New York Giants: Top 5 Free-Agent Fits at Defensive End
Pass-rushers. The New York Giants need them, and they need them desperately.
In case you didn’t get a chance to watch much of the Giants’ 2015 season—and after a while, who could blame you if you chose to do something other than be frustrated by a team that oftentimes came so close yet was so far away from winning at least six games—New York’s defense finished dead last in the league, allowing a whopping 420.3 yards per game.
New York’s defense also finished dead last in third-down conversions, allowing opponents to convert on 47 percent of their third-down attempts.
So, yes, the defense needs a lot of help, but what it needs the most is pass-rushers—what with Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers, the team's only two accomplished pass-rushers, both heading toward the open market.
Let’s run down some names, in no particular order, that could be options.
Charles Johnson, Carolina
Since coming into the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 2007, the 6'2", 272-pound Johnson has posted 279 tackles, 63.5 sacks, 22 passes defensed and 16 forced fumbles—all with the Panthers, for whom he was also a team captain.
Last season, Johnson struggled with a hamstring injury that limited him to nine games. Although he’s a little long in the tooth, it would make sense for the Giants to sign an older pass-rusher to no longer than a three-year deal while second-year man Owa Odighizuwa develops after missing his rookie season due to injury.
Historically, Johnson has always functioned well as a pass-rusher. However, he has not graded out as well in run support, earning negative grades there in four of the last five seasons.
In 2014, his last 16-game season, Johnson finished tied for 21st out of 25 4-3 defensive ends who played in at least 60 percent of their team’s run-game snaps. Johnson recorded just 10 stops for zero or negative yards. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, by contrast, finished with 31 that same season.
If the Giants are going to spend on a pass-rusher, ideally that money would be spent on someone who is just as solid against the run as they are on the pass rush.
Mario Williams, Buffalo
Although Mario Williams only posted five sacks last season, the Giants are reportedly interested in meeting with him.
So reported NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, who tweeted that Williams is indeed on the Giants' radar.
Williams has 96.0 career sacks, including five double-digit-sack seasons. Between 2012 and 2014, he recorded 38.0 sacks in the Bills' 4-3 defense, with each of those seasons being double-digit showings.
Last season in Rex Ryan’s 3-4, Williams struggled, posting just 5.0 sacks in 15 games. As Tom Rock of Newsday noted, though, Williams’ off year would have placed him second on the Giants last season in sacks.
As far as playing the run, Williams has certainly held his own there. Williams finished 11th out of 25 4-3 defensive ends who took 60 percent of their team’s run-game snaps in 2014. That year, Williams posted 18 tackles for a loss.
Like Johnson, Williams would probably be looking at a shorter-term deal of about three years.
If he were to sign with New York, he’d probably be an automatic starter on a defense that desperately needs some firepower.
Olivier Vernon, Miami
Despite having been tagged as the Miami Dolphins’ transition player, defensive end Olivier Vernon could still be in the picture if the Giants’ other options start to dry up.
The transition tag, for those unaware of the difference between it and the franchise tag, simply means that the Dolphins would have the right to match any offer sheet that Vernon signs with another team.
If they match it, he reverts back to Miami. If not, the offer sheet becomes a contract with the new team, which would owe zero compensation to the Dolphins.
As noted on Inside Football, the challenge in signing a transition player is a scenario where the original team comes through with an 11th-hour offer that thwarts the would-be signing team’s efforts to secure the player. This could leave the latter in a position where other choices might have been snapped up by other teams.
Thus if the Giants intend to pursue Vernon, they probably will wait until they have at least one of their other free-agent targets on board so that they are not left with nothing in the event that Miami decides to match any offer sheets.
With all that said, Vernon appears to offer the most complete package in terms of run-stopping and the pass rush.
In 2015, he topped Pro Football Focus’ 10-man list of 4-3 defensive ends who took at least 75 percent of their team’s run-defense snaps, finishing with a 9.2 run stop percentage and 35 stops.
When you consider that Vernon is only going to be 26 years old this year, those are three things you can check off your must-haves for a defensive end: age, pass-rushing productivity and run-defense ability.
Jeremy Mincey, Dallas
Last year, the Giants brought in George Selvie, who was previously with the Dallas Cowboys.
Selvie, an unrestricted free agent, isn’t expected back, but New York could go back to the well of its division rivals for pass-rushing help in the form of Jeremy Mincey (6’4”, 280 lbs).
The 32-year-old Mincey began his career with Jacksonville in 2006, and he posted 20 of his 26.0 total sacks as a Jaguar.
While his career sack total seems pedestrian at best, Mincey has been disruptive as a pass-rusher. He’s forced 167 quarterback hurries to go with 39 quarterback hits since 2007.
If the Giants want a rotational type to play limited snaps, Mincey should come in at a reasonable price in the second wave of free agency.
Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta
Another potential target who is under 30 is Adrian Clayborn of the Atlanta Falcons, a player who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle.
Originally a first-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2011, Clayborn’s NFL tenure has thus far been underwhelming.
He was placed on injured reserve in 2014 with a torn bicep, his last season with the Bucs, and has recorded just 16.0 sacks in five seasons. His best single-season effort was 5.5 sacks in 2013.
Despite his underwhelming performance, Clayborn could be one of those “show me” signings that the Giants seem to collect like postage stamps.
They could have some competition for Clayborn, however, as Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reported that the Dallas Cowboys are also interested in meeting with Clayborn.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.