The 2019 NY Giants will once again finish the season in line for a top draft pick rather than a playoff spot.
Despite frequent struggles, a talented young core has the defense closer to competing than most think.
The NY Giants have struggled on both sides of the ball this season, but their inability to remain competitive in most games was a product of the defense.
New York will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. During that span, the organization has failed to reestablish the hard-nosed, defensive identity of the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl teams.
While the Giants’ defense has been putrid this season, there is reason for hope. Several young players have shown promise and the defense is not as far from competing as many think.
The Giants announced the firing of head coach Pat Shurmur and defensive coordinator James Bettcher Tuesday. The new defensive coordinator will be working with a young core that will likely feature some new high-profile players after the offseason.
For New York, it will all start with reestablishing the heart of those Super Bowl defenses: The defensive line.
Following last season, many questioned whether the Giants would be able to pressure the quarterback with any sort of consistency. While they are not where they need to be, this unit has noticeably improved this year.
Outside linebacker Markus Golden signed a one-year prove-it deal and has given New York a consistent pass rusher. Golden is the first Giant linebacker since Lawrence Taylor to record 10 sacks in a season and has shown a diverse repertoire of moves off the edge.
The 28-year-old alluded to a return, telling Newsday he would “love to” be back with the Giants.
“It’s been great being here competing,” he said. “Of course it’s been a down year, but at the end of the day, everybody here has been great people. Everybody is trying to do whatever they can do to win. I know everybody here wants to win. That’s a good sign because I want to make sure I’m able to win.”
Oshane Ximines, New York’s third-round pick in last year’s draft, has flashed potential as a pass rusher as well. The rookie has above-average speed and change of direction off the edge.
Ximines shows a solid inside move here, setting up the tackle with an outside jab to freeze his feet then using a slide step with an inside wipe to get his hands off and make the play. This sack flashes three critical aspects of a successful pass rusher: Understanding of the tackle’s set, quick change of direction and precise hands.
Second-year outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter has underwhelmed this season but has the skillset to progress and will add depth alongside Ximines.
The Giants were one of the top run-stopping defenses in the NFL thanks to the talented interior duo of Dalvin Tomlinson and rookie Dexter Lawrence. Leonard Williams, who GM Dave Gettleman acquired at the trade deadline, added another talented run stopper.
Lawrence stands a staggering 6’4”, 342 pounds with incredible athleticism, allowing him to fit gaps laterally while denting offensive lineman and maintaining leverage. Tomlinson displayed similar attributes.
The duo also made an impact rushing the passer. Their combination of size and explosiveness allows them to push the pocket, creating pressure in the face of the quarterback and flushing him out to edge rushers.
Resigning Golden will be key to this unit. The Giants likely lost any chance for Ohio State’s Chase Young after defeating the Redskins in overtime in Week 16.
However, there will be an abundance of talented edge rushers on the free-agent market. The following players will all be available this offseason:
Jadeveon Clowney – SEA – 27
Yannick Ngakoue – JAX – 25
Bud Dupree – PIT – 27
Shaq Barrett – TB – 27
Matthew Judon – BAL – 27
Dante Fowler – LAR – 26
Vic Beasley – ATL – 27
Arik Armstead – SF – 26
Kyle Van Noy – NE – 29
Pairing a top-tier pass rusher with Golden on the edge, along with Lawrence and Tomlinson inside, would be a terrific start towards reestablishing the defensive line.
The linebacking core will need a facelift. The unit has been one of the most disappointing on the team.
Veteran Alec Ogletree has taken a step back in terms of explosiveness as well as desire. Tae Davis, the week one starter opposite Ogletree, struggled and was waived after missing time with a concussion.
Journeyman David Mayo signed with the team prior to Week 1 and has been capable in the run game, recording 66 tackles. Mayo does not possess the sideline to sideline or coverage speed of a starter, but the 26-year-old will likely fill a backup role moving forward.
Josiah Tauaefa, an undrafted rookie out of the University of Texas-San Antonio, and Deon Bucannon, a converted safety who was waived by the Bucs earlier in the season, have filled in but do not project as long-term contributors.
The lone bright spot this season belonged to Ryan Connolly, the former Wisconsin walk-on and 2019 fifth-round pick. Connolly impressed with his play early in the season, recording 19 tackles, a sack and two interceptions in four games before tearing his ACL.
The 24-year-old showed a sound understanding of NFL offenses, fitting the run downhill and making the proper progressions through his zone drops. Connolly will likely be in line for a starting role at some point next season.
New York will need to pick up another starter with Ogletree’s likely departure. Cory Littleton and Danny Trevathan headline the free-agent class. The Giants will rank near the top of the league in cap space and a starting linebacker will be a priority.
Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons is the top linebacker in this year’s draft class and will garner consideration at fourth overall. The 2019 Butkus award winner lined up at slot cornerback, middle linebacker, edge-rusher and safety while at Clemson.
This versatility is a valuable asset that allows defensive coordinators to disguise coverages and confuse quarterbacks.
Here, Simmons lines up as a deep middle safety and reads the eyes of Justin Fields, covering nearly half the field and jumping the route for an interception.
Simmons is the exact type of versatile linebacker that teams are targeting in today’s NFL. He is a rangy, athletic player who can play sideline to sideline and match up with almost anyone on vertical routes.
While Simmons fills a need, there is also pressing issue in the secondary, the most glaring defensive issue this season.
New faces coupled with youthful inexperience led to weekly miscommunications in coverage.
The Giants brought in three new starters, drafting DeAndre Baker out of Georgia, trading for Jabrill Peppers, and signing veteran Antione Bethea. Gettleman also spent fourth and fifth-round picks on Julian Love and Corey Ballentine.
The unit was a disaster to start the season. Baker struggled to pick up the playbook and Bethea’s best days were clearly behind him.
Janoris Jenkins, New York’s best cover corner, eventually grew frustrated with the situation, voicing his displeasure with defensive coordinator James Bettcher to the media. The seven-year veteran was waived on December 13th following an insult to a fan on Twitter.
Overall, there was zero chemistry within the unit leading to breakdowns down the field nearly every week.
However, the second half of the season has brought some positives. Baker has looked like the player he was at Georgia. The first-round pick’s early struggles were not for a lack of talent, but rather a lack of understanding of what the defense was trying to do.
Defensive backs coach Everett Withers didn’t hold back when asking where Baker needed to improve, via Newsday.
“Every way you can imagine. Preparation-wise. Maturity-wise. I just think understanding how to be a pro. All the things that you learn as a young guy that just punches you in the face early, he’s starting to understand.”
“He’s not there yet. Not close.”
Love has also looked capable after moving to safety and Peppers was among the best players on the defense before going down with an injury.
Heading into the offseason, the Giants are a free safety and starting corner away from patching up the secondary. Baker and Peppers will be back as starters. Ballentine and Sam Beal will add depth at corner with Love, Michael Thomas, and Sean Chandler likely backing up at safety.
Finding a starting corner opposite Baker will take priority this offseason.
Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah is widely considered the top corner in college football and will be a top option at fourth overall.
While the Giants defense has disappointed this season, a foundation has been built.
The Giants must address the following needs defensively: A top-tier pass rusher to pair with Golden, versatile linebacker who can defend the pass and a starting cornerback opposite Baker. There is a path to finding these players.
New York will retain Gettleman despite a disastrous first two seasons. The 2019 draft has shown potential, but he has missed on several free agent signings in his first two offseasons.
The question for the Giants has been: Do you trust Gettleman to make these crucial decisions this offseason?
It appears that John Mara does.
Despite a horrendous 2019 showing, the defense has a talented foundation of young players. Gettleman has the resources to add to that this offseason and his decision making will determine the foreseeable future of the franchise, as well as his own fate.