The Dallas Cowboys and the the New York Giants will battle it out in Week 1 of the 2016 schedule. Since both teams reside in the NFC East, this is an early clash of rivals looking to get a leg up on the playoff chase. Let's take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of a defense that most Cowboys fans are very well acquainted with.
Last season the Giants had one of the worst defenses in the league so this offseason they spent north of $190 million in free agency, of which more than $100 million is guaranteed, as well as the tenth-overall pick in the draft to upgrade this side of the ball. On paper the Giants defense looks formidable but as history shows, football isn’t played on paper and often times exorbitant free agency spending does not produce the desired return on investment.
Two of the biggest free agent additions come in the form of defensive end Olivier Vernon from the Miami Dolphins and defensive tackle Damon Harrison from the New York Jets. Despite only 29 career sacks over four seasons the Giants made Vernon one of the highest-paid defensive linemen in the league, signing him to a deal with more guaranteed money than J.J. Watt. The wisdom of this can be questioned but there is no questioning that Vernon is a very good player, both against the run and rushing the passer. He gave Tyron Smith fits at times last year, even recording a sack against the All-Pro left tackle. Harrison, all 340+ lbs. of him, has been one of the top run-stuffing defensive linemen in the league over the last few years with the Jets, although he will be switching from a 3-4 to 4-3. He is strictly a two-down player as he does not provide much, if anything, in the way of pass rush.
There is no question that the Giants have added two players that have been excellent defensive linemen in the NFL up to this point in their careers, but again, funny things happen when a free agent switches teams and schemes, and goes from making less than a million per year on a rookie contract to making upwards of $10+ million a year with $25-$50 million guaranteed.
Elsewhere on the defensive line are two familiar faces in end Jason Pierre-Paul and tackle Johnathan Hankins. Pierre-Paul once seemed to be a potential future Hall of Famer but his career has been up and down since his breakout year in 2011. His career plateaued when he was forced to miss half of the 2015 season after losing part of his right hand in a fireworks accident last Fourth of July. Pierre-Paul is still someone who must be accounted for but he is no longer the game-wrecker that he used to be, although it is important to keep in mind that he usually saves his best performances for the Cowboys. Hankins is a stout fourth-year player out of Ohio State who looked to be on the path to stardom with seven sacks in 2014, however that season has been sandwiched by two injury-plagued seasons where he failed to record a sack. Hankins is a load in the middle who can stuff the run while providing more pass-rush than his 320 lb. frame would indicate, and between him and Harrison the Cowboys could find it difficult at times to run inside. Behind the starters the Giants don’t have much in the way of depth with a grand total of 1.5 career sacks between Jay Bromley, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Romeo Okwara, Kerry Wynn and Robert Thomas.
The weak link of the defense may be the linebackers. Two starters return from 2015 in Devon Kennard on the strong side and Jonathan Casillas on the weak side, while the team went out and signed free agent Kelvin Sheppard from the Dolphins to play the middle. Sheppard and Casillas are both journeymen types that have bounced around the league while Kennard was a fifth-round pick by the Giants in 2014. Casillas is the team’s best linebacker after a career year in 2015, his first in New York, but he has been injury prone and recently injured his ribs in the Giants dress rehearsal. Sheppard is also coming off a career year in 2015 with Miami although he has generally been a replacement-level player throughout his career. Kennard is a former defensive end out of Southern Cal who can bring some pass rush off the edge, but he too has been an injury prone and inconsistent player through his first two years in the league. There is not much behind the starters as names like Mark Herzlich and former Redskins linebacker Keenan Robinson fill out the depth chart.
The third major free agent signing on this side of the ball was former Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. This signing gives the Giants a pair of ball-hawking corners in Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who have combined for 10 interceptions over the last two seasons, although Jenkins in particular has been known to give up big plays when gambling for interceptions. The Giants also drafted Ohio State corner Eli Apple with the tenth-overall pick, a curious selection given that Apple apparently struggles to play in the slot, while Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie are primarily outside corners. In response to that the team went out and signed Leon Hall, a veteran who can play the slot, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals.
At safety the Giants plan to start 2015 second-round pick Landon Collins out of Alabama and rookie third-round pick Darian Thompson out of Boise State. Collins had a respectable rookie season, although he lacks speed, struggles in deep coverage and looks strictly like a box safety/enforcer type. On the other hand Thompson was a ball-hawk at Boise State but also lacks speed, running a 4.69 at the Combine, and he was known for giving up big plays in college while not being the best tackler. To make matters worse, Thompson may not be ready for Week 1 due to a shoulder injury sustained two weeks ago. Thompson took part in a limited practice while wearing a harness on Monday, and if he cannot go he will be replaced by a clear liability in Nat Berhe.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- Weak linebackers and safeties could create opportunities for big plays at the 2nd and 3rd levels of the defense
- Gambling cornerbacks could result in big plays to Dez Bryant (see: 68-yard touchdown against Janoris Jenkins in 2014)
- Lack of defensive line depth could result in worn down starters against a strong Cowboys offensive line
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Potentially dynamic edge rushers
- Stout starting defensive tackles vs. the run
- Ball-hawking cornerbacks could be a concern with a young quarterback under center
Reliable kicker Josh Brown is suspended for the first game of the season and replaced by former Houston Texans kicker Randy Bullock. In his three years with the Giants Brown has converted between 88-93% of his fields goals, while Bullock has converted only about 80% of his attempts in his four seasons in the league.
Former Cowboy Dwayne Harris is a serious threat as a punt and kick returner, as evidenced by his kickoff return for a touchdown in New York last year against the Cowboys that sealed the game.