 (11.5) sacks than in 2019 (just a half-sack). The other is that Dexter Lawrence, entering his third season, will have a breakout, Pro Bowl type season.

Both ideas are plausible, though obviously not guaranteed. Williams has always been a good, impactful player. He had only 17.5 sacks in his first five seasons, so expecting double-digit sacks to be his norm might be too much. Seven or eight sacks, another season of double-digit tackles for loss and being a constant presence around the ball might be enough.

Lawrence’s production improved across the board in 2020. He is still only 23 years old, so it’s fair to believe that improvement will continue.

The Giants are asking journeymen nose tackles Danny Shelton and Austin Johnson to fill the void left by the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency.

Shelton is a former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns who has played for Cleveland, the New England Patriots and the Detroit Lions in six seasons. He had his most productive season with the Patriots in 2019 with career highs in sacks (3.0), tackles (61) and quarterback hits (6). Maybe Joe Judge, who saw that performance as an assistant in New England, believes Patrick Graham can coax that out of him.

Johnson is a solid run defender and useful as a rotational player, though he has never really been more than that in five NFL seasons.

B.J. Hill is a solid player, though he has never matched the 5.5 sacks he had as a rookie in 2018.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, signed as a free agent after a surprising release from the Minnesota Vikings, could also play a role as a pass rusher. Odenigbo, 27, had 10.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits over the past two seasons as a part-time player in Minnesota. GM Dave Gettleman said this spring that Odenigbo has “got some inside, sub pass rush to him.”

Why the Giants might be worse

The biggest question, of course, is how much will the Giants miss Tomlinson?

The 2017 second-round pick is one of those players whose value isn’t told by traditional sack or tackle statistics. Tomlinson had 3.5 sacks, 49 tackles (8 for loss) and 10 quarterback hits. Ho-hum. That really doesn’t tell you what he meant to the Giants’ defense.

Sports Info Solutions had Tomlinson ranked eighth among defensive tackles with 12.66 points saved vs. the run in 2020. Tomlinson saved .042 points per play, 45th among 168 ranked defensive tackles.

Whatever the numbers, Tomlinson is the guy who handled the interior double teams that enabled Blake Martinez to run free. He held the point of attack to allow Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams to crash down and make plays.

Can Shelton and Austin do that? If they can’t, it affects the productivity of everyone else in the front seven.

Final thoughts

I believe the Giants will be fine. Neither Shelton nor Johnson is as good as Tomlinson. I think, though, that those two combined with some work at nose by Lawrence will capably handle the middle.

I don’t believe the Giants will get another double-digit sack from Williams, but I also still think he will be a productive, impact player. Players like Hill and Odenigbo should contribute.

Will the defensive line actually be better? I wouldn’t guarantee that, but I do think it is going to continue to be a strong group.