Giants’ defensive line questions go beyond Leonard Williams

Part six in a series analyzing the New York Giants.

Taken individually, there is not one player on the Giants’ defensive line that scares anyone. No single big guy to keep offensive coordinators up at night, no forceful athlete to cause offensive linemen to break out into cold sweats.

As a group, though, this might work. At least there is a coherent plan that appears to make sense. Also, expectations for this unit should be tempered, based on what new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham wants to get out of his line. The base look figures to be a 3-4 front, using three down linemen on first down and then adjusting based on the down and distance. The word of the day whenever the Giants’ new-look defense is discussed is “multiple,’’ and thus there will be times when the Giants utilize four- and five-man lines.

The three-man line is expected to be Dalvin Tomlinson in the middle, flanked by Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence. This trio is young. Tomlinson at 26 is actually four months older than Williams, even though Tomlinson came out of the 2017 NFL Draft and Williams was taken by the Jets early in the 2015 draft. For a player with five full seasons on his résumé, it is remarkable that Williams does not turn 26 until June 20.

This has the makings of an outstanding run-stopping group. For all the knocks on Williams in his 71 games played for the Jets and the eight he played for the Giants last season, no one questions his ability to deal with blockers and running backs. Lawrence can be a physical menace once his huge body is NFL-hardened and Tomlinson is a solid and under-control worker.

To characterize Williams as polarizing is being kind. There was not much embracing or understanding of the trade Dave Gettleman put together, sending a third- and fifth-round draft pick to the Jets for Williams, who could have been signed on the open market following the season. Gettleman believed at the time having Williams in the building for an eight-game test run would be beneficial in getting him locked up with a long-term deal. As of yet that has not happened, and Williams is on the books for the franchise tag of $16.1 million. That is too much to spend on a player with 17.5 career sacks, a player who managed to get only one-half sack in 15 games in 2019. To think Williams will suddenly evolve into a pass-rusher is foolhardy. To think he can push the pocket from the interior, as long there is adequate pressure applied on the outside, is not.

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If Gettleman gets the extremely durable Williams to agree on a multi-year contract that makes financial sense, the trade can be justified, as long as Williams plays well. In many ways, having Williams locked up, motivated and ready to prove wrong all the skeptics is the key to the success of the defensive line, as long as Lawrence takes the anticipated next step forward. The Giants took him with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2019 draft — the pick they acquired from the Browns as part of the Odell Beckham Jr. mega-deal. There is pressure on Lawrence, something of a teddy bear of a big guy, to live up to all this.

This is also a year of decision for B.J. Hill, even though he has one more year remaining on his contract after this season. Hill as a rookie in 2018 looked as if he might turn into a steal, taken in the third round of the draft. He started 12 games and produced 32 tackles, and, impressively, 5.5 sacks. However, he started just five games in 2019, had only one sack and fell to the wayside in the playing rotation after Williams arrived at midseason. Hill showed some pass-rush ability two years ago and has a new coaching staff to impress.

Austin Johnson, after four years and 58 games with the Titans, is a 314-pound run-stopper who should make the team and provide depth for Tomlinson. Chris Slayton (seventh round, 2019) and RJ McIntosh (fifth round, 2018) are late-round picks looking to make an impression with a new defensive staff.

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