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New York Giants offseason roster analysis: Previewing the defense

Let’s go through some of the biggest questions that need to be answered on the defensive side

NFL: New York Giants Rookie Minicamp
Kayvon Thibodeaux
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

We have established by now that the New York Giants defense you will see with Wink Martindale in charge will play a vastly different style than the one employed by Patrick Graham the last two years.

Let’s go position-by-position and see what we learned this spring, and what we have yet to find out during training camp and the season to come.

Defensive line — Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, D.J. Davidson, Justin Ellis, Jalyn Holmes, Christopher Hinton, David Moa

The big question

Is there another level Dexter Lawrence can reach? Lawrence has been a nice player since the Giants selected him No. 17 overall in 2019, but he has not been a great or dominant one. Can new defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who coached Linval Joseph to the best years of his career after Joseph left the Giants for the Minnesota Vikings, do the same for Lawrence?

Lawrence’s pre-draft athletic testing, and the occasional flashes of plays a man his size simply shouldn’t make, indicate the answer could be yes.

“He (Lawrence) can grow a lot. He can elevate his his game, there’s no question about that. You’re starting to see that happen out here now,” Patterson said this spring

“Way back in the day when I went to Minnesota the first time John Randle was already John Randle, Chris Doleman was already Chris Doleman, but they listened to me and helped me take their game to another level.

“In this game you never get to the point where you say this is where I’m tapped out, unless you have told yourself this is where I tapped out. You can still reach for more.”

Let’s hope Patterson can help Lawrence find that “more” in his game.

The roster question

Is there enough depth? Justin Ellis, a run-defending nose tackle, is entering his ninth NFL season. D.J. Davidson was drafted in the fifth round (No. 147), but whether he can help in 2022 remains to be seen. Jalyn Holmes is a 283-pound defensive end with four years of experience, three with the Vikings, but has played a significant number of defense snaps only once, getting 617 with Minnesota in 2020.

Edge — Azeez Ojulari, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Quincy Roche, Elerson Smith, Cam Brown, Tomon Fox, Oshane Ximines, Jihad Ward, Ryder Anderson

The big question

How good will Kayvon Thibodeaux be? The Giants drafted him No. 5 overall, bypassing a chance to have their choice of the top three offensive tackles in the 2022 NFL Draft class. So, they think the answer will be very good.

“Getting Kayvon Thibodeaux, a really good pass rusher at five, we are excited about that,” GM Joe Schoen said the night the Giants selection Thibodeaux. “Thought of getting him there with Azeez on the other side and the pass rush is important to us, so two young pass rushers on the team now that we are definitely excited about.”

Thibodeaux missed most of the spring with an unknown injury.

The roster question

Does Oshane Ximines have a chance? A 2019 third-round pick, Ximines suffered a rotator cuff injury that limited him to just four games in 2020. In 2021, he was an afterthought. Ximines played just one defensive snap and 14 special teams snaps over the final nine games, getting buried on the depth chart after a costly offsides penalty late in a Week 8 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Ximines was inactive for six of those final nine games.

Does he have a legitimate chance to resurrect his career with a new coaching staff in place? Theoretically, everyone has a “clean slate” in 2022. Ximines, though, faces the reality that Thibodeauz and Azeez Ojulari are early draft picks, that Elerson Smith is a player with an intriguing skillset, that Quincy Roche was productive in 2021, and that Jihad Ward is a valued veteran presence who previously had success playing for Wink Martindale with the Baltimore Ravens.

Linebacker — Blake Martinez, Tae Crowder, Micah McFadden, Carter Coughlin, Darrian Beavers, Justin Hilliard, Niko Lalos

The big question

Will Blake Martinez be the same player he was before his torn ACL? Martinez has been a tackling machine throughout his career, making 144 or more tackles every season from 2017-2021.

Martinez has never had the reputation of being a great athlete for the linebacker position, though his pre-draft testing numbers are better than you might think:

Will last season’s non-contact knee injury slow him down? Might he, in his first year, after ACL surgery, be a bit like Saquon Barkley was in 2021? Playing, but not all the way back to his former self? Tentative, unsure of how the knee will react,

Martinez’ leadership in the middle of the defense will help the Giants. His playmaking ability would, though, help them even more.

The roster question

Can anyone take Tae Crowder’s job? The 2020 Mr. Irrelevant has played far more in his first two seasons than could have been expected. In 2021, Crowder had the added burden of taking on signal-calling duties after Martinez’ Week 3 injury. As easy as he is to root for, though, Crowder’s Pro Football Focus grades (26.4 in 2020, 29.1 in 2021) tell you he’s more placeholder than entrenched long-term answer at inside linebacker.

It seems unlikely that rookies Micah McFadden or Darrian Beavers could fully replace Crowder in 2022, but perhaps one or both could start chipping away at Crowder’s playing time.

Cornerback — Adoree’ Jackson, Aaron Robinson, Cor’Dale Flott, Darnay Holmes, Maurice Canady, Khalil Dorsey, Darren Evans, Zyon Gilbert, Rodarius Williams, Michael Jacquet

The big question

Can Aaron Robinson, drafted by the previous regime with the intent of making him a slot cornerback, be good enough as a replacement for James Bradberry at boundary cornerback?

Our Nick Falato took a look at that question, and was encouraged. Reality is, if the answer to the question isn’t ‘yes,’ the Giants don’t have a lot of appealing options. It would, honestly, be a problem the Giants might not be able to adequately address until the 2023 NFL Draft.

The roster question

Who are the backups going to be? Maurice Canady is a veteran with experience playing for Wink Martindale. Michael Jacquet and Khalil Dorsey have some experience. Rodarius Williams was a sixth-round pick a year ago who missed most of the year with a knee injury.

Darnay Holmes and Cor’Dale Flott look like the top options in the slot.

Would anyone be surprised if the Giants look to supplement the position once teams trim their rosters in training camp? I wouldn’t.

Safety — Xavier McKinney, Julian Love, Dane Belton, Jarren Williams, Henry Black, Yusuf Corker, Treston Thompson

The big question

I thought about making the question “Is Xavier McKinney about to become a star?”, but I think there is a different question to focus on. Is Julian Love ready for his first full-time starting role?

For three seasons, the 2019 fourth-round pick has been the answer to every personnel problem that cropped up in the secondary. Joe Judge used to refer to him as “duct tape” for that group. Need a free safety? Plug in Love. A box safety? Yep, he can do that. Need help in the slot? Love’s your man? An emergency cornerback? He was one of the best collegiate cornerbacks in the country at Notre Dame, and can do that in a pinch, too.

Love has played a lot of snaps for the Giants. In 2019 he played 409 (40 percent), 721 (66 percent) in 2020 and 610 (52 percent) last season. Still, he has started just 16 games over three seasons and has never been a full-time player.

Love, though, like many players across the roster Schoen has put together, is being given the opportunity to be more, to do more than ever before in his career. Some players will handle that successfully, others will flop.

The roster question

Is there enough depth? Fourth-round pick Dane Belton is likely to be asked to quickly take on at least a limited role in sub packages. Third-year man Jarren Williams is being asked to transition from cornerback to safety. Undrafted free agents Yusuf Corker and Treston Thompson will get long looks. Former Green Bay Packer Henry Black is reputed to be a quality special teams player, and that could earn him a roster spot.