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Better or worse? Giants’ edge group should be improved

Fifth overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, second-year man Azeez Ojulari lead revitalized position

New York Giants Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Giants are historically known for great pass rushers. However, the days of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora seem like eons ago, although it’s only been a little more than a decade. In 2021, the Giants’ collective sack total regressed from its 2020 effort; the Giants finished with 34 sacks last season. Rookie Azeez Ojulari led the team with 8.0 sacks, and Leonard Williams was close behind with 6.5.

In 2020, the Giants recorded 40 sacks in one less game. Williams finished with 11.5; Dexter Lawrence and Kyler Fackrell tied for second with 4.0 sacks. The Giants haven’t been north of 40 sacks since 2014 (47 sacks), when Jason Pierre-Paul earned 12.5 sacks and Johnathan Hankins 7.0.

The last time the Giants had more than 50 sacks in a season was 2007. New York hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as Umenyiora finished with 13 sacks, Tuck with 10, and Strahan with 9 - and that’s just in the regular season.

Fans have pounded the table for investments at the edge position - homegrown talent! From 2007 up until 2021, there were only three Round 1 or Round 2 selections invested at the position: Azeez Ojulari (2021), Jason Pierre-Paul (2010), and Clint Sintim (2009).

Several interior defensive linemen were selected during that time frame, and there were four third-round edge selections: Oshane Ximines (2019), Lorenzo Carter (2018), Owamagbe Odighizuwa (2015), and Damontre Moore (2013). Arguably, the player who just left the Giants in free agency (Carter) was the best of that bunch, and he essentially missed an entire season due to injury.

New York passed on the pass-rushing Josh Allen from Kentucky and missed the opportunity to select Chase Young, although Andrew Thomas is more than a consolation prize. They chose an athletic tight end in the first round over T.J. Watt. Nevertheless, the past decisions and misfortunes brought the Giants to multiple top 10 selections in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The Giants didn’t hesitate and added Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth overall selection in the draft. Rookie general manager Joe Schoen was not unnecessarily swayed by the alleged malcontent label tossed around by the media; Schoen stuck to his evaluation, trusted his interview process - along with his coaching staff - and selected a player who might be able to bring pass-rushing royalty back to the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. He has a lot of work ahead of him, but the potential is there - it just needs to be actualized.

Key losses: Lorenzo Carter, Trent Harris
Key additions: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Jihad Ward, Tomon Fox

Why the Giants might be better

Let’s start this section with a good old fashioned haiku...

Kay-Von Thib-O-Deaux

Wel-Come To The Big App-Le

Time To Get To Work

I’m no Jack Kerouac, but it’s easy to realize why the Giants’ edge group is improved this season. I was a huge Lorenzo Carter fan and still think he’s underrated, but adding a player of Thibodeaux’s magnitude can’t be understated.

On an injured ankle, Thibodeaux amassed 9 sacks and 47 pressures in 2021 while some said he was “taking plays off,” which I have yet to see with my own eyes. He had 34 pressures in each of his previous two seasons and quickly proved his five-star grade as a true freshman in 2019.

The 6-foot-3, 254-pound pass rusher can drop into coverage and plays with exceptional leverage and strength at the point of attack as a run defender. Thibodeaux joins Ojulari and Quincy Roche, who are both entering their second season, and should be more advanced in their craft.

The trio of young pass-rushers will be led by another new addition in Jihad Ward, who is quite familiar with Wink Martindale’s system. Ward’s a uniquely long and heavy EDGE rusher who does kick inside; he’s 6-5, 297 pounds, but can align in a two-point stance and set a firm edge. Dropping into coverage isn’t his forte, but he can do so adequately to the boundary.

Elerson Smith missed most of his rookie season with a few different injuries. Smith hasn’t played much football over the last three seasons; he played 107 defensive snaps last season with six pressures, but the University of Northern Iowa did not play football in 2020. The last time Smith played an entire season was 2019, where he recorded 62 pressures and 11 sacks at a smaller level of competition in college.

Smith has developmental potential due to his length, quickness, and overall athletic ability. Oshane Ximines, Niko Lalos, and Tomon Fox are the other three edge defenders currently listed on the depth chart. Players like Ryder Anderson, Carter Coughlin, and Cam Brown have the capability of aligning at edge but are listed at other positions.

Ximines was a third-round selection by Dave Gettleman but has significantly underwhelmed since his promising start in 2019. His roster spot might be jeopardized, specifically if Tomon Fox can seize the day. Fox had the Van Wilder thing going on at North Carolina. He played six seasons at UNC, recording 151 pressures and 36 sacks.

Fox can win high-side, has counter moves, can convert speed to power, and has some impressive burst off the snap. He could steal a roster spot with a good camp, but it’s far from a certainty.

The addition of Thibodeaux alone makes this group stronger than the 2021 edge room, but adding veteran value in Ward and a promising UDFA with practice squad potential at worst gives the 2022 edge group a powerful argument.

(Graphic from the Big Blue View Instagram page)


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Why the Giants might be worse

I’ll try to do my best job imitating a 1997 film featuring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. Lorenzo Carter was a player who lost the 2020 season to a devastating achilles injury. Carter worked and battled back to health to return in 2021 but was quiet for much of the season.

Carter recorded eight pressures and zero sacks through the first seven weeks of the season before suffering an ankle injury and an illness. Carter returned to the field in Week 12 where he finished the season strong, recording 23 pressures and five sacks.

It’s plausible that the 26-year-old Carter, an incredible athlete with elite length, was slowly getting back to form, and we started to see his true potential at the end of the season.

If that were the case, AND Thibodeaux’s purported character issues weren’t fabricated, then the Giants’ 2021 edge room would be in a healthier state than their current one.

Trent Harris also left the team. He played 44 snaps over three games last season.

Final thoughts

The Giants are in a much better position in 2022, with Thibodeaux, Ward, and possibly even Fox on the roster. I am not worried about Thibodeaux’s personality; I’m excited to witness and cover his career; however, I hope the injury heals up, and he’s ready to dress and impress during training camp.

Ojulari and Roche having a year under their belt should only help them in their quest to become great. Ojulari amassed 42 pressures, one behind Dexter Lawrence and five behind Leonard Williams last season.

The last edge defender to lead the Giants in pressures was Markus Golden in 2019 with 64. The combination of Thibodeaux and Ojulari should rack up edge pressures and assist the Giants’ defense in harassing opposing quarterbacks. This quote by former Giants’ general manager Ernie Accorsi still rings true today:

“You never have enough pass rushers. And like home run hitters and pitchers, you just never have enough of them, because we have other needs, too. But when you put pressure on the passer, everybody else’s job is easier.”

The homegrown talent over the years did not always hit, but Ojulari had an impressive rookie season, along with Roche. Expectations are high for Thibodeaux. That trio gives Giants fans something to be excited about.