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Giants position review: A star was born on the defensive line, little depth behind starters

New York Giants v Tennessee Titans Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Superior strength on the defensive line was one consistent aspect of the New York Giants over the last several seasons. Names like Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison, Linval Joseph, and Johnathan Hankins were players who were impactful donning blue. But none reached the unique potential achieved by fourth-year star defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence.

Less than a year ago, many pundits and fans debated the merits of picking up the 17th overall selection in the 2019 draft’s fifth-year-option. The option was roughly $10.7 million fully guaranteed with a $12.407M cap hit, and the Giants already had an exorbitant defensive line contract on the books.

At the time of the fifth-year-option decision (early May 2022), Leonard Williams was entering the second year of a three-year, $63 million deal he signed in 2021, after a season where he recorded 11 sacks in 2020.

Williams’ base salary was $19 million, which accounted for a cap hit of $27.3 million in 2022. It was the most of any player on the team, taking up 13.21 percent of 2022’s cap. The thought of allocating two $10 plus million contracts to the defensive line - on a roster that resembled a famous Louis Sachar novel - seemed to some as imprudent.

Lawrence’s potential, however, was always evident throughout his tape, and defensive line coach Andre Patterson was able to harness Lawrence’s immense talent, as did the adjustment of using his skill set more as a nose or one-shade. Giants’ General Manager Joe Schoen eventually restructured Williams’ contract to create cap space that lowered his 2022 cap number (more on that later).

The pairing of Lawrence and Williams is arguably - when healthy - the most dynamic defensive line duo in the league. Lawrence is a 345-pound defensive lineman with an unreal blend of athletic ability and strength while averaging an unreal 54 snaps a game.

Unfortunately, Williams missed six games with various injuries, including knee, elbow, and neck/trap ailments. He wasn’t healthy this season and underperformed relative to his typical play. There was little depth behind Lawrence and Williams, a gigantic issue compounded by a lack of competent linebackers.

2022 in review

The roster

Starters: Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams
Backups: Justin Ellis, Henry Mondeaux, Ryder Anderson
IR: D.J. Davidson, Nick Williams
Practice squad: Vernon Butler
Released: Jack Heflin

(Jihad Ward and Elerson Smith will be considered edge defenders)

Nick Williams was a solid third option behind Lawrence and Williams. He played in 227 snaps, recording six STOPs and eleven tackles, but he tore his biceps against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. His loss significantly hurt the depth of the Giants’ defensive line, which put significant pressure on Lawrence and Williams when he was healthy.

We all witnessed the Eagles’ game plan in their Divisional Round victory over the Giants. Once Lawrence left the field, the Eagles ran the football directly at Justin Ellis, who struggled while playing 377 defensive snaps.

The Giants’ base personnel package was a 3-4 with three down linemen operating in a TITE kind of front (the shades of the DL varied depending on the opponent). After Nick Williams’ injury and the injury sustained by D.J. Davidson in Green Bay, the Giants started using more Ellis, Henry Mondeaux, and 2022 UDFA Ryder Anderson.

None of the three could anchor against combo blocks. The dearth of talent behind Lawrence and Williams was exploited by opposing teams all season. However, the ascension of Lawrence from an impact young player to one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL was a joy to witness throughout 2022.

Lawerence had 53 tackles, 70 pressures, 7.5 sacks, and 42 STOPs at 6-foot-4, 345 pounds. Players that size rarely ever have the type of impact Lawrence displayed while averaging over 50 snaps a game. Lawrence became a true difference-making player who had more than five pressures or more in seven games and seven pressures or more in four games.

Pro Football Focus graded Lawrence as the second-highest defensive lineman, behind the Chiefs’ Chris Jones. Edge defenders included, Lawrence finished with the 11th-most pressures in the NFL, but all of those players with more pressures are significantly lighter than Lawrence. Chris Jones is the heaviest at 310 pounds, thirty-two pounds lighter.

Leonard Williams’ year was not as noteworthy as Lawrence’s breakout campaign. Williams played 723 snaps in 2022, the lowest of his career. He had a career-low 42 pressures, which is admirable, but he only had 2.5 sacks. Considering his cap number, that is very low.

However, Williams played through injury, displaying the respected toughness that’s consistent with his reputation. Seven of his 42 pressures did come in the Giants’ Wild Card victory over Minnesota. Decisions about Williams’ long-term status with the Giants are further complicated by the lack of depth behind Lawrence and his shockingly high cap number.

2023 outlook

This isn’t a joke...Leonard Williams has the highest cap hit of any defensive player in 2023. He’s set to make $32.26 million in 2023, making up 14.3 percent of the Giants’ cap. That situation will likely be different at the start of the season. Williams did say after the season ended that he would consider a pay cut.

The Giants could eat $20 million in dead cap with a pre-June release that frees up $12 million on the cap in 2023. They could also designate Williams as a post-June release, which would free up $18 million with a $14.26M dead cap hit. I think the Giants may look to renegotiate or have Williams take a pay cut.

There’s little to no proven depth behind Williams. Davidson is recovering from a torn ACL. Ellis and Nick Williams are free agents. Henry Mondeaux is a restricted free agent, which leaves Lawrence, Williams, and Ryder Anderson.

Defensive line depth is one of the less-discussed big needs for the Giants heading into 2023. The Giants could look to sign a veteran free agent or retain a player like Nick Williams. Still, it would be wise to invest some of their 11 draft picks into the position group. The inability to defend the run in 2022 was not only a linebacker issue but a problem in the trenches and I believe Joe Schoen will rectify that situation in the off-season.