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Azeez Ojulari’s health critical to Giants’ defense in 2023

The Giants are counting on Ojulari opposite Kayvon Thibodeaux

Washington Commanders v New York Giants
Azeez Ojulari
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

After posting eight sacks in his rookie season with the New York Giants, Azeez Ojulari suddenly found himself overshadowed the following year with the selection of Kayvon Thibodeaux. An injury-riddled season marred Ojulari’s further development as a pass rusher. The Giants are counting on a bounce back from their 2021 second-round pick this season.

By the numbers

Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 240
Age: 22
Position: Edge defender
Experience: 2
Contract: Third year of four-year, $6,774,914 million deal | Guaranteed: $3,915,159 | 2023 cap hit: $1,847,704

Career to date

Ojulari played for two seasons at Georgia after a redshirt freshman year. After posting 33 tackles, five for loss, 5.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in his freshman year, he truly broke out as a sophomore.

In 2020, Ojulari had 31 combined tackles, 12.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks, two passes defensed, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He earned an 85.5 Pro Football Focus grade, including 87.7 as a pass rusher. He had an astounding 19% pressure rate off the edge and ranked second in the nation with a 23.7% pass rush win rate. He was named second-team All-SEC and was the defensive MVP of the Peach Bowl.

Ojulari entered the NFL Draft and was selected by the Giants with the 50th overall pick. As a rookie, he flashed some talent as a pass rusher but was inconsistent. He had 49 total tackles, eight for loss, eight sacks, 13 quarterback hits, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble.

However, Ojulari’s PFF pass-rush grade was just 56.9, primarily due to his 9.9% pass rush win rate, which ranked 67th out of 72 qualified edge rushers. Ojulari graded out better in the run game at 62.5 (ranked 37th), as his 6.3% stop rate was roughly average for the position, and his 5.6% missed tackle rate was better than average.

In his second season, though, Ojulari dealt with an almost constant injury bug. He began the season with a calf injury and missed the first two games. After playing in Weeks 3 and 4, he re-aggravated the injury and was eventually placed on injured reserve in late October. He did not return until Week 13 and then played the next five games. However, he hurt his ankle in Week 16, was limited in Week 17, and then did not play in the season finale.

Although Ojulari played in the playoffs, he saw just 22 total snaps. He also sustained a quad injury in the Wild Card game that make him questionable for the second-round matchup against the Eagles.

Overall, in the seven games Ojulari did play, he managed to record 14 tackles, three for loss, 5.5 sacks, one pass defensed, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. His PFF pass-rush grade improved to 64.0, largely due to a much-improved 13.6% pressure rate and 15.6% pass rush win rate, which ranked 38th out of 123 qualified edge rushers (min. 140 pass rushes). Ojulari also had a 61.3 run defense grade.

2023 outlook

The Giants are counting on a healthy and productive season from Ojulari. They opted not to add any significant depth along the edge, re-signing Jihad Ward and Oshane Ximines but otherwise confining their depth to Tomon Fox, Elerson Smith, and undrafted free agent Habakkuk Baldonado.

Though there’s a decent chance that the Giants sign some other player for depth this offseason, Ojulari will be a clear starter along the edge. He showed some statistical improvement in a small sample size in 2022 but just could not stay on the field. In a defense predicated on pressure that has some question marks in coverage, the Giants need Ojulari to be a disruptive force.

Ojulari’s 23.7% pass rush win rate from his final college season has yet to show up in the NFL, but he has the talent to be just as much of a disruptor as Thibodeaux if he can stay healthy. He is one of the true X-factors for the Giants’ defense in 2023.