Giants roster breakdown: One pre-training camp thought on every player on defense

Last week, I shared one thought on every member of the Giants’ offense. Today, I’ll do the same with every member of the defense as we gear up for the start of training camp next week.

• DL Dexter Lawrence: In Lawrence’s first three seasons, he aligned at nose tackle on 14.4 percent of his snaps. In his breakout 2022 season, he aligned at nose tackle on 65.2 percent of his snaps. New defensive line coach Andre Patterson surely made technique changes that unlocked Lawrence’s game-wrecking ability. But Patterson’s most important adjustment was simply moving the 6-foot-4, 342-pound Lawrence across from opposing centers and allowing him to use his size to dominate.

• DL Leonard Williams: It will be interesting to see how the Giants manage Williams’ $32.3 million cap hit, which is the third highest in the league at any position. The team has three options.

The Giants could do nothing, which would keep the full hit on this year’s cap; then they could move on when his contract expires, with a $6 million dead money charge in 2024 from a void year. Or, they could restructure his contract, pushing as much as $8.5 million into the 2024 void year (or more if they tack on additional void years). Or, they could ask him to take a pay cut from his $18 million salary. It’s hard to envision any team willing to pay Williams more than $12 million for this season if he was cut close to Week 1, so the Giants could reasonably request a $5 million pay cut. But that would be a cold move, and Williams could call their bluff and demand his release if they choose that approach.


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• DL A’Shawn Robinson: Robinson tore his meniscus in Week 11 last season, which was particularly bad timing since he was in the final year of his contract. Not surprisingly, Robinson’s free-agent market was slow to develop. The 28-year-old visited the Giants on March 20, but didn’t sign with the team for over a month. Robinson, who worked on the side with trainers during the spring, signed a one-year, $5 million contract with $4 million guaranteed. He can earn another $3 million in incentives based on playing time and team performance.

• DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches: Upgrading the run defense was one of general manager Joe Schoen’s top priorities this offseason. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that signing Nunez-Roches to a three-year, $12 million contract was one of Schoen’s first moves in free agency. Nunez-Roches has built a reputation as a stout run defender during his eight-year career. His stats won’t jump out in the box score, but the expectation is that improved defensive tackle depth will boost a run defense that ranked 27th in the league last season.

• DL DJ Davidson: Davidson’s age is a mystery. He’s listed as 23 years old on the Giants’ official roster, but he’s listed as 25 everywhere else. It seems that 25 is accurate based on the bio in Dane Brugler’s 2022 draft guide, as Davidson was six years removed from high school when the Giants selected him in the fifth-round of last year’s draft.

• DL Jordon Riley: Riley had a well-traveled college career. The North Carolina native spent two years at North Carolina, one year at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, two years at Nebraska and one year at Oregon. That winding six-year journey to the NFL ended when the Giants took Riley in the seventh round of this year’s draft.

• DL Ryder Anderson: Patterson said in the spring that Anderson is up to 305 pounds. He’s listed at 276 pounds on the Giants’ roster, so that’s a substantial bump from his rookie season. Anderson had two sacks in limited action last season, but it was evident he needed to get stronger to defend the run. Perhaps the added weight will help his bid to win a backup job.

• DL Vernon Butler: Butler signed with the Giants’ practice squad in Week 11 and remained there for the rest of last season, getting elevated for one game. The Giants brought the former Bill back on a futures deal, so they clearly like the 29-year-old. Butler, who missed the spring with an undisclosed injury, will need to beat out a group of younger players for a roster spot.

• DL Kobe Smith: The timing of Smith’s recent signing to a minimum contract was unusual, as the Giants inked him the day after the offseason program wrapped up. But the 25-year-old, who has yet to appear in a game in three NFL seasons, has been on the Giants’ radar for a while, as he tried out for the team during minicamp in 2022.

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Giants outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux should pile up more sacks in his second season in New York. But maybe not as many as you think.  (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

• OLB Kayvon Thibodeaux: It’s fair to expect Thibodeaux to have more than four sacks in his second season. But defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s track record suggests Thibodeaux may never rank among the league leaders in sacks.

Martindale has never had a player with double-digit sacks in five seasons as a DC. And that’s not due to a lack of pass-rushing talent. Matt Judon has 28 sacks with the Patriots in the two seasons since leaving Baltimore. Za’Darius Smith has averaged 12 sacks in his three healthy seasons since leaving Baltimore. Perhaps Thibodeaux will break this trend, but Martindale’s defense is designed to spread sacks around — the Giants boasted an NFL-high 19 players with a sack last season.



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• OLB Azeez Ojulari: Ojulari has plenty of incentive to get back on the field after an injury-plagued 2022 season. With 13.5 sacks in 24 games over his first two seasons, Ojulari could solidify his status as a formidable pass rusher if he’s healthy and productive this season. That could lead to a lucrative second contract.

But in the short-term, Ojulari needs to be on the field this season to earn a raise in the final season of his rookie contract. If Ojulari plays at least 60 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps this season, his 2024 salary will increase from $1.6 million to around $3 million due to the NFL’s proven performance escalator for players not drafted in the first round.

• OLB Jihad Ward: Martindale said last season, “Wherever I’m at, I hope I have Jihad Ward with me.” So it wasn’t a surprise when the Giants re-signed the Martindale favorite to a one-year, $1.5 million contract this offseason. Ward brings a unique energy to the locker room, and he’s a solid run defender, but the Giants should hope the 29-year-old plays less than the 58 percent of the snaps he logged last season.

• OLB Oshane Ximines: From the 2011 through 2018 draft classes, the Giants only re-signed two players to second contracts: wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. That drought ended this year with 2019 picks Ximines, Daniel Jones, Dexter Lawrence and Darius Slayton signing second contracts. The Ximines re-signing is the biggest surprise of that group, even though he only got a one-year minimum contract. Ximines has just two sacks in the three years since recording four sacks as a rookie, and his playing time dipped as last season progressed despite Ojulari missing so much time.

• OLB Tomon Fox: Fox was the lone undrafted rookie to make the Giants’ roster to start last season. He appeared in 16 games as a rotational edge defender. With the Giants essentially bringing back the same outside linebacker group, Fox could have an opportunity for a bigger role if he develops.

• OLB Elerson Smith: I tabbed Smith as a sleeper breakout player last summer. But then the season followed a similar script, as he missed 12 games due to foot and Achilles injuries. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Smith has intriguing traits, but he hasn’t been on the field enough in his first two seasons to show them.

• OLB Habakkuk Baldonado: Born and raised in Rome, Italy, Baldonado didn’t start playing football seriously until he was 16. Showing immediate potential, Baldonado moved to Clearwater, Fla., for his senior year of high school to play football. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Baldonado got onto the recruiting scene late and accepted a scholarship offer to Pitt, where he spent five years before signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent this spring.

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Linebacker Bobby Okereke should provide a big boost to the Giants’ run defense. (Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

• ILB Bobby Okereke: Okereke was overshadowed early in his career in Indianapolis by All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard. But Okereke broke out last season when an injured Leonard was limited to three games. Okereke set career-highs with 151 tackles and six tackles for loss. He also tied career-highs with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The well-timed breakout season came during the final year of Okereke’s rookie contract, and he parlayed that production into a four-year, $40 million contract, which ties for ninth among linebackers in average annual value.



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• ILB Jarrad Davis: Davis signed with the Giants in Week 17 last season and immediately started the regular season finale and both playoff games. The 28-year-old was re-signed to a minimum contract after the season and was working with the first-team defense before missing the team’s two-day minicamp in June. Davis reportedly suffered a knee injury, and he was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday. Davis had provided an experienced option for the spot next to Okereke, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Giants sign a veteran to take his spot.

• ILB Darrian Beavers: Beavers’ body has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past eight years. A 160-pound wide receiver/safety as a junior at Colerain (Ohio) High, he shot up to 200 pounds by the time he reported to UConn as a linebacker/safety hybrid in 2017. Beavers weighed 220 pounds as a sophomore defensive end before hitting 235 pounds when he transferred to Cincinnati in 2019. He bulked up to around 265 pounds during his final year at Cincinnati in 2021 so he could handle his responsibilities on the edge in addition to his primary role at weak side linebacker.

Beavers said during training camp last year that he was at his natural weight of 245 pounds, and he told NJ Advance Media this spring that he’s at 243 pounds after spending most of the past year rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered in the Giants’ second preseason game. Beavers is expected to be cleared for the start of training camp, and Davis’ injury cleared the path for the 2022 sixth-round pick to claim the starting job next to Okereke.

• ILB Micah McFadden: Davis’ injury doesn’t clear a path to the starting lineup for McFadden, because the 2022 fifth-round pick is the backup at Okereke’s spot. It’s possible Giants coaches could shift Okereke to the other inside linebacker spot if McFadden delivers a strong training camp, but he has to bounce back after being a healthy scratch for both playoff games last season.

• ILB Carter Coughlin: Coughlin tied for fourth in the NFL with 392 special teams snaps last season, according to TruMedia. He laid big hits in kickoff coverage, including a tone-setting forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the Giants’ Week 2 win over the Panthers. Coughlin, who played just six snaps on defense last season, is the type of player who could be most negatively impacted by the NFL’s new rule that awards the ball at the 25-yard line when a returner catches the ball anywhere inside the 25.

• ILB Cam Brown: Brown tied Coughlin in special teams snaps last season and is in the same exact position as a late-round 2020 draft pick hoping to stick on the roster. Coughlin has shown more at linebacker, while Brown is a more dynamic athlete on special teams, so it will be an interesting decision if they wind up battling for one roster spot.

• ILB Dyontae Johnson: The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Johnson looks the part of an NFL linebacker. The key for Johnson to make the roster as an undrafted rookie will be to impress on special teams in the preseason to unseat Coughlin and/or Brown from their roles.



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• ILB Troy Brown: Brown starred at Central Michigan for four years, earning first-team All-MAC honors in his final three seasons. Brown made a step up in competition for his final college season, transferring to Ole Miss, where he made 12 starts and led the team in tackles. It will be an uphill climb for the undrafted rookie to make the roster, but the lack of linebacker depth gives him a shot.

• CB Adoree’ Jackson: Jackson’s $19.1 million cap hit is the second highest among cornerbacks in the league. He’s been a quality corner when on the field — his coverage was instrumental in limiting Vikings superstar Justin Jefferson to seven catches for 47 yards and no touchdowns in the playoffs — but the problem is Jackson hasn’t been on the field enough. He has missed 29 games over the past four seasons, including 11 games in his two seasons in New York. That injury history likely has made the Giants apprehensive about extending the 27-year-old’s contract.

• CB Deonte Banks: Banks was one of five cornerbacks selected in the top 32 picks of this year’s draft. Among that group, Banks tied for the fastest 40-yard dash, had the highest vertical jump and had the longest broad jump. With those athletic traits in a 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, it’s easy to see why Martindale was so excited by Banks’ selection.

• CB Cor’Dale Flott: Flott finished his rookie on a high note, with a key pass break-up on a third-down late in the Giants’ playoff win over the Vikings. But Flott had only been pressed into that late-game action because of an injury, and he didn’t play any defensive snaps in the following week’s loss to the Eagles. The 2022 third-round pick experienced ups and downs during his rookie season, but there’s optimism the 21-year-old will continue to develop. After mostly playing outside last season, Flott will compete with Darnay Holmes for the slot cornerback job.

• CB Darnay Holmes: Holmes is likely in an all-or-nothing battle for the starting slot cornerback job. If Holmes proves to be the best option this summer, the Giants will have to pay him the $2.7 million salary he earned from the NFL’s proven performance escalator, which results in fourth-year raises for players not picked in the first round. But if Holmes loses the slot job, it’s hard to see the Giants carrying a $2.7 million backup with no special teams value. Regardless of the slot competition, it’s possible the Giants squeeze Holmes for a pay cut before Week 1 like they did with wide receiver Darius Slayton last year.

• CB Aaron Robinson: Robinson opened last season as the starter opposite Jackson, but he was knocked out for two weeks by appendicitis. In his first game back, Robinson tore his ACL and MCL. He was on the side with trainers during the spring, and it’s not known if he’ll be ready for the start of training camp. When healthy, the 2021 third-round pick could be a dark horse candidate for the slot corner job.

• CB Tre Hawkins: Hawkins was projected as an undrafted free agent by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, but the Giants took the Old Dominion product in the sixth round of this year’s draft. Hawkins’ selection was likely influenced by the fact that the Colts, who were the only other team to host the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder on a pre-draft visit, had three picks between the Giants’ sixth- and seventh-round picks. The Giants clearly didn’t want to risk losing the potential diamond in the rough.

• CB Amani Oruwariye: The question is if 2021 or 2022 is the real version of Oruwariye. In 2021, Oruwariye ranked third in the NFL with six interceptions. In 2022, a case could be made that he was the worst cornerback in the NFL. His 30.0 PFF grade was the lowest of 118 cornerbacks rated (13.7 lower than any other corner); his 11 penalties were the most of any cornerback in the league, and he was a healthy scratch at times for a Lions defense that was among the worst in the NFL against the pass. That the Giants signed the 27-year-old to a one-year minimum contract with just $52,500 guaranteed suggests the league believes his real talent is closer to 2022 than 2021.

• CB Rodarius Williams: It’s a bit surprising Williams has survived this long. A sixth-round pick in 2021, Williams was inherited by the new regime while recovering from a torn ACL last offseason. The injury sidelined him for the first nine games of last season, but he made an impact in his second game back, intercepting Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott while playing 50 snaps on Thanksgiving. But Williams didn’t play a snap the following week, tweeted his displeasure after the game and was a healthy scratch for the next four weeks before playing in the regular-season finale when the starters were rested. There’s always a need for bodies at corner, and Williams is cheap ($983,284 cap hit), so it makes sense to keep him around for camp.

• CB Zyon Gilbert: Gilbert was No. 35 on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks” list in 2021, and he validated that ranking with a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot-6 broad jump at Florida Atlantic’s pro day last spring. He would have tied for the 13th-fastest 40 time among corners at the combine, while ranking second in the vertical jump and first in the broad jump. The 6-foot-1, 182-pound slot corner saw action in three games as a rookie, including a start in the Giants’ Week 13 tie with Washington.

• CB Gemon Green: A cornerback during his five years at Michigan, Green got reps at safety early in the spring when the Giants were shorthanded at the position. Green shifted back to corner during minicamp, but the positional versatility could benefit the undrafted rookie.



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• CB Darren Evans: Evans was re-signed on Tuesday, replacing cornerback Leonard Johnson, who was waived injured. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of LSU, Evans was waived on cut day last year. He was immediately signed to the practice squad and cut the next day. Evans spent time on the Raiders’ practice squad last season.

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Giants safety Xavier McKinney is hoping to parlay a big 2023 season into huge payday. (Rich Schultz / Getty Images)

• S Xavier McKinney: McKinney has ditched the protective splint he wore on his left hand late last season after returning from an ATV accident that resulted in three broken fingers. But McKinney’s ring and middle fingers were still taped together during the spring in a standard glove. Regardless of any residual effects of the injury, McKinney has insisted there will be no impact on his play. The 2020 second-round pick will be gunning for a big contract as he enters the final season of his rookie deal. He geared up by switching in January to super-agent David Mulugheta, who reps some of the highest-paid safeties in the league.

• S Jason Pinnock: A cornerback at Pitt, Pinnock posted impressive athletic testing numbers before the 2021 draft. His 39.5-inch vertical leap ranked sixth among cornerbacks, his 10-foot-8 broad jump tied for 11th, his short shuttle tied for sixth and his three-cone drill tied for 11th. Those numbers would have been at or near the top of the charts for safeties, and Pinnock has since transitioned to that position. His athleticism was evident in five starts in place of McKinney last season, but it was also clear he was still adjusting to a new position.

• S Nick McCloud: McCloud could fill a Swiss Army knife role similar to what Julian Love had before becoming a full-time starting safety in 2022. It was clear that the coaching staff liked McCloud, a post-cut day waiver claim by the Bills, based on the variety of roles he played last season — outside corner, slot corner, safety. A full-time shift to safety this spring seems like a move to position him for an even bigger role this season.

• S Dane Belton: Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for a football player to manage a collarbone injury. Belton broke his collarbone during the first week of training camp last year, had surgery and returned in Week 2. He immediately aggravated the injury, then had another setback in Week 10, and his playing time plummeted down the stretch. Belton underwent two surgeries after the season — one to install a plate in his collarbone and one on his left shoulder. Belton worked on the side during the spring, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of camp so he can compete for the starting spot next to McKinney.



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• S Bobby McCain: McCain had the best practice performance of any player during the spring, delivering an end-zone interception of Daniel Jones, a pick-six of Tyrod Taylor and another pass break-up on the first day of minicamp. With 87 career starts, McCain provides a veteran option next to McKinney amid a group of unproven young safeties.

• S Gervarrius Owens: Owens had a lot of stops and starts during his college career. He initially committed to Memphis, but flipped to Kansas State on signing day in 2017. Owens didn’t report to K-State’s football team and landed at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, where he was a juco All-American in 2018. He then signed with Minnesota, but flipped to Houston before enrolling. Things solidified at Houston, where Owens was a four-year starter before being a seventh-round pick by the Giants this year.

• S Trenton Thompson: Thompson was a special teams standout at San Diego State before signing with the Giants as an undrafted rookie last year. Developing into a special teams stud figures to be Thompson’s avenue to earning a roster spot after spending last season on the practice squad.

• S Alex Cook: Cook was one of a handful of defensive players with a green dot on their helmets during the spring, which signifies that they’re receiving the play calls from Martindale. Players on each unit wore the green dot, with Cook handling the responsibility for the third-team alongside Dyontae Johnson.

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Kicker Graham Gano and long snapper Casey Kreiter are locks to make the Giants’ 53-man roster. (Robert Deutsch / USA Today)

• K Graham Gano: Gano has been one of the best kickers in the NFL since signing with the Giants in 2020. He’s made 91.8 percent of his field goals over the past three seasons, which ranks third among kickers with at least 80 attempts. What makes Gano’s accuracy so impressive is that he ranks fourth in 50-plus yard attempts over that stretch. His 80 percent accuracy on those long-range kicks ranks fifth among kickers with at least 15 attempts.

• P Jamie Gillan: Nothing about Gillan’s stats suggest the Giants should have re-signed him to a two-year, $4 million contract, which is tied for 13th among punters in average annual value. Gillan ranked 19th in yards per punt, 26th in net yards per punt, 21st in percentage of punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and 31st in touchback percentage. But the Giants clearly believe in the powerful 26-year-old’s potential, plus he has value as Gano’s holder. With improved gunner play this season, the hope is there will be more punts downed inside the 20 and fewer touchbacks.

• LS Casey Kreiter: Kreiter re-signed with the Giants on a one-year, $1.3 million contract this offseason. That marked the eighth consecutive one-year minimum contract for the 32-year-old Kreiter, who has stuck with the Giants for four years.

• LS Cam Lyons: Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey eliminated any suspense about a potential long-snapper competition when he explained Lyons’ signing as an undrafted free agent as a way to take some of the load off of Kreiter during the offseason. Lyons’ goal during the preseason will be to show enough to earn a job with another team, or at least to get on the shortlist of emergency long snapper options.

(Top photo of Giants defense: Elsa / Getty Images)

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