NY Giants roster: Projecting the starting defense in 2021

James Bradberry, NY Giants (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
James Bradberry, NY Giants (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /
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The defense for the NY Giants was strong in 2020. With some key additions in the offseason, who will earn a starting spot?

Heading into last season, the expectations for the defense of the NY Giants were relatively low, coming off a year in 2019 where they ranked 25th in the league in yards allowed and 30th in points given up.

However, as things picked up under first-year head coach Joe Judge in 2020, the defense quickly changed the narrative around it and elevated itself mightily. By season’s end, the Giants ranked 12th in yards allowed and ninth in points given up, a vast improvement from the season prior.

While on-field additions like James Bradberry IV and Blake Martinez certainly helped, the off-field acquisition of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham may have been just as impactful. Marcus Whitman, also known as That Franchise Guy on YouTube, broke down the uniqueness of Graham’s defensive scheme, labelling it as a 3-3-5 base defense in a recent video with Fireside Giants:

"But Patrick Graham has totally changed this thing, where you have, kind of, three interior types up there [on the defensive line], but Leonard Williams is going to be out there [as] more of an edge defensive end position, and then on the other edge you have kind of your hybrid, classic ‘Belichickian’, blitzer, coverage, run-defending hybrid type. And then you got your two linebackers in the middle. And then what’s really unique and why the Giants defense works so well is what they’re able to do with Jabrill Peppers, where he comes in as a linebacker/safety hybrid, and then you add Logan Ryan’s flexibility as a slot corner/free safety hybrid, and that’s really where it gets creative and cool. It allows you to stay in a personnel that is good enough against the run, because you have Jabrill Peppers down there who can act like a linebacker, but it opens up tons of flexibility to have a really good coverage scheme as well because those guys can both cover and rotate to different spots in the defense. It’s just really unique, it’s this kind of balance of a ‘Belichickian’ scheme and other influences as well."

In his first year with the Giants, Graham has proven to be a creative mind willing to mold his scheme to his personnel, making him a key to New York’s success.

Here is a prediction for what players will start in Graham’s 3-3-5 base defense in 2021:

The Defensive Line (3): Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, B.J. Hill

It’s important to remember the NY Giants have a number of talented players at virtually every level of the defense, so labelling a player a “starter” does not necessarily mean another player at the same position will automatically get relegated to the bench and see no action. Different down and distance situations will impact what type of defensive linemen are on the field.

With that said, Leonard Williams is someone who will likely be playing the majority of the time for the Giants. In 2020, Williams saw action in 74% of the defensive snaps, and after signing a 3 year extension this offseason, his workload will probably remain similar in 2021.

Williams is someone with both inside and outside flexibility, able to create pressure on the quarterback from either within the tackles or from the edge. That versatility makes him an important chess piece for Graham, but in the base defense, he will likely line up on the edge.

Along the interior of the line, Dexter Lawrence is most likely the defensive lineman who will receive the most playing time. Lawrence played in 60% of the defensive snaps for New York last season and continued to show his ability as a run stuffer, and also as an improved pass rusher, getting to the quarterback four times in 2020.

As for who will lineup next to Lawrence on the interior, there are a number of possibilities. Dalvin Tomlinson, who played in 60% of the defensive snaps for the Giants in 2020, signed a deal with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. Replacing him and his production will be tough.

Ultimately, B.J. Hill could see his snap share increase. He played in 35% of the defensive plays for the Giants in 2020, and offers some solid pass rush ability next to Lawrence. Other options here include Danny Shelton, who will likely see significant time in short yardage situations to stuff the run, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Austin Johnson and others.