Those that still remain from March 2016’s off-season defensive recruitment are due for their second wind in New York Giants colors.
The New York Giants’ brass dedicated the month of March in 2016 to investing heavily in fixing a defensive unit that ranked dead last in the NFL by the end of the 2015 season.
Amongst their big-money dealings was the extension of Jason Pierre-Paul’s time in East Rutherford following his infamous fireworks incident the previous summer.
The defensive end would go on to play a starring role in Ben McAdoo’s maiden season as head coach, registering seven sacks, three forced fumbles and 53 tackles as the Giants reached the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
His season entailed a fierce partnership with free agency signing fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon, who recorded 8.5 sacks and 63 tackles across from the veteran. On the same day Vernon was snatched off the market, Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison arrived to bolster the interior of Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive line.
He, too, proved to be a worthy acquisition as he pounded 86 tackles and 2.5 sacks to significantly enhance the Giants’ run defense beside Jonathan Hankins.
March 10 was further glossed by the pickup of cornerback Janoris Jenkins and his subsequent contribution to the Giants secondary’s ‘NYPD’ title.
Two years later, Big Blue enter the new season without additional 2016 signing Keenan Robinson, without Pierre-Paul and a with a fresh system to comprehend under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
After a tumultuous 2017, the March 10 trio of Vernon, Harrison and Jenkins occupy potentially season-defining roles.
The First Line Of Defense
Harrison has shouldered the responsibility as one of Pat Shurmur’s leaders both on and off the field ahead of his debut campaign in charge. The defensive tackle was one of few Giants deserving of any praise coming off the back of 13 defeats last year.
An admirable effort in upholding his side’s resistance deserves even more appreciation in light of the Giants registering the fourth-lowest average time in possession in each of the past two seasons, according to TeamRankings.
His 76 tackles were bettered only by Landon Collins’ 104 in a glaring reminder of his talismanic function. A familiar slump on offense also saw Harrison extend his lead as the top run-stopping interior defender in the NFL since 2015.
Damon Harrison's work against the run is on another level! pic.twitter.com/aDJAh5jeQv
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 8, 2018
Bettcher’s 3-4 defense will see Harrison’s value rocket again as he spearheads his team at nose tackle. He will be notably integral in helping produce an ever-important fast start.
A plethora of elite running backs lie in wait, with the Giants scheduled to face the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette, the Dallas Cowboys’ returning Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller of the Houston Texans, and the New Orleans Saints’ double threat of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram over the opening four weeks.
Quite incredibly, Snacks is yet to make a Pro Bowl appearance. Live up to his success in the past, as everyone knows he can, and it could finally be his year.
Much has been said early on about the importance of communication on defense, and Harrison is expected to be one of the lead vocalists in 2018.
Pressure Off The Edge
2017 Vernon looked a mere shade of the slippery edge-rusher that terrified offensive lines in his first season with the Giants.
The former Miami Dolphin played just 63.34% of defensive snaps last year compared to his 93.69% in 2016, with injuries proving a key hindrance to his form and involvement. Despite not being at full fitness, he still managed to rack up 6.5 sacks to finish a close second behind Pierre-Paul’s 8.5.
He remains to be the Giants’ most dangerous edge-rusher and has been tipped to play a similar role to the Chandler Jones that finished with a league-high 17 sacks under Bettcher with the Arizona Cardinals last season. His effort to rediscover his previous explosiveness and agility is sure to be aided by his new defensive coordinator’s aggressive, free-flowing and unpredictable system.
A large part of this will also come down to whether the Giants offense can preserve Vernon’s legs, and that of his slim edge-rushing cohort by maintaining possession for extended periods of games.
Bettcher’s setup has already seen Vernon shift into an outside linebacker position as a means of exploiting the dynamism that helped average 7.5 sacks a season in his four years with the Dolphins.
He threatens both a powerful and tricky style and will be even harder to track when taking off from a standing position.
Issues In Secondary
A major area of concern for the Giants lies in a depleted cornerback department.
The departure of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has left a more ominous void that many perhaps expected it would, both in terms of technical expertise and know-how.
It has consequently seen Janoris Jenkins emerge as the most experienced figurehead in pass coverage and tasked with the responsibility of rediscovering some unity.
Nobody quite knows what to expect from Eli Apple after a series of fallouts last season, nor is it clear where the nearest competition is coming from on the outside out of rookie Sam Beal and off-season pickup B.W. Webb.
Question marks meanwhile loom over the slot position, with 33-year-old William Gay battling it out with Donte Deayon and Grant Haley. Combine such uncertainty with the snug pass coverage Bettcher’s blitz-friendly defense demands and Jenkins’ role suddenly looks fundamental.
Hopes of a rejuvenated season stem from his outstanding 2016 in unison with Collins, in which he broke up an eighth-highest 18 passes ahead of his safety’s joint-14th 15.
A Jenkins firing on all cylinders is as competitive a corner as a coach could ask for, offering a tenacity capable of flourishing under Bettcher and both elite speed and man coverage.
It’s time for the after-effects of spending near to $200million on a busy day back in March 2016 two years later.