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2018 Position Preview: Defensive Line

The Giants defensive line will look a whole lot different in 2018, due in large part to the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Olivier Vernon, Romeo Okwara and Avery Moss are headed to the linebackers’ room. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who spent eight seasons in East Rutherford, was traded in the offseason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Calling the shots will be the Giants new defensive coordinator, James Bettcher. The 40-year-old spent the past three seasons in the same position with the Arizona Cardinals. During his time in Glendale, the Cardinals never finished lower than sixth in the NFL in team defense. From 2015-17, Bettcher’s aggressive 3-4 scheme had the second-highest blitz rate in the NFL.

How will the switch to a 3-4 impact Big Blue’s defensive line? Bettcher says not a whole lot.

“I think if you're a three technique, a defensive tackle, and you line up over a guard and your job is to get off the ball and strike the guy in the V of the neck and press and separate and win in your gap, that's what you do if you're a 4-3 defensive tackle or a 3-4 defensive tackle,” Bettcher said this spring. “That job doesn't change and that job description won't change for our guys. (Damon) "Snacks" (Harrison) up front, a guy that can play off of blocks, can occupy space, can command double teams, can change, really the line scrimmage -- he's going to do those same kind of things in this scheme, that's not going to change for him.”

That’s where we continue our 2018 summer position series. With training camp just about two weeks away, Giants.com today looks at the defensive line. They are coached by Gary Emanuel, who is entering his first season as the Giants defensive line coach. Emanuel is a 37-year coaching veteran, who most recently spent the last six seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. 

DAMON HARRISON

Harrison came to the Giants as a free agent in 2016 after four seasons with the New York Jets. All he did in his first season with the Giants was lead NFL defensive tackles with a career-high 86 tackles (55 solo), a career-high 2.5 sacks, six tackles for loss and a pass defended. The breakout season earned Harrison a spot on the Associated Press 2016 All-Pro Team.

Harrison followed up with another strong year in 2017. His 76 tackles (51 solo) again led NFL defensive tackles. Harrison added 1.5 sacks as well as his first career interception. The eight-year veteran also has experience playing in a 3-4, and says the change won’t affect him much, if at all.

“Obviously, in some sets, it will be different, but it’s no different for the guys in the interior,” Harrison said. “It’s more so for the outside linebackers. Outside linebackers who are still defense ends. So, yeah, I think people just think about it too much, they put too much into it. There’s really no difference at all.”

DALVIN TOMLINSON

The Giants took Tomlinson in Round 2 of the 2017 NFL Draft, and the University of Alabama product immediately made his presence felt. Tomlinson started all 16 games at defensive tackle next to Harrison, logging 588 plays on defense as a rookie. His 50 total tackles (30 solo) was tied for seventh on the team. Tomlinson also added a sack and one tackle for a loss to his stat sheet. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the highest-graded rookie interior lineman of the 2017 season. Now, the 6-foot-3, 317-pounder is learning a new playbook all over again.

“I’m excited for the new scheme we have,” said Tomlinson, who played in a 3-4 with the Crimson Tide. “I’m looking forward to it. It’s a lot of one-gaps. I get to go a lot more and just attack, so I’m pretty excited about it. … [Bettcher] wants to get upfield, make tackles for losses and sacks. Defensive linemen make a lot more plays in this defense.”

KERRY WYNN

The Giants signed Wynn as an undrafted free agent out of Richmond University in 2014, and now the 27-year-old is entering his fifth season with Big Blue. Wynn played in 15 games for the Giants last season and recorded 19 total tackles (14 solo) and his third career sack. Known more as a run-stopper, Wynn received more opportunities at OTAs and minicamp as a stand-up rusher. 

“I think [defensive end] Kerry Wynn has had a really, really good offseason,” Bettcher said during minicamp. “I’m excited to see him in pads.”

ROBERT THOMAS

Thomas, a five-year veteran, is entering his third season with the Giants. A key member of the defensive line rotation, Thomas played in 15 games last season and recorded 16 total tackles. The Oklahoma native adds the kind of depth that Bettcher knows is crucial in the trenches.

“We know it’s going to start with the run game,” Bettcher said. “If we’re going to be good in the run game, it’s going to start with those interior guys up front.

JOSH MAURO

Mauro, 27, signed with the Giants this offseason after four years in Arizona. He reunites with Bettcher, where he was a five-technique end for the Cardinals. Mauro played in 47 career games with 26 starts for Bettcher. He has 75 career tackles and 2.0 sacks. Mauro will miss the first four games of the 2018 season for a violation of the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances.

B.J. HILL

The Giants drafted the 6-foot-3, 311-pounder with the 69th selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. The North Carolina State product showed plenty of versatility for the Wolfpack, as illustrated by his 23.5 tackles for loss and 8.0 career sacks in four seasons as a starter. Hill has been a quick study since his arrival to East Rutherford. By the end of Giants mandatory minicamp, Hill was running with the first-team defense alongside Harrison and Tomlinson on the line.

“They just said to come and work hard every day and give it all, and don’t leave anything on the field,” Hill said. “What I do is practice hard and just listen to them because they’re going to give me knowledge to defeat blockers, get to the quarterback, get to the running back, and be successful.” 

“He [Hill] can play,” Harrison said during mandatory minicamp. “He can play and that’s the first thing our defensive line coach [Gary Emanuel] told me when I got here. He said, ‘You’re going to love 95.’ He said, ‘He can play.’ So, I got out here and I’ve been watching him. He’s strong and he’s got some wiggle to him and he has some move to him. So, that’s somebody else who I think with some time and a little more experience will be a dominant player in this league, as well as Dalvin Tomlinson, who I think will take the next step this year.”

RJ MCINTOSH

Two rounds after taking Hill, the Giants drafted McIntosh with pick 139 in the 5th round of this year’s draft. A two-year starter at Miami, McIntosh racked up 103 tackles, 23.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble and nine passes defensed in 31 games (26 starts). He picked up second-team All-ACC honors in 2017. McIntosh was sidelined throughout spring practices due to a medical issue.

A.J. FRANCIS

The Giants signed Francis, a six-year veteran, this offseason after he was waived by the Washington Redskins. The 6-foot-5, 337-pound defensive tackle played career-highs of six games and 164 defensive snaps for his hometown team last season. His 18 total tackles was also a career high. Francis has also spent time with Miami, New England, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

At the University of Maryland, Francis played in 49 games with 35 starts and finished his career with 149 tackles (19.5 for loss) and 9.5 sacks. He was a three-time Academic All-ACC selection.

KRISTJAN SOKOLI

The Giants signed Sokoli to their practice squad last December. The 26-year-old was taken by the Seahawks with the 214th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Bloomfield, New Jersey native has also had stints in Indianapolis and New Orleans. Sokoli played his college ball at the University of Buffalo.

JOSH BANKS

Banks signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest University last season. At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, Banks is a smaller but very mobile defensive tackle. He was placed on injured reserve right before the start of the regular season last year. The 24-year-old has hit the ground running the spring, and was very active throughout OTAs and minicamp.

TYRELL CHAVIS

The third rookie of the group, Chavis signed with the Giants this year as an undrafted free agent. Chavis was a college teammate of Saquon Barkley at Penn State, as is another undrafted rookie free agent, cornerback Grant Haley. The Richmond native appeared in 27 games the last two seasons for the Nittany Lions, totaling 31 sacks and 3.5 tackles during his career. Chavis was a member of the 2016 Big Ten championship and 2017 Fiesta Bowl championship teams.

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