There will be several position battles up for grabs this summer when the New York Giants begin their annual training camp.
While most of those battles will be to fill out depth on the roster, there will be some starting jobs up for grabs, one of which will be at the defensive end spot Mathias Kiwanuka held last year, as outlined by Ourlads.
Since new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme is going to rely on the defense being built from the inside out, fielding a solid defensive line is going to be key if the Giants are to improve from being ranked 29th as a defense into a more respectable unit.
So who, from among the candidates, will compete for that key defensive end position opposite franchise player Jason Pierre-Paul, as the best man for the job?
Let’s explore this question.
The Key to the Defense: Stop the Run
In what’s probably one of the oldest and most proven philosophies on defense, if a team can stop the run on first down, that usually means that it will be in a good position to dictate to the offense and to get off the field quickly.
As he did during his first tenure with the Giants, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a number of pass-rushers at his disposal—linebacker Devon Kennard; defensive ends George Selvie, Owa Odighizuwa, Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, and Damontre Moore and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins have all had varying degrees at rushing the passer.
Before Spagnuolo can unleash the hounds, he needs to have thumpers up front who can stop the run cold on first down and who can create long-yardage situations.
That is why when trying to identify the best candidate to start on the other side of Pierre-Paul, it would probably behoove the Giants to line up a player who is strong against the run.
The Giants’ Dilemma
Before we discuss the best option at the other defensive end spot, let’s step back to last season, when Kiwanuka was thought to be the answer.
Although it was obvious that Kiwanuka’s skills had clearly deteriorated in 2013 and 2014, a likely reason why the coaches stuck with him is because he was the closest thing other than Pierre-Paul, to being a “complete” defensive end—a successful player against both the run and the pass.
The advantage to having a “complete” defensive end is that he doesn’t have to come off the field. By not having to substitute him for different situations, a defensive coordinator can better disguise what play has been called.
If, however, a defensive end is put on the field who is weak against the run, but a good pass-rusher, that is usually an invitation for trouble if the offense is in a position to call either a run or a pass and to target that player in the area in which he is weakest.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kiwanuka remained solid for the Giants through the 2011 season, when he graded out with an overall 8.6 mark and a strong 13.6 mark against the run.
The following year, his play began to slip, though his run defense held steady. However, by 2013, whether it was due to injuries, age or a combination of both, Kiwanuka’s overall play took a noticeable turn for the worse.
He began to struggle to defeat solo blocking, and he could neither defend nor set the edge, thereby forcing the opponent’s running backs inward to where the defensive tackles and the linebackers had a chance at minimizing the damage if they were able to shed their respective blocks.
Kiwanuka, whose season ended prematurely due to a knee injury, was released this offseason, despite having one more year remaining on his contract.
The Candidates to Replace Kiwanuka
Between Kiwanuka’s departure and the restocking of the defensive end position, here is the candidate list that the Giants are looking at for that vacant defensive end spot:
|NY Giants' 2015 Defensive Ends (besides Jason Pierre-Paul)|
|Damontre Moore||6’5” / 250 lbs||3|
|Kerry Wynn||6’5” / 264 lbs||2|
|George Selvie||6’4” / 270 lbs||6|
|Owa Odighizuwa||6’3” / 270 lbs||R|
|Cullen Jenkins||6’2” / 305 lbs||12|
|Robert Ayers||6’3” / 275 lbs||7|
|Jordan Stanton||6’4” / 263 lbs||1|
Moore, the Giants’ third-round pick in the 2013 draft, is ideally the position's future. However, he remains the lightest of the candidates, even after telling Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media that he bulked up from 245-249 to 255 pounds.
Even with the added weight (not reflected on the roster sheet distributed by the Giants to the media), Moore is still the lightest of the defensive end group, followed only by Stanton, who spent last year on the practice squad.
Moore, who has flashed as a pass-rusher and who has been solid as a special teams player in his two pro seasons so far, hasn’t had as much success in the limited opportunities he’s received against the run—90 snaps last year and 34 in 2013.
Why the limited snaps? Moore has struggled to anchor against the run, needing to improve his strength.
Unfortunately because of issues with his shoulder, he hasn't really had full offseasons to devote to weightlifting.
Odighizuwa, the Giants’ third-round pick this year, might very well one day evolve into a complete defensive end.
However, he is probably at least a year away from reaching that level, as his start out of the gate has been delayed somewhat because of a sore knee that has limited him in the team drills this spring.
Ayers, entering his second season as a Giant, took over for Kiwanuka last season until he too was knocked out for the season due to a chest-muscle injury.
While Ayers was solid as a pass-rusher, he was inconsistent against the run, finishing with a minus-3.0 grade last season and just 15 tackles in 121 run defense snaps, with four missed tackles, the second-most on the Giants behind Pierre-Paul.
Ayers, sidelined this spring by an ankle sprain suffered in the first OTA, should be good to go for training camp.
Jenkins, the 12-year veteran, has been taking most of his snaps in the OTAs at defensive end what with Pierre-Paul not having signed his franchise tender and with the health-related limitations of Ayers, Moore and Odighizuwa.
As the shortest (6’2”) and heaviest (305 pounds) of the group, there is debate as to whether Jenkins is a full-time 4-3 defensive end.
Selvie, the free-agent acquisition from the Dallas Cowboys, is another strong run-stopper, who last year finished with a 7.8 grade in that area, but received a dismal minus-11.4 grade as a pass-rusher.
Having run through the candidates, the two best run-stoppers of the group who also have some pass-rushing potential are Wynn and Selvie.
Who is the best solution, then?
Why is Wynn, the undrafted free agent out of the University of Richmond, who spent the first 10 games of his rookie season on the inactive list only to receive 192 total snaps on defense the better choice ahead of Selvie, the more experienced veteran—or any of the other candidates not named Pierre-Paul?
Here are three reasons.
More importantly, Wynn makes good use of his hands in keeping blockers off him. He is constantly striking and punching, and in most instances, he rarely lets a blocker latch onto him to neutralize his charge.
Here is an example from the game against Washington, where Wynn, going against tight end Logan Paulsen, used his hands to push Paulsen back into the pocket by consistently swatting the tight end’s hands away.
Wynn might only be entering his second season in the pros, but he plays as disciplined a game as any veteran out there, which speaks well of his maturity.
Whereas the instincts of a young pass-rusher is to wildly charge upfield at the passer, Wynn exercises control and lets things develop before he charges.
On this play, an incomplete pass. Wynn has a wide-open lane to the quarterback.
While most young players probably wouldn’t think twice about running uncontrolled at the quarterback, Wynn takes a few steps forward and then, by watching McCoy’s feet, realizes that the quarterback is going to roll out of the pocket to buy some time.
Because Wynn has remained disciplined, he is able to re-direct and string the quarterback out, as shown in this next screen capture.
This prevents McCoy from turning upfield where, if Wynn isn’t mirroring him, he might pick up a few yards on the play.
By staying with McCoy, Wynn is in a position to make an attempt to bring the quarterback down for a loss.
As he dives at McCoy, Wynn forces the quarterback to throw off-balance, the ball sailing out of bounds.
Wynn, who has received some first-team reps this spring thanks to the shortage at the position, has also put in some solid offseason work in the weight room to get stronger, looking noticeably more muscular up top.
He’s also done a nice job in practice not just playing his responsibilities, but also executing twists and stunts, such as the one that Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media recently took note of. In Monday’s practice Wynn and outside linebacker Devon Kennard, who lined up adjacent to Wynn’s outside shoulder, ran a stunt on the left side that left the offensive line scrambling to pick up the defenders.
“Kerry Wynn works hard and makes plays,” head coach Tom Coughlin told reporters after Monday’s practice. “He is very consistent.”
The Bottom Line
Wynn is by no means a “complete” defensive end just yet.
For as solid as he was against the run, his PFF minus-5.4 pass-rushing grade needs to be briefly discussed.
A few reasons why Wynn most likely didn’t have the success against the pass that he did against the run include a lack of a quick burst off the line and the strength issue he addressed this offseason.
His tackling technique wasn’t always pristine, either—there were a few times where he lunged for a player’s ankles instead of wrapping up around the waist.
The good news is that’s all correctable, as is learning a few new pass-rushing moves, which he’s been working on in the OTAs.
While realistically speaking he should receive serious consideration as a starter, the reality is he probably won’t be more than a rotational defensive end who on occasion moves inside to defensive tackle, where he gained some experience.
Wynn remains a hungry young player who is looking to prove all over again why he belongs in the NFL.
While it's too soon to declare him a potential starter because of not having seen him in pads and full contact drills, it wouldn't be surprising if he does earn that right if he has a strong camp and shows he's made a lot more progress in his areas of deficiency.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. Unless otherwise noted, advanced analytics are from Pro Football Focus.