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Giants position review: Defensive line remained a strength in 2021

Beyond Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, though, there are questions moving forward

New York Giants v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The New York Giants defensive line might be the deepest position on the roster. In 2020, it was almost certainly the deepest position, but the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency lessened the overall potency of the position group. Tomlinson’s departure was unfortunate, but the defensive line was still effective in 2021.

New York’s plan to replace Tomlinson with Danny Shelton didn’t exactly work as hoped. However, Austin Johnson had a career year with Big Blue. Both Shelton and Johnson are now free agents, and the Giants will have to make decisions regarding both players.

Let’s look at the defensive line as we continue our position-by-position reviews of the Giants.

2021 in review

The roster

Starters: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence

Backups: Danny Shelton, Raymond Johnson III

Practice squad: David Moa, Niko Lalos, Woodrow Hamilton

Dave Gettleman and the Giants finally acknowledged the shortage of proven talent along the offensive line just before the regular season. This, of course, was facilitated by the retirements of Joe Looney and Zach Fulton and the injury to Shane Lemieux. The concerning state of the offensive line prompted Gettleman to trade B.J. Hill - a talented defensive lineman in a deep rotation - to the Cincinnati Bengals for center Billy Price.

Price played the second-most snaps on the offense. He struggled at times with positioning, strength, and overall effectiveness.

The expendable nature of Hill, and the offseason departure of Tomlinson, suggests that the Giants had higher hopes for Shelton - a player they signed to a one-year, $1.12 million contract. Out of 145 defensive linemen that played at least 20 percent of their team’s snaps, Shelton ranked 115th in run defense and 128th in overall defense. He struggled to anchor against double teams, his athletic ability was an issue, and he offered little to no upside as a pass rusher from the inside. The signing of Shelton proved to be a failure.

However, the Giants brought Austin Johnson back to the Giants on a one-year, $3 million deal. Johnson was solid in 2020 after reuniting with his college positional coach Sean Spencer. New York thought he was a solid rotational player who could potentially help fill the void left by Tomlinson’s departure; he wasn’t Tomlinson, but he was the best version of Austin Johnson we’ve seen in the NFL.

Johnson tied Tae Crowder for a team-high 37 STOPS. He was fifth on the team in pressures with 21, and he had 44 tackles. These are by far the best statistics Johnson has accrued in his career, albeit he played a lot more snaps in 2021 than he did in any previous season. Johnson was third in snaps played behind Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence.

Williams was again a focal point defender for Patrick Graham, but his 2021 season was not quite as statistically productive as his 2020 season. Williams received a three-year, $63 million contract before the year - I saw no drop off in effort whatsoever from Leonard Williams.

Although his motor still ran hot, his pressures dipped from 62 in 2020 to 47 in 2021. He only had 6.5 sacks compared to his 11.5 in 2020. His tackles and STOPS were both higher in 2021. Context is essential; the Giants were in much closer games in 2020, so opposing offenses were passing down the stretch of games. In 2021, the Giants offense was non-competitive, so sack opportunities weren’t always available in the fourth quarter. Williams still led the team in pressures and was second in sacks to the talented rookie Azeez Ojulari.

I would also contend that Williams wasn’t as dominant in 2021. There are many reasons why, but I still believe in his unique abilities. Players who weigh more than 300 pounds, with his length, shouldn’t have his type of movement skills. Hopefully, he can produce as he did in 2020 under, presumably, a new defensive coordinator in 2022.

Dexter Lawrence was second on the team in pressure with 43. That’s 14 more than he had in 2020, albeit he had 79 more pass-rushing attempts in 2021. Lawrence is a 6-foot-4, 342-pound mountain that can align from 4i all the way inside. He pushes the pocket with impressive power pass-rushing moves, and he’s a good athlete for a man of his size. He didn’t necessarily have the breakout campaign in 2021, but he still had a solid overall season. I still believe Lawrence can be a more impactful player, and I would argue he hasn’t quite reached his potential. He’ll be entering his fourth season in 2022.

Raymond Johnson III was a surprise 53-man selection at the beginning of the season. It’s not necessarily because he didn’t deserve to crack the roster, but he was an undrafted player from a small school (Georgia Southern). Johnson III played 166 total snaps on defense and wasn’t a key contributor on special teams. He struggled in run defense and didn’t offer much as a pass rusher. He’ll have a chance to make next year’s roster, but it’ll be a challenge with a new coaching staff.

The practice squad players hardly made an impact during the regular season. David Moa played 44 defensive snaps through four games; he out-snapped Johnson III in week 18 against Washington. Moa had two tackles on the season, but he did look solid during pre-season. Niko Lalos performed well at times in 2020 but failed to be active for one game during the 2021 season. Lalos spent the entire year on the Giants’ practice squad. Woodrow Hamilton made one appearance for New York in Week 18. He was signed to the Giants practice squad in October before being released and resigned in December.

2022 outlook

The Giants have $45 million guaranteed to Williams and are entering the second year of his three-year deal. According to OverTheCap, Williams will account for 13.1 percent of the Giants 2022 cap with a cap number of $27.3 million. Despite the hefty price, Williams is still one of the more unique players on the roster.

Lawrence will join Williams along the defensive front. Lawrence is still playing on his rookie contract; New York will have to decide on Lawrence’s fifth-year option at the beginning of May. I would expect the Giants to pick up Williams fifth-year and retain the big talented defensive lineman for another season after 2022.

Johnson is still under contract but is no lock for the 2022 roster. Moa and Lalos were signed to future deals at the end of the season, but their climb to crack the 53-man roster is steep.

Johnson and Shelton are both unrestricted free agents. The latter can, and more than likely will, walk. Johnson is intriguing. Coach Chaos left the Giants and accepted a job with the University of Florida - safe to say Johnson won’t be joining him. However, Johnson’s 27 years old and coming off a career year. He may have other suitors in a better cap situation than New York. I wouldn’t mind seeing 98 back with the Giants, but it’s no certainty.

The Giants also have nine draft picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. I wouldn’t be shocked to see New York invest a day 3 pick into their defensive line, but those decisions will become clearer once a coaching staff is selected.