The Giants coaching staff has some decisions to make when it comes to the third defensive line role in a 3-4 scheme.
But it hasn’t been a perfect offseason by any measure.
The Giants lost Dalvin Tomlinson, one of the more underrated defensive linemen in this league, via free agency. After spending his first four seasons with Big Blue, Tomlinson inked a two-year deal with the Vikings back in March.
The unfortunate occurrence for New York has led to the team needing to make some decisions when it comes to the defensive line. Who may start in a 3-4 scheme? Who could earn reps as more of a reserve option?
Williams and Lawrence: Set starters
Before we discuss the prior questions, let’s make a few things clear.
In a 3-4 scheme, you will absolutely see Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence on either edge of the three-man line.
The Giants made a significant investment in Williams this offseason after he underwent a phenomenal 2020 season — he led the team with 11.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits. Williams thrived in Patrick Graham’s system last year and is undoubtedly going to be a staple in this defense moving forward.
Dexter Lawrence has been highly productive for the Giants as well, solidifying himself as one of the top young players at his position in the NFL. He recorded solid PFF grades of 76.2 and 79.7 his first two seasons, respectively, and tied for second on the team in sacks last year.
After a productive rookie campaign, Lawrence increased his sack total, tackle total, and quarterback hit total in 2020. He’s growing as an NFL defensive lineman and is expected to continue doing so within Graham’s system.
It’s that middle spot in a 3-4, however, that isn’t incredibly clear at the moment.
Luckily for the Giants, there are options present for this role — it’s not like the team is hung out to dry when it comes to the specific position.
Let’s start with Austin Johnson, who will absolutely compete for the job during the training camp and preseason periods.
It’s clear the Giants like him — they decided to bring the 27-year-old back this offseason by re-signing him to a one-year deal in March.
Despite the fact he only recorded 18 combined tackles (eight solo) and one sack last year, the team potentially feels it could maximize his potential when providing him the right number of reps.
Of course, the “right number of reps” could be in Johnson’s future now that Tomlinson is out of East Rutherford. And even though his production hasn’t been at a notably high level thus far in his career, he does possess an advantage over one of his expected competitors, Danny Shelton — Johnson actually carries experience in this defensive system.
But Shelton does possibly possess an advantage as well — his upside may be superior.
One of the offseason moves that sort of went under the radar was the signing of Shelton to a one-year deal towards the end of March.
A 2015 first-round pick of the Browns, Danny certainly has potential the Giants staff could unlock if it provides him with the correct on-field situation.
And it’s not like he’s completely incapable of producing — Shelton just recorded 61 combined tackles with New England in 2019.
You could also introduce the fact Joe Judge may have partly influenced Shelton’s acquisition. Judge was with Shelton in New England in 2018 and 2019 and is likely aware of the aforementioned potential that could be unlocked and maximized.
Some individuals who were acquired during the two-year Pat Shurmur era may begin to be phased out of the mix. Oshane Ximines might be one of those guys and so could Julian Love.
B.J. Hill, who the Giants drafted in 2018, may additionally find himself a part of that group.
In his first year under the Judge-Graham regime, Hill saw his overall role diminish.
He’s played in all 16 regular-season games through the first three years of his career, but in 2020, was on the field for just 35% of the defensive snaps (a career-low). Hill found time on 59% and 44% of the defensive reps in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
The staff doesn’t seem to be as high on him as it is with alternative options.
Hill could compete for the job, but don’t be surprised if the Giants at least consider him as a preseason roster cut.