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Giants’ free agents: Which defensive players should they bring back?

Julian Love might be the biggest priority, but there are a lot of roster-shaping decisions to be made

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NFL: Washington Commanders at New York Giants
Julian Love
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

New York Giants GM Joe Schoen was clear on Monday that retaining as many of the team’s in-house free agents as possible was an offseason priority. Schoen also said the Giants have to determine how to “divvy up” their financial pie and set “priority positions.”

Let’s look at the Giants’ unrestricted free agents and discuss which ones should be brought back as the Giants try to close their acknowledged “talent gap” on the Philadelphia Eagles and some of the other top teams in the NFL.

We will start with the defensive side of the ball.

DT Justin Ellis — As I wrote on Monday, the Giants need more talent on the defensive line behind Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams. I’m not sure the nine-year veteran is part of the answer. Ellis had the only sack of his career in 2022, but he’s paid to defend the run and had an awful 29.1 Pro Football Focus grade in run defense — 20 points below his previous career-worst 2021 grade. I can’t get the picture of Jason Kelce driving the 350-pound Ellis into the ground Saturday night while the Eagles ran up the middle for a huge gain out of my head.

Verdict — I would let Ellis go. I think that’s what the Giants will do.

Edge Jihad Ward — This is a tough call. Ward is a locker room leader. A presence. A loud voice on the practice field and in the locker room who drives his teammates. Thing is, there is a reason why the Giants are his fifth NFL team in seven years. He tied his career-high with 3.0 sacks this season (both with Wink Martindale as his defensive coordinator), played a career-high 657 snaps and had a career-high 43 tackles. His 42.1 PFF grade was the lowest since his rookie year, and his 49.8 run defense grade was part of the issue with the run defense.

Verdict — I would bring Ward back, but I’m not paying him much more than the $1.035M base salary he made in 2022. I would also hope not to need him on the field for so many snaps. I think the Giants bring him back. He is a Martindale favorite.

DT Nick Williams — The eight-year veteran was an under-appreciated part of the Giants’ defensive line rotation before being lost to a biceps injury after Week 8. He was a full-time starter for the Detroit Lions in 2020 and 2021.

Verdict — I would bring Williams back to compete for a job. He made $1.12M in base salary last season. I’m guessing the Giants will move on.

S Tony Jefferson — The nine-year veteran safety extended his career by landing with the Giants last season after four years with the Baltimore Ravens. A midseason foot injury cost him time, but he found a small role mostly as a sub-package linebacker.

Verdict — I think this one might depend on whether Jefferson wants to continue playing, and if Martindale is still the defensive coordinator. Jefferson is another Martindale guy. I would be OK with letting him come back to compete.

S Landon Collins — Giants’ fans, of course, are enamored with Collins because of what he did for the team from 2015-2018, making three Pro Bowls. He came back this season as an in-season pickup, and adapted to a late-season role as a hybrid linebacker. His highlight play was a Pick 6 against the Indianapolis Colts, but in truth Collins had a very limited role. He did not play a single defensive snap in the Divisional Round game against Philadelphia.

Verdict — I think Collins might have a useful role as a sub-package linebacker, but he’s not a difference-making player. I would be OK with the Giants bringing him back to compete, but my gut tells me they are going to move on.

LB Jarrad Davis — After apparently trying for several weeks, the Giants finally pried Davis loose from the Detroit Lions’ practice squad late in the season. He had a one-game regular season audition that was good enough for the Giants to start him in two playoff games while leaving rookie linebacker Micah McFadden inactive.

Verdict — The six-year veteran was stuck on Detroit’s practice squad for a reason — he is not a great player. The Giants sought him because they think he can help them, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they give him a one-year deal to find out. That would be OK with me.

CB Fabian Moreau — The Giants signed Moreau to their practice squad after the Houston Texans released him, and he played an important role after Aaron Robinson was lost for the season. He is a solid veteran and a good player to have, he just probably shouldn’t be a full-time starter.

Verdict — I think the Giants should, and will, bring Moreau back. He had a $1.035M base salary in 2022, and something similar is likely in order this time around.

LB Jaylon Smith — Including playoffs, Smith played 724 defensive snaps. That is far more than any other Giant linebacker. That illustrates the problem the Giants have at the position, since Smith didn’t have an NFL job when the regular season began. Smith is an ‘OK’ player as his 56.4 PFF grade indicates, but he is a limited athlete at this point in his career.

Verdict — If the Giants are going to close the “talent gap” they have to get more athletic at linebacker. I would move on from Smith, and that is what I think the Giants will do.

Edge Oshane Ximines — Ximines is a player I did not think would make the 53-man roster in 2022. He did, and he was an effective part-time player who made some big plays (like his game-ending Week 5 sack of Aaron Rodgers). Ximines had two sacks and 15 total pressures. He has always been more pass rusher than run defender.

Verdict — I would love to see the Giants bring Ximines back. He is a hard worker who earned his opportunity, a productive part-time player, and I think him sticking around in 2023 would send a great message to the locker room about the value of making the most of your opportunity. I think he comes back.

S Julian Love — A full-time starter for the first time in his four-year career, Love thrived. He was named a captain and Pro Football Focus named him the free agent the Giants can least afford to lose. PFF says:

Love earned a career-high 71.5 coverage grade in 2022 and lined up everywhere, with 271 snaps down in the box, 154 in the slot and 494 at free safety. He’s a Swiss Army knife on the backend who rarely misses a tackle. Among 43 safeties with at least 150 tackles over the past three seasons, Love’s 13 missed tackles are the second fewest.

Verdict — Daniel Jones is and should be the top priority among free agents, I think that is clear. Love is a player the Giants should bring back, and I am certain they will try. Love, though, played well enough and is enough of a positive locker room influence that he will have suitors should he decide to test his value on the open market.