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What is the Giants’ strategy for building their defense?

Positional value, performance stability, aging may all play a role

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NFL: New York Giants Rookie Minicamp
Giants draftee Cor’Dale Flott
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been noted often on the pages of Big Blue View that New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s philosophy of defense is to maximize the pressure put on quarterbacks to force them to make quick decisions. Sacks are not that important to him, but good man coverage by defensive backs is, because it allows him to scheme to get a numerical advantage on the pass rush, creating an unblocked rusher.

It follows that general manager Joe Schoen should have prioritized strengthening the Giants’ defensive backfield in the 2022 off-season. In several ways, though, he did not seem to do that:

  1. He released James Bradberry, their most experienced and accomplished cornerback, rather than re-structuring his contract and/or trying to extend him to solve his salary cap problem.
  2. He released starting safety Logan Ryan despite the move producing little cap savings in 2022 and significant dead money.
  3. With their first draft pick, the Giants selected an edge, Kayvon Thibodeaux, rather than a cornerback (although the top two CBs were surprisingly already gone by then).
  4. He traded back twice in Round 2 rather than selecting one of two highly-rated CBs, Kyler Gordon or Andrew Booth, both of whom were gone by the time they selected at No. 43.
  5. Then the Giants passed on well-regarded safety Jaquan Brisker, instead taking wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson at No. 43.

It was not until Rounds 3 (CB Cor’Dale Flott) and 4 (S Dane Belton) that the Giants finally addressed pass coverage. They have also signed several 2022 undrafted free agents and brought in several free agents released by other teams.

What’s going on here?

An interesting new article in Medium by Kevin Wilson looks at recent analytics research in several areas to propose a strategy for investments in defensive backs:

Perhaps Wilson is just a nom de plume being used by Schoen and Martindale. If not, though, it might as well be, because a lot of what Wilson recommends seems to be consistent with the Giants’ actions.

Wilson first cites research by Eric Eager and George Chahouri of PFF that pass coverage is a better predictor of future success than pass rush, but that coverage grades are less stable from year to year than pass rush grades.

He then discusses a study by PFF’s Timo Riske showing that the quality of NFL play at a number of positions begins to decline rapidly as players approach the age of 30. No position declines faster than running backs, but defensive backs are not far behind, as this figure from Riske’s article shows:

James Bradberry (age 29 this season, PFF 79.8 in 2020 and 62.8 in 2021) and Logan Ryan (age 31, PFF 64.1 in 2020 and 60.4 in 2021) released? Check.

Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight shows that hits on QBs - with or without sacks - significantly degrade passing performance, as this figure shows:

This is the Martindale philosophy in a nutshell. So Wilson recommends that, if you’re going to devote a Round 1 pick to defense, better to make it an edge, whose performance is more predictable from year to year and for which the “hit rate” on the pick is higher than for other positions, than a defensive back.

Kayvon Thibodeaux, pick No. 5? Check.

Then, since defensive backs are so important, and you need a lot of them, and their performance is so variable, Wilson’s solution is to select them in rounds 2-4,

“Taking multiple shots at these positions, consistently trying to replace your weakest starter. These players will be cost controlled for four years, will provide depth when injury inevitably happens, and will provide some floor to a position where individual performance varies tremendously year over year.”

Flott and Belton? Lots of free agents to throw at the problem? Check.

About the only things Wilson recommends that the Giants didn’t do were to either use that Round 2 pick on a good man cover boundary CB or to spend free agent money (which they didn’t have enough of in 2022) on one. To give credit where credit is due: Previous GM Dave Gettleman spent free agent money on a good man cover cornerback, Adoree’ Jackson, who played well in his first Giants season. He also used an extra Round 5 pick acquired in the 2021 draft Round 1 trade-down to move up to select Aaron Robinson, who may be the Giants’ CB2 this year, in Round 3.

But this was just one draft. Rome wasn’t built in a day. If defensive backs are unpredictable from year to year and decline rapidly as they near age 30, then signing them to second contracts should be avoided. Instead, keep replenishing the DB room with young players on inexpensive four-year contracts, as Wilson suggests. Wilson also points out that safeties are chronically underpaid and may represent the best value for a free agent defensive back signing. Let’s keep this in mind when the 2023 free agency period and draft come around.