NY Giants: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis
The focus of the offseason was on New York's offensive reconstruction, but the defense has undergone a face-lift of its own since last season came to a close. Several new names, both free-agent acquisitions and recent draft picks, are named in this analysis of the Giants' defensive depth chart.
In this article, each of the 11 positions in New York's 4-3 base defense will be highlighted. The positions will be broken down individually and will project the most likely scenarios heading into training camp.
Read on to learn about each position on the Giants defense in depth.
The right end is one of the most exciting players to watch in the 4-3 defense. His primary function is to rush around the left tackle and sack the quarterback. A right-handed passer almost always has his back turned to the right defensive end, also known as the blindside rusher.
Jason Pierre-Paul has started on the right edge since 2011, when the Giants won the Super Bowl by riding his heroic efforts. Although his sack totals have sunk to embarrassing depths (6.5 sacks in 2012, 2.0 in 2013), Pierre-Paul will hold tight to this starting job unless someone forces it away from him.
The player with the best shot to usurp JPP's role is Damontre Moore. The 2013 third-round pick was a sack-master at Texas A&M (26.5 sacks in three seasons), and he must soon unleash that ability as a professional. Moore is perfect for the right end position because he lacks ideal size to defend the run; his lean 6'5", 250-pound frame, however, is perfectly designed for a speed-rusher to get around the edge.
Moore may not be cut out to hold his own as a left end. So, if he is good enough to start, Moore is more likely to displace Pierre-Paul on the right, sending JPP to the strong side.
Veteran Mathias Kiwanuka is used in a multitude of roles, one of them being right defensive end. Kiwi will contribute in some capacity on the right side, but he is a subpar pass-rusher and his run-defending ability is better utilized on the left side.
One player who could get into the mix at right end is undrafted free agent Emmanuel Dieke, a 23-year-old Georgia Tech product. Dieke, 6'6" and 257 pounds, was a starting D-end in college, although not a very productive one. He will need to show off some serious pass-rushing moves in training camp and the preseason to land a roster spot.
The 4-3 defense features two interior linemen known as tackles. The larger of the two plays closer to the nose of the ball, and he is responsible for clogging up the middle by demanding a double-team.
In this role, second-year player Johnathan Hankins is expected to thrive. The 320-pounder out of Ohio State was a second-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft. With Linval Joseph now a member of the Minnesota Vikings, the Giants are hoping, in Hankins, they posses the perfect player to fill Joseph's now-vacant role in the middle of New York's defense.
Beyond Hankins, however, the Giants are thin on run-stuffers. Of the remaining six tackles on the roster, none weighs more than 310 pounds.
In a pinch, New York could field Mike Patterson, who, although undersized (6'1", 300 lbs), has played nose tackle during his nine-season career. Markus Kuhn, a 6'4", 303-pound German, may also make for a serviceable nose tackle.
The talents of Patterson and Kuhn combined, however, would not approach those of Joseph. The Giants are putting a lot of faith in Hankins' development, and his presence projects to be the most integral factor leading to defensive consistency in 2014.
The other defensive tackle in the 4-3 defense, the 3-technique, is smaller than the nose tackle. This tackle can shoot the gaps to make plays in the backfield, making him a more natural pass-rusher.
New York's leading 3-technique is Cullen Jenkins, a 33-year-old veteran with a decade's worth of NFL experience—mostly in Green Bay. The 305-pound Jenkins has a wide range of ability, but his specialty is getting to the quarterback. This is evidenced by his 43.5 career sacks.
The Giants have more promising depth at the 3-technique than they do at nose tackle. Serving as Jenkins' understudies this summer are 2014 third-round selection Jay Bromley of Syracuse and undrafted rookie Kelcy Quarles of South Carolina. Both Bromley and Quarles can become contributing members of the Giants' interior D-line this season.
With a player as well-versed as Jenkins leading the way for up-and-comers Bromley and Quarles, the Giants are in position to field a dominant 3-technique for seasons to come.
The left end differs from the right end, as the player fielded here must be more of a two-way defender. While the right end can make a living as a brazen pass-rusher, the left end must be able to defend the run just as efficiently as he disrupts the passer's pocket.
Some will argue that Damontre Moore is Justin Tuck's heir apparent on the strong side, but he does not have the ideal frame to make this a reality. Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers, on the other hand, are more realistic options at left end.
Kiwanuka has the experience and versatility to play most any position in the front seven, and it would be best to carry the 31-year-old along as a utility reserve. That means Ayers should be given a full opportunity to win the starting job on the left side. Although hardly ever productive as a Denver Bronco (27 starts, 12 sacks in 72 games played), Ayers is a former first-round pick (18th overall) and has the size needed to hold the edge (6'3", 274 lbs).
Neither Moore, Kiwanuka nor Ayers presents himself as an ideal replacement for Tuck on the left side, leading one to believe that the Giants will lean on a committee approach if no single player stands out. In this case, the specific down-and-distance situation will dictate which end is fielded on the strong side.
James Madison's Jordan Stanton and Richmond's Kerry Wynn are two undrafted rookies with a shot to compete on the left side. Both defenders are small-school products with big builds. The challenge for 280-pound Stanton and 266-pound Wynn will be keeping up with the speed of the professional game.
The signal-caller of the Giants defense is typically the middle linebacker.
When healthy, Jon Beason will man the middle of New York's defensive platoon. Beason did a fine job a season ago after joining the team midseason via a trade with the Carolina Panthers. This year will be yet another test for Beason, as the 29-year-old linebacker is expected to sit out all summer with a foot injury.
In the meantime, Jameel McClain is holding down the middle linebacker duties. McClain, through six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, has been asked to play "Mike" before; this is a well-trodden path for the 28-year-old veteran.
McClain may only be a temporary backup for Beason, as the Giants originally signed the former Raven during free agency to play on the strong side. A competition between fourth-year linebacker Mark Herzlich and undrafted rookie Dan Fox of Notre Dame could yield the team's next Chase Blackburn.
There is also 2014 fifth-round selection Devon Kennard, a USC product who dabbled in the middle of the first-team defense this spring, per Jordan Raanan of NJ.com. Kennard will be broken down further on the following slide.
The strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense should be a downfield player. He is a bigger linebacker, strong in pursuit and relentless against the run. This linebacker will often be pulled for an extra defensive back on obvious passing downs.
The Giants signed former Baltimore Raven Jameel McClain to be the starting strong-side linebacker, but his tackling prowess is needed in the middle until Jon Beason's foot is fully healthy. Devon Kennard, the fifth-round draft choice, has been impressive in McClain's place on the strong side.
Kennard, a 251-pound 23-year-old, is the biggest of all New York's linebackers. Kennard's early contributions during the spring workouts have raised expectations for the rookie linebacker; the Southern California product is being advertised as a viable Week 1 starter, per Dan Graziano of ESPN.com.
Any further depth would likely come from the winner of the Mark Herzlich-Dan Fox battle described in the previous slide. The larger Herzlich (246 lbs) may hold an advantage over the smaller Fox (233 lbs) when being evaluated on the strong side.
The weak-side linebacker will be on the field more often than the strong-side linebacker because he is nimbler and more fluid in space, making him less of a liability when caught in pass coverage. Although the personnel may shift, a weak-side linebacker is likely to stay on the field when New York enters the nickel package.
There has been an ongoing position battle on the weak side since 2011, when the Giants drafted Jacquian Williams in the sixth round and then signed Spencer Paysinger as an undrafted free agent. Williams is the athletic specimen whose impact has been slowed by injuries, while Paysinger is the gritty underdog whose steady development has morphed him into an NFL-caliber starter.
Both Williams and Paysinger played in all 16 games last season; although Paysinger (11) started more games than Williams (eight) in 2013, Williams is the weak-side linebacker described as "entrenched" in the starting role, via Jordan Raanan of NJ.com. This will remain a fluid situation, as it has for the past three seasons.
One player aiming to get in the mix behind Williams and Paysinger is undrafted rookie Justin Anderson, who went to Louisiana-Lafayette and was invited to play in the Senior Bowl last year.
Cornerback (No. 1)
Instead of splitting sides of the field left and right, it looks like the Giants are prepared to move forward with a shutdown-corner approach in the defensive backfield.
In the form of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, New York purchased a shutdown cornerback on the open market this spring. After playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, the 28-year-old Rodgers-Cromartie will now shadow the opposition's top receiving threat as a member of the Giants.
A few of the Giants' quality reserves at cornerback are former Seattle Seahawk Walter Thurmond III and seventh-year vets Trumaine McBride and Zack Bowman. Thurmond will be a major contributor as the Giants' nickel corner—a role in which Thurmond sees himself as the NFL's pre-eminent performer. Both McBride and Bowman will make the team as accountable fill-ins.
Cornerback (No. 2)
Opposite the shutdown corner is the No. 2 corner, who will become familiar with the opposition's second-most dangerous receiving threat throughout the course of a given contest.
Fourth-year player Prince Amukamara has developed into a legitimate No. 1 cornerback after the Giants selected him 19th overall in 2011. Amukamara played well enough for New York to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, yet that's chump change compared to the $35 million Big Blue offered Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during free agency. As good a corner as he is, Amukamara will need to move over for DRC.
This should only boost Amukamara's performance in 2014, as his coverage skills are likely to be superior than the pass-catching and route-running skills of the second-tier receivers he will defend.
Behind Amukamara and the reserves mentioned in the previous slide are several cornerbacks fighting for a roster spot. A few at the forefront of the competition are 2012 third-round pick Jayron Hosley, this spring's sixth-rounder, Bennett Jackson, and second-year corner Charles James. Some scrappy special teams play could earn either Jackson or James a roster spot over Hosley, who is suspended for the first four games of the season.
Of the two safeties in a 4-3 defense, the strong safety is usually the larger of the two. He is expected to be an aggressive run defender in the box while maintaining the pass-coverage ability to hang with an athletic tight end.
The last time Stevie Brown was healthy (2012), he started 11 games for the Giants at strong safety. However, Brown's claim to fame, an eight-interception season, was more the product of his work as a center fielder, patrolling the deep middle of the field—a role more often associated with a free safety.
After tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2013 season, the soon-to-be 27-year-old Brown projects to start yet again as New York's strong safety.
Former San Diego State Aztec Nat Berhe, a 2014 fifth-round selection, fits the mold of a strong safety, but his 194-pound frame leaves about 20 pounds to be desired. Another fifth-rounder Cooper Taylor (2013), on the other hand, stands 6'4" and weighs a healthy 228 pounds.
The Giants will likely lean toward fielding a strong safety with linebacker-type instincts based on the brand of defensive backs they've recently acquired.
The last line of defense in the 4-3 defense is the free safety, whose main responsibility is to prevent any long completions over the top of the unit.
Although 10th-year veteran Antrel Rolle had the best season of his career at strong safety in 2013, the talented free safety who played beside him, Will Hill, has been released from the team. Rolle has been a free safety for most of his career, so the transition back to this position should be a natural one.
Rolle can play any position in the secondary, and he's often found all over the field. Usually a team leader in tackles, Rolle is anything but timid when it comes to making a play in the box.
The next best free safety on the roster is Quintin Demps, who was signed in free agency. Demps, a former fourth-round pick, is now going into his seventh season; past ones have been spent with the Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs.
A couple of undrafted Big Ten products have an opportunity to make the team behind Rolle, Brown and Demps at safety. Thomas Gordon of Michigan and C.J. Barnett of Ohio State will fight for a roster spot, continuing an already-heated rivalry that exists between all Wolverines and Buckeyes.
*All roster information courtesy of Giants.com.
**All statistical information courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless noted or linked otherwise.