A big question mark surrounding the New York Giants before the 2021 NFL Draft was the EDGE position. New York found moderate success in 2020 with Kyler Fackrell, Jabaal Sheard, and defensive tackle Leonard Williams aligning on the EDGE 186 times.
Fackrell signed with the Chargers, Sheard signed with Miami, and Williams is best suited as a chess piece to be used anywhere along the defensive line. The 2020 Giants relied on rookie Day 3 picks Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin while entrusting David Mayo on the EDGE against more physical teams (Ravens and Browns). The position group needed an upgrade, and the Giants acknowledged that during the 2021 off-season.
New York signed Ifeadi Odenigbo and Ryan Anderson during free agency - both failed to make the team. Odenigbo was out of place in Patrick Graham’s system, and Anderson was suspended for the first six games for violating the substance abuse policy; he was released two days later.
Dave Gettleman’s free-agent whiffs were both one-year swings that couldn’t make the team, but Gettleman successfully found upgrades for the EDGE position in the draft. After trading down in the NFL draft multiple times, Gettleman selected Georgia pass-rusher Azeez Ojulari.
The pass-rushing specialist was a stud underclassman for the Bulldogs. Georgia’s defensive terminology and propensity to utilize a lot of mint fronts (nickel-based, TITE front defense) make the transition to Patrick Graham’s system more straightforward.
The Giants weren’t done investing in pass-rushers at Ojulari. With their first pick on day three, they selected Northern Iowa’s Elerson Smith - an incredible athlete with rare testing ability. Smith didn’t play in the 2020 season because the smaller level of competition didn’t dress due to COVID-19, but Smith impressed many at the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl.
Ojulari and Smith were quality additions to a position group that desperately needed an upgrade, but plucking Quincy Roche off of the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad was an underrated move. Gettleman doesn’t deserve much praise for a poor overall general manager job, but adding Roche was a good move.
Let’s look at the overall EDGE position and see how they performed in 2021 and what they may look like next season.
2021 in review
Starters: Azeez Ojulari, Lorenzo Carter
Backups: Quincy Roche, Elerson Smith, Cam Brown, Oshane Ximines
IR: Carter Coughlin
Practice Squad: Trent Harris
The Giants prioritized the EDGE position during the 2021 offseason. Ojulari was the 50th pick in the draft, and the return on investment for the Bulldog came early. The rookie pass-rusher had 42 pressures in 2021, ranking 35th among all EDGE rushers in the NFL. His eight sacks led the Giants. While he wasn’t always exceptional as a run defender, there’s hope in that area and elements that can be developed. Ojulari should be an impact player for several years with the Giants.
Carter worked his way back into shape after rupturing his Achilles in week five of the 2020 season. It was a slow start for Carter, but he flashed his immense potential down the stretch of the season. In the final five games, Carter recorded 5 sacks and 18 pressures. His burst returned; he displayed the ability to bend and corner around the EDGE, and his relentless nature was evident. It was great to see Carter appear healthy.
Carter’s time with the Giants hasn’t been maximized for various reasons. He wasn’t used to his potential in James Bettcher’s scheme in 2018-2019, and then he suffered the devastating injury in 2020. He returned in 2021 with 31 pressures and 5 sacks.
There’s a unique skill-set in Carter that wasn’t actualized. We saw breadcrumbs of it late in 2021, but now his contract is up. I would love to see Carter return to the Giants on a small “prove it” deal, but I don’t know the interest he’ll garner on the open market.
Roche played significant snaps for the 2021 Giants after falling to the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He rose to the occasion against the Raiders and sacked Derek Carr in the red zone as the time ran out. In 401 total defensive snaps, Roche had 14 pressures and 3 sacks. Like Ojulari, he’s not a premier run defender quite yet, but he has shown signs of encouragement in that area. Roche may end up being a huge steal by Gettleman. But for now, he’s a solid rotational piece that can be developed.
Elerson Smith spent most of 2021 on IR. He debuted on Monday Night Football against Tampa Bay, and he played on 107 defensive snaps from Weeks 11-18. Smith had 6 pressures, no sacks, and his athletic capability showed up a few times on film. His role will expand in 2022.
Oshane Ximines was buried on the depth chart and hasn’t taken the next step after a promising 2019 rookie year. He wasn’t the best fit in Graham’s system, and he struggled to earn snaps because he was unreliable as a run defender. Ximines was a healthy scratch several times and contracted COVID-19, relegating him to sit out. He failed to appear for the Giants on defense from Week 8 till Week 18. He had 7 pressures and zero sacks on 183 2021 snaps.
Coughlin and Brown had minimal roles on defense. Coughlin was attempting to transition to linebacker during the preseason, but that didn’t necessarily work out. He played in 40 defensive snaps before hurting his ankle in week 7 and eventually ending on the I.R.
Brown missed time during 2021 with a hamstring injury and COVID-19 but still played in over 240 special teams snaps. Brown is a corp special teams ace and should remain with the new regime. He only played in 12 total snaps through three games on defense. Trent Harris appeared in four games, playing on special teams and some snaps on defense (season-high 24 against the Raiders). He ended the season with 44 defensive snaps and 2 pressures.
The Giants have Ojulari, Roche, and Smith locked into the roster (if the new regime wants to retain all three). That’s a solid start, but not one that is experienced or proven. Ximines is under contract for another year but has virtually done nothing since his 25 pressure, 6 sack, rookie season.
A Carter departure could be on the horizon for the Giants as the usher in a new coaching staff. Carter hasn’t necessarily dominated since his third-round selection in 2018, but the 26-year-old is just scratching the surface. I’m not sure if the Giants will retain Carter.
The position group is young, but it’s not the scariest on paper. We hope Ojulari builds upon his rookie year, but development isn’t always linear - especially with a new defensive system. Roche flashed but wasn’t always impactful (he was a rookie sixth-round pick), and Smith didn’t play until the end of the season. Both Brown and Coughlin shouldn’t be viewed as anything other than special team assets.
Suppose the Giants go into the season with Ojulari, Roche, and Smith as their top three EDGE rushers. In that case, they should probably be concerned, or they’re incredibly optimistic about their development - something that bit the Giants’ in 2021 with their offensive line.
A quality veteran addition would help this EDGE group, as would retaining Carter. I would love to see Carter back in blue. Carter staying wouldn’t preclude the Giants from investing one of their top ten selections into the EDGE group.
Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux will likely be unavailable to the Giants at five, but Purdue’s George Karlaftis could be. Michigan’s David Ojabo, Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson, and Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders are other names to know.
The Giants could invest with day two or day three picks as well. An addition at EDGE through the draft, along with a veteran free agent signing, may be a way to ensure that the 2022 EDGE group is more stable with experience and depth. Ojulari, Roche, and Smith are a solid foundation, but there needs to be a bit more than just those three young, intriguing players.