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Better or worse? Giants’ defensive line

There is a case to be made on both sides of the argument heading into training camp

Carolina Panthers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Over the last decade, the defensive line was one of the best positional groups for the New York Giants. Arguably, they were at their strongest in 2020, but losing Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency forced a slight regression, albeit Austin Johnson was admirable in his 665 defensive snaps.

The Giants enter 2022 with their two top defensive lineman still present - Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams - but core depth pieces were replaced, so let’s analyze if the unit is better or worse now than it was in 2021.

Key losses: Austin Johnson, Danny Shelton, Raymond Johnson III

Key additions: Justin Ellis, D.J. Davidson

Other additions: Jalyn Holmes, Christopher Hinton, Ryder Anderson, Jabari Ellis

Why the Giants might be better

Austin Johnson played well and capitalized on the second one-year deal he signed in New York last season. Johnson leveraged his quality play into a two-year, $14 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers.

The impact of losing Johnson outweighs any counter-measures added to the Giants’ defensive line room in 2022; however, replacing Danny Shelton with Justin Ellis is an upgrade for several reasons.

New York brought Justin Ellis to New York to return to Wink Martindale’s scheme. Ellis played three seasons with Martindale in Baltimore, and he’s built like Shelton - they’re both 6-foot-2 and more than 330 pounds. Shelton has 20 pounds on Ellis, but Ellis does a better job anchoring in place and occupying space.

Shelton was bullied and was inconsistent throughout 256 snaps with New York. Ellis played 381 snaps last season. Neither player offers much pass rush productivity, but Ellis was a key part of Martindale’s four-man pressure looks on twists. Along with Calais Campbell, Ellis often operated as the penetrator that allowed looping - more agile - players to gain statistical production while pass rushing.

Ellis’s familiarity with the system and leadership should be valuable, but the production won’t be very tangible.

Former DL coach Sean Spencer was a well-respected coach who did a solid job in his brief stint with the Giants, but the Giants were his first NFL job. I am excited to see what a veteran NFL coach like Andre Patterson can do with young players like DJ Davidson and even some of the UDFAs.

The Giants collected big bodies to play on the interior; they have two players in Ellis and Davidson, around 330 pounds, with Lawrence playing at 345 pounds with his unique first step. They also have “hybrid” players who can execute multiple assignments because of their size and athletic capabilities.

Jalyn Holmes played a couple of seasons with Patterson and the Vikings; he’s a long 6-5, 285 pound player. Jabari Ellis is 6-2, 278 pounds, and offers some juice as pass rusher. Christopher Hinton is a fire hydrant as a run defender at 6-3, 305 pounds. Ryder Anderson and Jihad Ward are two players who can play EDGE but also have value kicking inside.

Martindale does a good job maximizing all the personnel on his roster. Not every one of these players will make the team, but Martindale can successfully use the best options and attempt to stash the others on the practice squad. Lawrence and Williams are safe. Davidson and Ellis are likely safe as well. David Moa will battle with Holmes, Hinton, Jabari Ellis, and Anderson for a roster spot throughout training camp.

Dexter Lawrence may have added incentive playing on the fifth-year option in a contract year. Lawrence is only 24 years old and hasn’t exactly broken out quite yet with sack production, but he quietly had a 43-pressure 2021 season that ranked him 18th among IDLs while playing the 28th most pass-rushing reps for IDLs.

Why the Giants might be worse

I’m apprehensive to suggest one new addition to the position group will replace Austin Johnson’s 21 pressures and three sacks, but the collective approach of Martindale’s scheme could have a more powerful impact.

Replacing Shelton and Johnson III are moves that theoretically should improve the Giants’ defensive line, but they didn’t add anyone proven or dynamic to the position group. An aging veteran with one career sack in Ellis, an older Day 3 pick in Davidson, a veteran with little production in Holmes, and a bunch of undrafted free agents.

The one, two, three punch and rotation of Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Johnson is conceivably better than the Williams, Lawrence, and Ellis or whomever you’d like to elect as the third defensive lineman.

Final thoughts

The rotation in Martindale’s scheme is still unknown, but it’s safe to assume that snaps will be dispersed. The Ravens had five defensive linemen who played more than 290 snaps last season, with all five playing in 13 or more games. The Giants had three defensive linemen who played more than 290 snaps.

Additions to the edge room will undoubtedly help the viability of the Giants’ defensive line. Losing Johnson hurts the 2022 squad but replacing Johnson III and Shelton could enhance the value of the group.

I think each side has an argument, but I’m going with the depth and options of the 2022 room under the veteran leadership of coach Andre Patterson. Johnson is a more proven commodity as a third option than any other current Giants DL behind Lawrence and Williams. Still, depth will play a more significant role in Martindale’s scheme.

I’m eager to monitor the training camp battles between the defensive linemen. There should be available snaps, and the players that make the team should have a more significant role than Johnson III and Shelton.