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The Giants’ defensive line - who will step up next to Dexter Lawrence?

Do the Giants already have the answers in-house?

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

The New York Giants secured one of their true building blocks on the heels of the 2023 NFL Draft, shortly after their first playoff victory since Super Bowl XLVI. Dexter Lawerence earned a four-year extension worth $90 million in new money, with $46.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

Lawrence had 70 pressures and 7.5 sacks while playing the fourth most snaps at IDL in 2022; this was especially impressive due to his massive 340-pound frame. The burden on Lawrence and fellow starting IDL Leonard Williams was a point of emphasis during the 2023 free-agent period.

The Giants added veterans A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches to a room coached by the illustrious Andre Patterson. These additions, along with the presence of DJ Davidson and the pleasant surprise of Jordon Riley, gave the Giants the necessary depth pieces to keep their defensive line fresh and healthy.

2023 in review

The roster

Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, A’Shawn Robinson, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DJ Davidson, Jordon Riley, Timmy Horne

Fixing the Giants’ 2022 28th-ranked run defense (146.3 rushing yards per game) was a priority for Joe Schoen. Although New York was better against counter-runs, they actually ranked worse in 2023 relative to the rest of the league (29th rank with fewer yards per game allowed, 132.4).

There were variables outside of the defense’s control that led to their 29th-ranked rushing defense; still, I’d argue the rotational depth up front was more experienced and secure than the 2022 season.

Dexter Lawrence maintained his status as a bonafide stud. He had 65 pressures, 53 tackles, 32 solo tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 35 STOPS, 4.5 sacks, and two passes defended, with almost 200 less than the 2022 season. Lawrence was a thorn in the side of offensive coordinators.

According to Pro Football Focus’ grading, Dexter Lawrence had the highest pass-rushing grade, and he was the highest-graded defensive lineman in the NFL. The 26-year-old is insanely productive and disruptive, and it’s still uncertain if he’s reached his immense ceiling.

Williams, Lawrence’s longtime running mate, played 360 defensive snaps for the Giants before he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a second-round pick. Williams had his good games, and he had his bad games. He had 22 pressures, 13 STOPS, and two sacks with the Giants; he finished the season strong with 54 pressures and six sacks.

Opportunities opened up for the pair of veterans and the two young players behind Williams after the savvy veteran was traded. Both Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson’s snaps significantly increased. Both players were better as run defenders than they were rushing the passer.

Nunez-Roches had seven pressures, 26 tackles, 14 solo tackles, one tackle for a loss, one pass defended, a half sack, and 12 STOPS. He only started four games. Robinson was more productive and developed into a solid starter for the Giants (started 13 games). He recorded 62 tackles, 36 STOPs, 24 solo tackles, six for a loss, two passes defended, and nine pressures.

The veterans did their part, but the two young players saw extended playing time. Davidson, a fifth-round pick in 2022 who tore his ACL in Week 5 of his rookie season, played 244 defensive snaps with four pressures, a half-sack, 13 tackles, a tackle for a loss, and two passes defended.

Riley played 135 snaps with eight tackles and a tackle for a loss. Neither young player has much pass rush upside, although I would argue Davidson has slightly more in that area. Timmy Horne signed late in the season and played seven defensive snaps for the Giants.

The team adapted well after losing one of their best players after the Williams trade. Schoen implemented a plan to have several options to ease Lawrence and Williams’ workload; however, the season was such a disaster that the depth Schoen signed acted as a replacement for Williams, who was strategically shipped out of town when the team was 2-6.

New York went 4-5 after the Williams trade, secured premium draft capital, and only allowed 150 yards or more rushing in three of those nine games.

2024 outlook

There’s conjecture prognosticating the defensive line without understanding or knowing what type of defensive front will be employed by the incoming defensive coordinator. Will it be an odd-spacing defense like Wink Martindale’s base personnel where the B-Gaps are occupied? Or, will it be an even front defense? Will that even front defense rely on an upfield burst from a three-technique?

There are a lot of questions that may be answered once a hire is made, but, for now, we’ll go through the personnel and asses where the Giants are from that position. Dexter Lawrence remains an absolute monster who, I hope, will still operate as the nose tackle directly over the center.

Lawrence would thrive as a three-technique because of his talent, but it remains unclear if that’s his best usage - he’s dominated across from the center. The Giants have similar body types to Dexter Lawrence (nose tackles). Davidson and Riley are both over 325 pounds. Horne is 323 pounds, and he’s signed through the 2024 season as well.

That’s a lot of beef in the middle of the defense. Nunez-Roches has mostly played nose or one-technique throughout his career, and he’s 6-foot-2, 307 pounds, entering the second year of his three-year, $ 12 million contract. He’ll also be 31 at the start of the 2024 season.

The Giants also have 2022 UDFA Ryder Anderson signed to a future contract. Patterson’s 2024 room now consists of Lawrence, Nunez-Roches, Davidson, Riley, Horne, and Anderson. It’s not the worst line in the league, but could use an infusion of proven talent and maybe some speed/upfield burst, especially if the defense requires those traits.

Robinson will be a free agent. I would imagine he’d like to sign with a competitor, but that, too, is conjecture. He did, however, put solid 2023 game tape on display for the rest of the pro scouting departments to find.

Let’s say the Giants don’t add a significant piece through free agency or the draft. If that’s the case, one of the more fascinating training camp battles during the summer will be Riley vs. Davidson. I view them both as developmental pieces who haven’t shown consistent play yet, but they’re young, and both possess desirable traits.

New York has several needs, though, and it’s unclear if the Giants will have the resources to address the defensive line after pouring assets into the position group last offseason, even though some of those assets are no longer in New York. The team’s confidence in the two young players could dictate their attention and the amount they need to allocate to Andre Patterson’s room, if any.