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Giants 2023 NFL Draft: Should edge defender be under consideration at No. 25?

Is adding to Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari in Round 1 a good idea?

Florida State v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New York Giants invested two top-50 selections into their edge defender position over the last two drafts. Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux was a top-five pick in 2022, and Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari was the 50th pick in 2021.

The edge position remains uncertain despite the high draft capital. I’m comfortable with Thibodeaux and Ojulari as starters, with Jihad Ward as a situational player to spell Ojulari, but the former Georgia Bulldog struggled to stay healthy last season.

Ojulari provides an explosive first step and the necessary bend through contact to threaten and defeat offensive tackles high-side when healthy. He is an ideal pass-rushing specialist who displayed growth from year one to two.

Thibodeaux had a four-sack, 45-pressure rookie season with season-altering plays to secure victories against the Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Commanders. Thibodeaux isn’t as explosive or bendy as Ojulari, but he’s more physical and still possesses a quick first three steps.

Depth is the issue with the Giants’ edge room. Ward is a solid run defender with little upside as a pass rusher. Ward is clearly their most reliable asset behind the starters; behind Ward is 2022 UDFA Tomon Fox and 2021 fourth-round selection Elerson Smith. I respect Fox’s physicality, but he is a developmental player who played 327 snaps for the Giants last season.

Smith’s athletic profile and length are alluring, but he’s played 121 defensive snaps through two seasons. He played 14 snaps last year in Wink Martindale’s system. He can’t be relied on to stay healthy, for he missed most of last season with several injuries, and landed on the season-ending Injured Reserve list with an Achilles/heel issue in December.

Former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said it best:

You can never have enough pass rushers.”

The Giants won two Super Bowls in the last 16 years with that philosophy. Names like Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul elicit nostalgic memories of a vaunted pass-rush.

Those days seem like an eternity ago, as the Philadelphia Eagles were the NFC Champions with a similar approach. The Eagles soared close to the 1984 Chicago Bears record for most sacks in a season, as four of their pass rushers cracked double-digit sacks.

Establishing a rotation of fresh pass rushers with varied approaches to exploit offensive linemen who play every snap is a tried and true approach to success. New York has two young and promising starters aon the edge, but assistance is needed to build a comprehensive pass-rushing group.

The combination of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams on the interior significantly helps the Giants get after the passer. Maybe a player like Darrian Beavers can add some value at edge; the inside linebacker tore his ACL in the preseason after a promising training camp but was an edge defender for UCONN before transferring to Cincinnati. Still, a dark horse position for the Giants to select at pick No. 25 is edge, for the value could align depending on how the draft materializes.

I still think the value at cornerback coincides perfectly with the Giants’ draft needs, but I wouldn't be floored if the choice at No. 25 were an edge - it’s a dark horse pick. I think the question gets interesting when we talk about which type of edge the Giants would look to add. A smaller, explosive player like LSU’s B.J. Ojulari or a more physical player like Clemson’s Myles Murphy?

Lighter edge players

These will be EDGE rushers who are sub-250 pounds or players who lack some sand in their pants. My number one player in this category is Georgia’s Nolan Smith, who was the talk of the combine because of his elite athletic testing and his convivial personality.

Nolan Smith, Georgia

Smith was the number one recruit over Kayvon Thibodeaux in the 2018 cycle. At 238 pounds, Smith tested in an elite manner at the combine, and his film backs up his athletic testing. Georgia is not a program that highlights individual statistics. They have a deep rotation of five-star pass rushers, and they’re team-oriented.

Smith finished his career at Georgia with 12.5 sacks and 84 pressures through four seasons. He never had more than five sacks in a given season, although he likely would have achieved that in 2022 if it weren’t for his pec injury that ended his season against Florida in Week 9. Here’s my synopsis of Smith’s play:

Nolan Smith his one of the rare defenders who can dangerously bend the edge and flatten to the quarterback. Smith’s body control, flexibility, explosive nature, and developing pass-rushing repertoire make him dangerous as a rushing threat on the edge. His immense upside hasn’t necessarily been consistently unlocked due to many variables; However, at his worst, he would be a pass-rushing specialist who is a threat in obvious pass-rushing situations.

His profile screams, “don’t play me on running downs,” but the tape would disagree with that screech. Smith was a very sound and talented run defender who embraced contact and set a physical tone for Georgia’s defense. There will likely be times when bigger OL impose their might on Smith, but it won’t be an every-down issue for him. I understand the size concerns, but Smith has the upside to earn round one consideration, despite the lack of elite production.

I’m a fan of Nolan Smith’s potential and the film that he produced. If he played for a program that allowed him to pin his ears back on every passing play, he likely would have a lot more college production.

Will McDonald IV, Iowa State

McDonald IV has longer arms than Smith and is an excellent athlete in his own right. Similar to Smith, there are valid arguments that suggest his college system restricted his production profile. McDonald IV played in a 3-3-5 type of defense that frequently aligned him as a 4i and 5-technique in a four-point stance.

That alignment did not allow him to fully leverage his explosive nature and ability to stress tackles up the arc. His responsibilities prevented him from fully showcasing his talent, which was on display at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, and in obvious passing situations in college.

McDonald IV had 34 career sacks with 40.5 tackles for a loss through five seasons at Iowa State. He also added 127 pressures and 72 hurries. The 239-pound frame is an issue, and he wasn’t nearly as physical as Smith was at that same weight. Here’s my synopsis on his game:

Will McDonald IV is a sudden athlete with elite length, quickness, and bend. He has a diverse pass-rushing plan, counter moves, and uses his athletic traits well to harass quarterbacks in the pocket by consistently winning high side and cornering into the pocket. He’s more of a finesse rusher than a power player, but he has some plays on tape where he does convert speed to power to get the tackle on skates, especially when he was rushing from wider angles, which he did not often do at Iowa State.

His usage for the Cyclones did not maximize his skills to get after the passer. Despite that, he’s a refined pass rusher who is adaptive and intelligent. He must get stronger at the point of attack to hold up consistently on the EDGE, although he showed a solid ability to anchor down when he was outside of a 5T due to a low center of gravity and his long arms. If he can get stronger in the run game and with his pass-rushing moves, the sky is the limit for him.

B.J. Ojulari, LSU

Azeez Ojulari’s younger brother did not do himself any favors with his athletic testing. However, he’s an explosive player on tape with big hands, long arms, and excellent stride length. As Math Bomb points out, his score would have likely been higher if he ran the 40-yard dash. Ojulari finished his career at LSU with 127 pressures (same as Will McDonald IV) and 16.5 sacks. He just turned 21 years old.

Ojulari’s personality and ties with the Giants will appeal to Joe Schoen - he wore No. 18 for LSU, which is an honor bestowed to leaders and high-character individuals. Here’s my synopsis:

B.J. Ojulari is a resilient pass rusher with elite athletic ability to threaten tackles on the LOS and at the top of the pass-rushing arc. His ability to win with quickness, bend and his array of pass-rushing moves are indicative of first-round talent. LSU slanted and used twists often, leveraging Ojulari’s unique ability to get skinny in gaps and penetrate the pocket.

His play strength when anchoring on the edge has to improve. He relied on his rare quickness to avoid blockers most of the time. His length and natural low leverage allowed him to set edges adequately. However, it’s still a work in progress - he’s just not the most physical player at the point of attack like his brother was in college or like Georgia’s Nolan Smith is in this draft.

Nevertheless, his short-area quickness and pass-rushing upside are elite, and he should thrive rushing the passer at the next level until he bulks up enough to be a reliable three down starter. There are just few players coming into the NFL with his ability to threaten the high side, and that’s an invaluable trait in today’s NFL. He figures to be an ideal fit in a base 3-4 as an OLB, and would do well in sub-packages as a pass-rusher who can drop in coverage but is better utilized when pinning his ears back to sack the quarterback. I really like his game, he just needs some more sand in his backside.

Heavier edge players

The Giants could have an interest in several bigger Eedge players who can play a variety of roles in Martindale’s positionless defense. These players won’t have the consistent ability to win high-side through burst and bend, but they can set the edge and add a level of physicality that the Giants missed last season. Here are a few that come to mind:

Myles Murphy, Clemson

These are estimated times from Murphy’s own pro day, but the athletic ability/size combination is unique. Clemson held their own pro day on March 14th and a second round of workouts for edge defenders Myles Murphy and KJ Henry. The Giants were in attendance.

Murphy had 18.5 sacks and 96 pressures, with 34 of them coming in 2022. Although he is projected as a fit for a 4-3 base end, I don’t necessarily believe that would negate interest from the Giants who run a base 3-4.

New York is a sub-package defense that had a 287-pound Jihad Ward starting at edge while playing 740 snaps last season - a career-high. Ward was dropped into coverage 56 times in 2022, which was more than his previous six seasons combined. If Martindale trusts Murphy’s ability to flip his hips and cover the boundary flat and middle hook - something he did 51 times through his three years in college, then he could have some interest in the 21-year-old Clemson Tiger.

Keion White, Georgia Tech

A long, big, physical edge player who is classified as an IDL for the Relative Athletic Score above. White transferred from Old Dominion to Georgia Tech after the 2019 season. He did not play in 2020 and suffered a significant dislocation to his ankle in 2021 that held him to 72 snaps. Rumor has it that he popped his ankle back into place. However, his ability shined in 2022 with a 41-pressure, 14-tackle for a loss, 7.5-sack season.

White is a massive traits type of player who would carve out a role in Wink Martindale’s system. He’s a high-effort powerful edge player who is still raw with how to maximize his technique.

Final thoughts

The Giants may have an interest in edge at pick No. 25. I wouldn’t be shocked if it were a bigger body player like Murphy or a smaller - more explosive - player like McDonald IV. I did not include Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson or Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness, who will likely be selected before the Giants pick. I also think Nolan Smith will likely be off the board, but the outliers in his profile suggest he may still be available.

GM Joe Schoen proved in the last draft that if he’s not in love with his situation, he’ll look to trade down and accumulate more picks; of course, that takes two to tango. However, the Giants should invest in their edge group at some point in the draft.

There are plenty of day two players with different body types who may interest the Giants: Auburn’s Derick Hall, Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey, USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu, and Kansas State’s Felix Anudike-Uzomah are a few to keep in mind. The Giants have an edge need; they could address it on day one - it’s a dark horse selection - but I ultimately think they will go in another direction depending on how the board shapes up.