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Position preview: Is defensive line still Giants’ best position group?

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the 2020 season, the defensive line was the strongest position on the New York Giants’ roster. Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, and B.J. Hill were a quartet of size and pain for opposing offenses - with Jaden’s beautiful disruption as the musical number.

Tomlinson signed with the Vikings in free agency, and Hill was traded to the Bengals for Billy Price. The shoes of these two players are big to fill, literally and figuratively. However, the Giants signed Danny Shelton, a true mountain of a man at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds. They retained Austin Johnson and Leonard Williams in the offseason - the latter on a three-year contract worth $63 million with $45 million guaranteed.

The Giants put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season, mostly from the interior defensive lineman. Last year, the four leaders in pressure on the Giants were the Williams, Lawrence, Tomlinson, and Hill, according to Pro Football Focus.

Williams had 62 pressures, Lawrence 29, Tomlinson 28, and Hill had 22. The next-highest was EDGE Kyler Fackrell at 19. Williams had 11.5 sacks and ranked third among interior defensive linemen in pressures, behind the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Steelers’ Stephon Tuitt.

The position group is very valuable to the Giants - Dave Gettleman has invested a lot of capital into the position, but it will look different in 2021. Let’s take a look at the roster heading into the 2021 NFL season.

Where they started

The defensive line room looked like this heading into camp: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, B.J. Hill, Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton, R.J. McIntosh, David Moa, and Raymond Johnson III.

Shortly into camp, the Giants waived McIntosh and signed two defensive linemen - Elijah Qualls and Willie Henry. The Giants found some quality assets at the position. Moa played very well through preseason, Henry flashed, and Raymond Johnson III was a better player than many anticipated.

Raymond Johnson, ended the preseason with a team-leading eight pressures; Moa had seven. Both worked well together in the stunt/twist game, with Moa as the penetrator from the 1-technique position and Johnson as the looper from a wider alignment (sometimes 3T, sometimes 4iT). He possessed power...

(Field 3-technique)

And some quickness with disruptive hands and some bend...

(Boundary 3-technique)

He was much more polished as a pass rusher than I expected. He’s not a great athlete, and he’s a bit of a tweener as of right now, but there’s a reason why he earned a spot on the final 53-man-roster.

Williams is going to be the center of offensive protection packages. He can create mismatches with his frame and burst. Players north of 300 pounds typically can’t bend like Williams, who also has unique length and provides so much versatility to Patrick Graham’s scheme.

Lawrence is quicker than advertised and immovable, yet he’s not a traditional nose tackle. The Giants liked aligning him as the 4i-technique to the field or strong side in TITE fronts. In short passing situations, the Giants aligned him at 2i-technique and allowed him to create interior pressure.

Austin Johnson and Danny Shelton will alternate nose responsibilities. Johnson played in 32 preseason snaps, starting week one against the Jets, and Shelton only played 16 snaps against the Jets. Shelton fits the mold for a space-eating nose in an odd front. Johnson’s role may be expanded a bit with the departure of Hill. I expect to see a healthy amount of these four players rotating within the defense, with Williams and Lawrence playing more often.

Where they are now

Current roster

Starters: Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence

Backups: Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton, Raymond Johnson III

Practice Squad: David Moa and Willie Henry

Johnson III played his way onto the roster and, as of right now, has lasted through the waiver period. The Giants were active in waivers signing LB Justin Hilliard, WR Collin Johnson, and EDGE Quincy Roche, but Johnson survived that round of cuts, too.

Roche is more of an EDGE than a defensive lineman, as is Niko Lalos, but they may have some appeal to kick inside in obvious passing situations if they’re forced to see the field (Lalos is on the practice squad at EDGE). I only have Williams and Lawrence listed at starters because it isn’t clear who will be the third defensive lineman when the Giants go TITE.

New York’s defensive line will look to create interior pressure and wreak havoc like it did last season. Only now, they have healthy bodies at EDGE. Lorenzo Carter seemed to recover from his torn Achilles last season, and the Giants also drafted Azeez Ojulari in the second round. The additions at EDGE should only help the Giants’ defensive line in terms of getting after the quarterback.

The 2020 Giants defensive line accounted for 53 percent of the team’s total pressure, mostly with just the big four. This is comparable with the Los Angeles Rams, but Aaron Donald had just under a third of the team’s overall pressures himself. The EDGE position for the Giants accounted for 30 percent, the defensive backs 10 percent, and the linebackers 7 percent.

With the loss of Hill and Tomlinson and the additions of Ojulari and Carter, this should even out a bit. However, the Giants and Patrick Graham do an excellent job running T/E stunts with Williams as the end coming from a wider alignment. Graham’s ability to dial pressure in many different ways leads to pressure opportunities for many different players.

Final thoughts

The defensive line is still one of the strongest groups despite losing players like Tomlinson and Hill. The presence of Williams and Lawrence is palpable, and the combination of Johnson and Shelton are solid. Johnson III is a high upside player worth developing, and I like the two players on the practice squad. Lawerence could also be primed for a true breakout campaign.

However, the safeties are really strong on this roster. All four of them can start and they’re interchangeable, albeit some execute certain roles better than others. The Giants cornerback depth behind Adoree Jackson on the outside isn’t very deep, but the ascension of Rodarius Williams is a positive sign. Plus, Julian Love can play boundary like he did against the Browns and Cowboys late last season.

Big Blue is set to square up against the Denver Broncos in Week 1. Their offensive line developed well in 2020 under Mike Munchak last season. Left tackle Garrett Bolles had a career year, and their line has several other interesting players like Lloyd Cushenberry, Graham Glasgow, Quinn Meinerz, and Dalton Risner. Expect a lot of inside zone runs with Pat Shurmur calling the offense as well.