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Will the Giants be better on defense in 2023? Let’s look at the roster

Wink Martindale is back, and excited to continue building his group

Syndication: The Record
Wink Martindale, left, talks with Giants defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson.
Danielle Parhizkaran/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

Wink Martindale is back for a second season as New York Giants’ defensive coordinator. Martindale has long said he would like to be an NFL head coach, but after interviewing for and not getting the Indianapolis Colts’ job this offseason Martindale says he is “at peace” with where he is.

“I don’t have a problem sleeping every night,” Martindale said. “I’m at peace. It sounds a little dramatic, being at peace, but I’m excited to be the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and the day that I’m not is the day that they say, ‘Hey, you hear Wink retired?’

“This isn’t a stepping stone job here. This is a destination.”

Martindale isn’t retiring yet, though. There is still work to be done to build the Giants’ defense into the championship-caliber unit Martindale envisions.

“We’re really excited about who we have, the additions we made, and it’s still in process, what Joe and Dabs (head coach Brian Daboll) have done with the roster,” Martindale said. “We’re still building on that.”

With the offseason program now in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at the defense Martindale is bringing to training camp.

Defensive line

Current roster — Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, A’Shawn Robinson, Ryder Anderson, D.J. Davidson, Jordon Riley, Vernon Butler

The big question

Can the Giants do a better job defending the run?

The Giants were 31st in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt last season, giving up 5.3. Assistant GM Brandon Brown called that one of the team’s “pain points” in 2022. Martindale said everyone in the organization knew that “Starting with Mr. (president John) Mara at the owners meeting, he said we need to get better in the run game.”

Now, defending the run is a team responsibility. It starts, though, with the defensive line. That group has to be able to hold the line of scrimmage for everyone else to do their jobs.

The Giants set out to address that deficiency in the offseason. Veteran stopgap tackles Nick Williams and Justin Ellis weren’t retained. Upgrades were sought and potentially found with the additions of quality veterans Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson. Jordon Riley, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound run-stuffing nose tackle was added as potential depth in the seventh round.

In addition to improved run defense, the Giants hope the added depth will allow them to ask Dexter Lawrence, who played a career-high 864 snaps (82%) last season, and Leonard Williams, entering his ninth season and coming off injury for the first time, to play fewer snaps.

Defensive line coach Andre Patterson said this week it would be “beautiful” if the Giants can give Williams and Lawrence more rest.

“That’s been the history of football,” Williams said. “D-linemen are usually not taking 100% or 90% of snaps. It’s better to have a rotation and keep guys fresh. It’s going to be fun that way when we’re rotating guys, just beating up on offensive lines together.”

The elephant in the room

Leonard Williams, in several ways. Can he stay healthy after a neck injury caused him to miss games last season for the first time in his career? Is he still the same player he was in 2020 and 2021 when he had 18.0 sacks over those two years? Finally, will he be a Giant after this season?

Williams says his neck is fine after an offseason of rest and rehab, that he is “obviously open to staying” with the Giants but there have been no substantive talks, and that he doesn’t feel any dropoff in his athleticism entering his ninth season.

“I still have my explosiveness; I still have my power,” Williams said. “Honestly, I feel like I’m knowing the game more, I have a lot more years in me.”

The roster question

Who will join Lawrence, Williams, Nunez-Roches, and Robinson on the 53-man roster? Ryder Anderson made the roster last season as an undrafted free agent and struggled vs. the run while playing at a lean 6-6, 276 pounds. Patterson revealed recently that Anderson is now a muscled-up 305 pounds. 2022 fifth-round pick D.J. Davidson is back after suffering a torn ACL five games into his rookie year. Riley, a player Patterson says has “got some gifts that you can’t give him as a coach” will also be in the mix.

Edge defender

Current roster — Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Jihad Ward, Oshane Ximinex, Tomon Fox, Elerson Smith, Habakkuk Baldonado

The big question

Will Thibodeaux and Ojulari become one of the league’s premier edge duos?

Ojulari is a 2021 second-round pick and a player who had 13.5 sacks in 24 career regular-season games. Thibodeaux was the No. 5 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft and, while he had only 4.0 sacks, his improving play as his rookie season transpired hinted at increased impact to come.

Considering the draft capital used on both players the Giants have to be banking on them being defensive cornerstones for the next several years.

Thibodeaux said his rookie season was “pretty good,” but that “I left a lot of space to grow.”

Ojulari had 8.0 sacks as a rookie, but quad and ankle injuries limited him to only seven regular-season games in 2022. Martindale said that Ojulari looks “a lot more sturdy this year.”

The roster question

At this point, it appears the Giants are running it back with the same crew they had last season on the edge. Can they get enough quality play from Jihad Ward, Oshane Ximines, Tomon Fox, and the perennially-injured Elerson Smith, or do they need more help? Twelve-year veteran Justin Houston, who was with Martindale in Baltimore during the 2021 season, is one of several edge defenders still on the market.

Inside linebacker

Current roster — Bobby Okereke, Darrian Beavers, Cam Brown, Troy Brown, Carter Coughlin, Jarrod Davis, Dyontae Johnson, Micah McFadden

The big question

Who wins the job next to Okereke?

Second-year man Darrian Beavers was headed toward winning a role in the linebacker rotation before tearing an ACL during training camp. Is he fully recovered and can he win a job this time? Can Micah McFadden, who was relegated to the bench at the end of the year after at times playing significant snaps, re-emerge? Will Jarrod Davis, a veteran pursued heavily by the Giants during the 2022 season, benefit from having a full spring and summer with the team?

The roster question

Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin were 2020 late-round picks who are truly special teamers first and only emergency linebackers. Can they keep their roster spots?


Current roster — Adoree’ Jackson, Deonte Banks, Zyon Gilbert, Gemon Green, Tre Hawkins III, Darnay Holmes, Leonard Johnson, Amani Oruwariye, Aaron Robinson, Cor’Dale Flott, Rodarius Williams

The big question

How good will Deonte Banks be?

Sauce Gardner’s All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year 2022 season, wrecked expectations for rookie cornerbacks everywhere.

If you are expecting Banks, drafted 24th by the Giants, to have a rookie season similar to the one Gardner had after being selected No. 4 overall by the New York Jets, you are setting yourself up to be disappointed. What Gardner did in 2022, immediately establishing himself as a dominant NFL cornerback, is the exception and not the rule.

The Giants love Banks. They think he could be a really good player for a long time. Expecting him to be a star right out of the gate, though, is unfair.

Banks drew comparisons from college scouts to Adoree’ Jackson, and I think the Giants would be thrilled with a rookie season from Banks similar to what Jackson did for the Tennessee Titans after being chosen 18th overall in the 2017 draft.

Jackson started all 16 games that year with 17 passes defensed in a career-most 120 targets, five touchdowns allowed, a solid passer rating against of 87.5, and a quality overall Pro Football Focus grade of 74.6.

The roster question

Will Darney Holmes make the team?

This is not about Holmes being a bad player. He’s not. The 2020 fourth-round pick is, basically, a league-average slot cornerback. His 85.8 passer rating while in the slot was 16th of 44 qualifying cornerbacks ranked by Pro Football Focus in 2022. In 2021, he ranked 18th of 41 qualifiers. In slot snaps per reception allowed, Holmes (7.7) was 33rd of 44 cornerbacks last season. In yards allowed per snap, Holmes (1.17) was 22nd of 44.

Holmes has a career passer rating against of 90.0, which is fine. He is a poor run defender, with his run defense grades sinking each season — 42.5 in 2020, 34.6 in 2021, and 29.0 in 2022.

All in all, the numbers add up to Holmes being an adequate player.

The problem for Holmes is two-fold. First, the Giants have several options in the slot, including cornerbacks Cor’Dale Flott, Aaron Robinson, and Zyon Gilbert. Safeties Nick McCloud, Xavier McKinney, Jason Pinnock, and Dane Belton can all drop into the slot. Second, with all of those options is Holmes valuable enough to keep, or would the $2.743 million in cap space the Giants could save by cutting him ultimately prove more valuable?


Current roster — Xavier McKinney, Nick McCloud, Alex Cook, Gervarrius Owens, Dane Belton, Bobby McCain, Jason Pinnock, Trenton Thompson

The big question

Who starts next to Xavier McKinney?

During OTAs and mandatory minicamp, Nick McCloud, apparently converting from cornerback, and veteran free agent signee Bobby McCain split time in that role. Jason Pinnock and 2022 fourth-round pick Dane Belton are also possibilities, but neither player took part in team drills during the spring. Both worked exclusively with trainers as they are rehabbing injuries.

The roster question

How many safeties will the Giants keep on the roster, and who will earn the last couple of spots?

McKinney is, of course, a lock. Belton is a 2022 draftee but saw his role decrease as the season went along. Pinnock and McCloud played well when they got opportunities. McCain is a veteran, but the Giants would take only a $652,000 cap hit by cutting him. Owens is a 2023 draft pick and Cook is an intriguing free agent.

This will be an interesting position to sort out during training camp.