We look at the team’s reinvented defense
Following the 2015 NFL Season, the New York Giants finished with a second straight 6-10 record, missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, and leading to longtime head coach Tom Coughlin being shown the door after twelve seasons in New York and two Super Bowl victories. Much of the blame for the Giants struggles were rightfully placed on its defensive unit, which finished 30th in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 27.6 points per game. Additionally, the Giants gave up the most yards amongst NFL defenses, giving up a staggering 420.3 yards per game, and also had the fifth-most penalty yards against with 1,077 yards. The Giants defense was also near the bottom of the pack in run defense, finishing 24th with 121.4 yards allowed, while finishing dead last in the league with 298.9 passing yards allowed per game.
As a result, Giants General Manager Jerry Reese headed into the 2015 offseason needing to completely remake his defense. Although the Giants are typically not big players in free agency, Reese through caution to the wind this offseason, giving out $203.75 million in contracts to four defensive free agents, including $149.5 million guaranteed. To shore up the pass rush, Reese gave former Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon a five-year, $85 million dollar contract with $52.5 million guaranteed, the largest contract given to a defensive end in NFL history. This was despite the fact Vernon averaged only seven sacks over the course of his four seasons in Miami. And despite blowing off his fingers in a fireworks accident that limited him to eight games and sack during the 2015 season, Jason Pierre-Paul was brought back to the Giants on a one-year, $10 million dollar contract with $8.5 million guaranteed.
Vernon and Pierre-Paul were only part of the free agent equation for the Giants. To improve up the run defense, Reese brought interior lineman Damon “Snacks” Harrison over from the Jets, signing him to a five-year, $46.25 million dollar contract with $24 million guaranteed. Harrison thrived on stopping the run while with the Jets, finishing the 2015 season with 54 tackles, 49 of which were defensive stops in the run game, and making defensive stops on 18.1% on all run plays on which he was defending. While the Snacks signing was praise, one move that was questioned was signing Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins to a five-year, $62.5 million dollar contract with $28.8 million guaranteed. While Jenkins was a solid cornerback in St. Louis, finishing with three interceptions and sixteen passes defended in 2015, he was not thought of to be the elite cornerback the Giants would be paying him to be.
This season, on the eve of the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs, the Giants are coming off of a 2016 season where they finished 11-5 en route to a Wild Card and number five seed. Despite an offense that regressed from the 2015 season, the key to the Giants playoff run has been their drastically improved defense. While the defense was the 2015 team’s biggest liability, the Giants defense finished 2016 as one of the top-ranked units in the league, finishing second in the league with only 284 total points allowed, or a robust 17.8 points per game. The new look Giants defense also finished tenth in yards allowed at 339.7, and reduced their penalty yards down to 853 for the season. The passing defense improved to 23rd in the league, allowing 251.1 yards per game, while the run defense’s ranking increased all the way to fourth in the league, allowing only 88.6 yards per game.
While credit must be given to All-Pro Safety and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Landon Collins, as well as fellow All-Pro cornerback Dominique Rogers Cromarte, for the Giants turnaround, it is clear that Reese may have had one of the greatest offseason of free agent signings in NFL history. Let’s begin with Damon Harrison, who was named an AP First Team All-Pro as an interior lineman. (On an aside, the fact that Harrison was not named to the Pro Bowl shows what a farce the game is) Harrison, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’s number seven interior lineman, finished the season with forty-nine run stops, ten more than any other defensive tackle. Harrison was also rated by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best-run stopping interior lineman, and finished the year with 2.5 sacks and 86 tackles, a number unheard of for a defensive tackle.
Next up of Reese’s big signings is Olivier Vernon, who was named an AP Second Team All-Pro Edge Rusher. Vernon was a nightmare for opposing offensive lines all season long, finishing with a team-leading 8.5 sacks, as well as 63 tackles. Additionally, Vernon led the team with 17 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits, finishing fourth and ninth in the NFL in each category.
In the secondary, Jenkins was Reese’s big signing, gambling that he would become the shutdown corner the Giants desperately needed. Jenkins stepped up to the challenge, almost always guarding the opposing offense’s best receiver in single coverage, and finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’s eighth best cornerback, as well as an AP Second Team All-Pro Cornerback. Statistically, Jenkins numbers didn’t jump off the page, as he only had 49 tackles and three interceptions; however, he did finish seventh in the league with 18 passes defended.
With the Giants back in the postseason, anchored by an elite defense and with a playoff game at Lambeau Field looming, Giants fans can’t help but think back to their 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl Champions. Yet to get back to this competitive level, Jerry Reese took a huge gamble on spending a quarter of a billion dollars to upgrade his defense in free agency. Although it is only year one of these contracts, with Giants fans anticipating a deep playoff run, in many ways, bringing Vernon, Jenkins, and Harrison has already been money well spent.