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Senior Bowl defensive preview: Six players the Giants should be watching

Lack of defensive coordinator complicates what Giants might be looking for

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants are currently looking for a defensive coordinator after the departure of Wink Martindale. New York has building block type players in Dexter Lawrence (IDL) and Bobby Okereke (ILB), with critical young assets in Kayvon Thibodeaux (edge) and Deonte Banks (CB) on defense.

There are other quality players on the Giants’ defense but depth and upgrades are still necessary. Xavier McKinney’s contract situation also looms over the Giants, and could leave a vacant spot at safety. There are plenty of questions surrounding the Giants defense this offseason, but locating talented players is obviously still a priority.

Here are six players who will be at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, who could interest the Giants.

Laiatu Latu, edge, UCLA

Congratulations to Jim Nagy and the Senior Bowl for convincing some of the top college football players to attend this illustrious event. Latu will be selected in the top half of the first round. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound edge defender had 114 pressures over the last two seasons at UCLA. He had 13 sacks in 2023, 10.5 in 2022, with a combined five forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 85 tackles.

Latu started his career at the University of Washington where he played 193 snaps in 2019 before suffering a neck injury that forced him into retirement. Latu didn’t return to football until the 2021 season. Latu received the Ted Hendricks Award (2023), the Lombardi Award (20230, and was First Team All-Pac-12 in both seasons at UCLA.

He is a pro-ready prospect with a wide pass rushing repertoire and the ability to win with speed, bend, and power. The Giants would have to select Latu with their first-round pick if they wanted to add him to the squad. He won’t be around too long.

Max Melton, CB, Rutgers

I really like Melton, the brother of the current Green Bay Packer, Bo Melton. This local kid has a complete skill-set, and tape full of highlight plays on the football and devastating hits in space. Here is my synopsis of Melton:

“Max Melton had a phenomenal senior season for Rutgers and possesses great eye discipline and route savvy for zone coverage with all the necessary athletic traits to compete at the NFL level in man coverage. His aggressive nature is admirable and does lead to interceptions and huge tackles, but he must become a more sure tackler to avoid mistakes. His combination of coverage, willingness in run support, and competitive toughness will likely make Melton a coaching - and draftnik - favorite. Max should hear his name called well before his brother Bo did in last year’s draft.”

The Giants traded up one spot on in the first round to secure Deonte Banks in last year’s draft. There is some unproven depth behind Banks (Cor’Dale Flott, Tre Hawkins III, Nick McCloud), but Adoree’ Jackson is likely destined for another team. New York could use another starting-caliber cornerback, and Melton fits that description.

Javon Soloman, edge, Troy

Javon Soloman 46 pressures on 336 pass-rushing reps in 2023. In 2021, Solomon was an All-American Honorable Mention by Pro Football Network; he averaged 1.42 tackles per loss per game and averaged just under a sack a game.

Solomon became one of just 31 players nationally since 2000 to record 17 tackles for loss and 11 sacks through the first ten games of a season; one of just nine from a non-power five school to do so and the only Sun Belt player. Here is my synopsis on his play:

“Javon Solomon is an incredibly quick pass rusher with effective bend, burst, and hand usage to separate from offensive tackles. He is a high-side rusher who is best utilized from a wide stance. His ability to bend through contact with a relentless motor will give him a shot as a situational pass rusher. Solomon’s size and anchor ability are question marks. He’s not a terrible run defender for what he was asked to do, but he was in an aggressive attacking system at Troy that did not have him anchor in place too often; when he did, double teams uprooted him at the lower level of competition.

“In the right system, with the correct usage, Solomon can be a very good asset on defense, especially if he’s a situational pass rusher who gets to pin his ears back and hunt the quarterback. Solomon isn’t being discussed much prior to the Senior Bowl, but a good showing at the event can be the necessary catalyst to raise his stock.

“Teams covet natural pass-rushing skills with the necessary burst to threaten tackle’s high side and the pass-rushing savvy/timing to adjust when appropriate. The NFL speed will be an adjustment for Solomon - and his smaller stature could pose a problem - but he’s an undersized rusher I am willing to take a shot on.”

The Giants should be in the market for an edge defender. There is little depth behind Kayvon Thibodeaux and the often-injured Azeez Ojulari. Soloman could be an upside option for the Giants in the middle rounds.

Cedric Johnson, edge, Ole Miss

The 6-3, 265 pound edge defender could also be an option for the Giants in the top-100. Johnson had more than 30 pressures in three consecutive seasons, and finished his college career with 15 sacks. He had 32 pressures last season, 36 in 2022, and 39 in 2021. He has a solid blend of speed, power, bend, length, and a functional ability to play the run.

Johnson could also test well at the combine. He was on Bruce Feldman’s 2022 Top 50 Freak List, and he was on the 2023 Bednarik Award Watch List. I’m interested to watch Johnson go up against tackles Tyler Guyton (Oklahoma) and Javon Foster (Missouri) for the American team during Senior Bowl practices.

T’Vondre Sweat, IDL, Texas

Honestly, I just really want to see Sweat and Dexter Lawrence on the same defensive line. He’s very hard to miss on screen. Sweat is a massive 6-4, 362 pounds. He combines quick and heavy hands with his gigantic size to stun and defeat offensive linemen at the point of attack. He’s a mountain that doesn’t budge much against double teams either.

He had two sacks and 29 pressures in 2023, and 21 pressures with no sacks in 2022. He doesn’t have the same juice as Dexter Lawrence, nor does he have the same elite stamina, but not many players who weigh more than 320 pounds do. He’s not an inept pass rusher, but he lacks the twitch of many high-end defensive linemen who get after the quarterback.

Pro Football Focus had Sweat as the highest-graded defender in college football last season; he was the second-highest graded run defender in college football. Sweat can anchor the nose in an odd front or play one shade in an even front. Either way, offensive lines will struggle to displace him.

His teammate at Texas, Byron Murphy II, is also notable.

Malik Mustapha, S, Wake Forest

The Giants could be in the safety market, especially if Xavier McKinney departs in free agency. Mustapha recorded 80 tackles five for a loss, an interception, and two passes defended in 2023. He finished his college career with 105 solo tackles (175 combined), 15 tackles for a loss, 52 STOPs, four sacks, three interceptions, seven passes defended, four forced fumbles, and 18 pressures. Here is my synopsis of his play:

“Malik Mustapha is a physical safety who displayed range and competence in a single-high role, but his game was maximized closer to the line of scrimmage, where his aggressiveness in run support is more effective due to sub-optimal angles from deeper depths. He does a good job staying square to contact, using good timing to attack in the box, and displayed traits similar to a linebacker when he was closer to the LOS.

“Mustapha will start as a solid sub-package rotational player who thrives on special teams. His temperament against the run and overall movement skills may lead to him seeing the defense in his rookie season. His athletic ability allows him to play man coverage effectively - especially on horizontal routes - but he had some bad mistakes on vertical concepts with double moves. Mustapha wasn’t asked to blitz often (51 times in his career), but there’s potential in that area with his low nature, active hands, and explosiveness.

“Mustapha strikes me as a good fit for Martindale’s defense, who is no longer with the team. Testing has not yet occurred, nor have his official measurements been released. He should test well, but I think he’s smaller than his listed height (5’11), and his arms seem small on tape, which does seem to affect his play.”

If McKinney is not retained, the Giants would have Jason Pinnock and Dane Belton as their safeties, with Gervarrius Owens as depth. Even if McKinney stays, an argument about adding a safety in the middle to late rounds makes sense, and Mustapha could be that player depending on the defense.