james bradberry
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants’ 2022 starting defensive lineup is far from set.

Thanks to cap casualties, free agency, and the draft, the starting defense the Giants fielded last season will not look the same in 2022.

Players will depart; new players will coincidingly arrive. It’s just how the league works.

But that doesn’t change the fact the Giants will need to answer the questions regarding their starting lineup on this side of the ball. Sure, some faces will stick around and work with newly hired coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. But there certainly are spots within the 11-man group that must find occupants ahead of September’s season-opener.

The (likely) returning starters

Due to contracts and/or past production, it’s clear there are numerous defensive starters (in a 3-4 scheme) likely to remain in East Rutherford.

  • DL Leonard Williams
  • DL Dexter Lawrence
  • EDGE Azeez Ojulari
  • ILB Tae Crowder
  • CB Adoree’ Jackson
  • S Logan Ryan
  • S Xavier McKinney

Dexter Lawrence, Azeez Ojulari, Tae Crowder, and Xavier McKinney are still on their rookie deals.

There’s a slight chance the Giants could trade Lawrence ahead of the season if the coaching staff realizes he’s not a true fit in Martindale’s defense. But overall, the probability he, Ojulari (who’s coming off a strong rookie season), Crowder (who’s outperformed his rookie deal as the 2020 Mr. Irrelevant draft pick), and McKinney (who’s the Giants’ top safety) are back in 2022 is notable.

The others will be returning partly because of their current contracts.

Leonard Williams’ deal doesn’t run out until after the 2023 season and he’ll be responsible for a $27.3 million cap hit in 2022. His 2022 dead cap charge would be $35.6 million, so there’s no chance he’ll be departing the team.

The same goes for Adoree’ Jackson. He signed a three-year deal ahead of last season and the veteran cornerback’s cap hit will be $15.265 million next year (with an $18.5 million dead cap).

Logan Ryan, on the other hand, is a leader in the secondary and can hold his own as a complement to McKinney. The Giants would actually save $750,000 in 2022 by parting ways with him, but I don’t think that amount of money would be worth making that type of move.

The question marks

Here are the starting spots that don’t contain a clear-cut occupant with the season — checks notes — nearly seven months away.

  • DL: ?
  • ILB: ?
  • EDGE: ?
  • CB: ?

That other defensive line spot alongside Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence was home to Austin Johnson this past season, but his contract is expiring. And while Johnson is coming off his best year from a statistical standpoint (72 combined tackles, 31 solo tackles, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, 3.5 sacks — all career-highs), he’s surely expendable.

Not to mention, his acquisition for 2020 and re-signing for 2021 were Dave Gettleman moves. So there’s a noteworthy chance new general manager Joe Schoen seeks Johnson’s replacement in free agency.

Schoen could look to potentially sign a veteran defensive lineman to a cheap, short-term deal — that may be all the Giants will be able to afford given the salary cap hell they currently reside in (Spotrac estimates the organization to be $11.44 million over the cap for 2022, with numerous cap-related moves still to be made).

That other starting inside linebacker would be Blake Martinez, but the veteran should absolutely be a cap casualty ahead of next season. He’s injury-prone (missed 14 games in 2021 due to an ACL tear), isn’t a game-changing linebacker in comparison to some of the league’s best, and will be expensive to retain in 2022.

Martinez’s cap hit for the upcoming season is $14.025 million while his dead cap charge would be $5.5 million. Given New York’s estimated 2022 cap situation, saving $8.525 million in space would be an intelligent maneuver by Schoen.

Better to replace Blake in one of the draft’s middle rounds.

As for the unoccupied edge rusher spot (at least we think it’s unoccupied at the moment), the Giants could definitely utilize one of their draft picks in the first two rounds to locate a starter. Lorenzo Carter’s contract is expiring and he hasn’t done enough to deserve an extension. Oshane Ximines (13 combined tackles, zero sacks in 10 games this past year), on the other hand, is a lost cause and may not even make the final roster.

There have been talks that Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux could land in the Giants’ lap at No. 5 overall. Now, I would rather them attempt to draft him at No. 7 overall and address the offensive line at No. 5. But regardless, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would rather roll the dice with Ximines or Carter (if he’s re-signed) over drafting a potential star like Thibodeaux.

And finally, the starting cornerback role opposite Adoree’ Jackson — yes, we’re talking about James Bradberry’s spot.

I know you may crush me for this. But in my opinion, it’s reasonable to think the Giants may either cut or trade Bradberry ahead of the 2022 season.

The potential cap savings ($21.864 million cap hit, $9.728 million dead cap, $12.14 million in savings) are too much to overlook.

The Giants could additionally gain draft capital from a cornerback-needy team ahead of April’s draft. Given Bradberry’s talent, I bet the organization could acquire a third-round pick for James (maybe a fourth-rounder, since he has just one year remaining on his current deal).

Follow Ryan Honey on Twitter: @RyanHoneyESNY

Listen to ESNY’s Wide Right Podcast on Apple here or on Spotify here.

Ryan Honey is a senior NFL analyst, betting writer, and podcaster for Elite Sports NY. He hosts the Wide Right Podcast, which serves as both a New York Giants podcast and sports betting show.