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30 Questions in 30 Days: D-Line rotation prediction

The New York Giants are set to report to training camp on July 25, and Giants.com is counting down the summer break with 30 questions in 30 days. Here is today's question:

26. How will the defensive line rotation work in James Bettcher's 3-4 scheme?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a complicated question since the defense is so variable, and the pieces of the line in your standard 3-4 defense are so much different than what they will look like in a four-man line in sub-packages with extra defensive backs and fewer linebackers on the field. I think your standard 3-4 defensive line will primarily feature Damon Harrison, B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson, Kerry Wynn and Josh Mauro with opportunities for others to battle their way in. 

Once in a four-man front, the aforementioned players will kick inside with edge rushers (outside linebackers in base) like Olivier Vernon, Kareem Martin, Lorenzo Carter, Romeo Okwara, and Jordan Williams taking the defensive end spots. Kareem Martin and Kerry Wynn can bounce between both groups in sub package. It isn't about defensive ends and defensive tackles anymore. In this new defense you should really classify guys as interior defensive linemen or edge rushers.

DAN SALOMONE: I'm surprised the defensive coordinator didn't divulge his rotation plans publicly during minicamp. I'm sure the Jaguars weren't listening. But seriously, what you're going to see is a bunch of guys rolling in and out throughout the course of the game. General manager Dave Gettleman would carry 53 defensive linemen on the roster if he thought they were the best 53 players. His vision, much like what those reigning Super Bowl champions have built down the Turnpike, is to use as many as possible to keep them as fresh as possible for the fourth quarter. That's where games are decided. 

"The problem you get into, and I've seen it a number of times, you have a really good 11 or 12 guys and you don't have quality depth behind them," Gettleman said after drafting defensive tackles in the third and fifth rounds. "What happens is the coaches, and rightly so, don't want to put in the backups that aren't very good. Okay? So, what happens is, guys end up playing 95-98 percent. In the fourth quarter, their tongues are hanging out. They are gassed. Let me tell you something right now, you see teams that consistently blow fourth-quarter leads, obviously that's on the defense, I promise you they've got no depth. They've got no depth. You have to have quality depth. This is not about here or here, here, here. And I'll tell you this: you've got a powerful defensive line and you can get pressure with four, you and I can play back there."

LANCE MEDOW: If there's any job that's a lock on the defensive line, it's Damon Harrison at nose tackle. Outside of Snacks, just about every other job is up for grabs. I think James Bettcher will utilize Dalvin Tomlinson at one end spot and you'll also see B.J. Hill, Robert Thomas and Kerry Wynn in the mix on the outside. Wynn had a very strong spring and, given he's solid against the run, he can easily play on early downs. When Josh Mauro returns from his four-game suspension, he'll be another player who will rotate in at defensive end. The other thing to keep in mind is that even though Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin are now linebackers in the base defense, they'll come down to the line at times just as Chandler Jones did in Arizona.

27. Which player are you most excited to see once the pads come on?

JOHN SCHMEELK: The rookie linemen are very obvious answers here, especially Will Hernandez and B.J. Hill. I saw Hernandez up close in pads at the Senior Bowl, however, so I know what he looks like when playing real football. I am very excited to see Hill as well, but I am going to go with Ereck Flowers instead. It is essential he plays well at right tackle this season, a position he hasn't played since he was there for four games as a freshman at Miami in 2012. I want to see him in one-on-ones against Kareem Martin, Lorenzo Carter and even Olivier Vernon. Pass protection is just as important at right tackle as it is at left tackle in the modern NFL. Flowers will have to block guys like DeMarcus Lawrence, Brandon Graham, Ryan Kerrigan, and J.J. Watt this season. The Giants need him to do it well.

DAN SALOMONE: I'm going with defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison not because we need to find out what he brings to the table – the whole league already knows that – but because of the players he will go up against. Snacks has made it clear he is not going to give an inch to the rookies, even top picks like running back Saquon Barkley and guard Will Hernandez.

"The guy can play, man," Harrison said earlier this month of Barkley. "'Saquad', that's what they call him, or something like that. I'm excited to get out there in training camp, so I can hit his ass [laughs]. See what he's made of. I told him, it's not Penn State. He's not going up against [defensive tackle] Josh Banks at Wake Forest. But no, the guy's explosive, you can see how they will use him in the offense, which will be to our benefit."

That mindset took Snacks from an undrafted rookie out of William Penn to the best run-stuffer in the league, and I can't wait to see the matchups up front with Hernandez trying to pave the way for Barkley. The hope is that both sides make each other better and tougher – if that's possible. 

LANCE MEDOW: Without pads on, this year's second-round pick Will Hernandez is quite a presence.  He stands 6-2 and weighs 327 pounds.  You can't miss his physical frame.  From what I've seen during the offseason program, I think it's safe to say Hernandez is itching to put the pads on and I can't think of a stronger candidate to top the list of players I'm looking forward to seeing battle in the trenches against the Giants' defensive line than the former UTEP standout.

28. Who is your sleeper player to watch?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I'm going with a deep sleeper with Josh Banks. Banks is a smaller but very mobile 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest last year. He was placed on injured reserve right before the start of the regular season and has hit the ground running this spring. Even though there aren't any pads, his activity level was obvious and he was often exactly where James Bettcher wants his defensive linemen -- in the backfield. He might not be big enough to play nose tackle in Bettcher's 3-4 scheme, but he should be fine as a defensive end. These days the league is far more interested in mobile defensive linemen than your traditional space eaters. 

DAN SALOMONE: Curtis Riley is a name you should get familiar with heading into training camp. He is a fourth-year pro making the transition from corner to safety, a position the Giants took a good look at with Landon Collins limited this spring as he recovered from a second surgery on the arm he fractured last Christmas Eve in Arizona. Riley, who spent time on and off the Titans' practice squad and has appeared in 11 career games, lined up with the first team next to Andrew Adams for much of the spring. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher likes Riley's feet, hips and range stemming from his corner skillset, but he was also impressed with how he picked up the new position in a defense known for its many formations. 

"Some of the checks and the communication and one minute you're in the post, the next minute you're down, or you're playing in the half field, or you're blitzing off the edge and some of the different duties that our safeties have to handle here -- he's done a really nice job with that," Bettcher said. "So I'm excited for him, getting to training camp just like all these guys, and he's competing his butt off with a group of guys that I've really seen grow over these last two months."

General manager Dave Gettleman is known for finding diamonds in the rough, but everyone usually associates that with hog mollies like Shaun O'Hara and Andrew Norwell. He can find defensive backs, too. 

LANCE MEDOW: Behind Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard every wide receiver job is very much up for grabs heading into training camp. That's why I'd keep close tabs on Hunter Sharp. He was signed off the Broncos' practice squad in December and wound up catching a touchdown in Week 17 against the Redskins. Sharp took advantage of his additional reps during the offseason program and was one of the consistent playmakers in practices. If his production translates to training camp and the preseason, I think he has a legitimate shot to make the team.

29. Who will be the top three tacklers on the team?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Alec Ogletree and Landon Collins are shoo-ins here. If they aren't the top two tacklers, either something strange happened or one of them suffered some sort of injury. Last year, for example, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Tyrann Matthieu were the top two tacklers for the Cardinals followed by Deone Bucannon and Budda Baker. The third leading tackler for the Giants will probably be either B.J. Goodson, the second inside off-ball linebacker, or Damon Harrison. Usually nose tackles don't rack up tackling numbers, but Harrison has done just that the last two years as a 4-3 DT with 76 and 86 in 2017 and 2016, respectively. He had 72 in his final year with the Jets as a 3-4 nose tackle. Olivier Vernon is a sleeper to watch here as well.

DAN SALOMONE: Newcomer and "defensive quarterback" Alec Ogletree has been a lock for well over 100 tackles when he plays all 16 games in a season. You can mark him down as the leader, but two-time Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins won't be too far behind in what would be his first season not leading the Giants in that department. With Ogletree roaming sideline to sideline, Collins will be free to make plays elsewhere in James Bettcher's scheme. That leaves the matter of third place. I think you have to look at B.J. Goodson. The third-year pro will be lining up next to Ogletree as an inside linebacker and he should rack up the tackles with guys like Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill clearing the way in front.

LANCE MEDOW: Landon Collins has led the Giants in tackles in each of his first three seasons in the league and, given how he'll likely be moving around a lot in James Bettcher's new scheme, I don't see that trend ending. I think Alec Ogletree will finish second and Damon Harrison will round out the top three. In each of Snacks' first two seasons with New York, he's finished in the top three on the team in tackles.

30. How many touches do you think Saquon Barkley will average per game?

JOHN SCHMEELK: 23 -- Oh, you want to know why? Fine. I broke this down specifically to around 18 carries per game and five catches in the passing game. You can throw in a handful of kickoff returns throughout the season as well. I think Barkley is going to play the predominant number of running back snaps this year (75 percent or more), but not all of them. Pat Shurmur has said a number of times that "it takes a village" at the running back position in the NFL. Barkley is easily the best third down back on the roster so I would assume he gets all of those snaps. He is not a short yardage back that is comfortable lowering his shoulder and pushing a pile (he left his feet and went over the top a lot in short yardage situations in college) so I think an easy way to give him a break is to use Jonathan Stewart in short yardage. I would also expect to see Stewart, and even Wayne Gallman on some first or second down situations.

DAN SALOMONE: I think everyone will agree on the mid-20s average, but whatever the actual number turns out to be, it is going to be a lot. That's my guesstimate -- a lot of carries, a lot of catches. They won't be for short distances either. He can break the long runs as well as catch deep passes on wheel routes. Head coach and offensive architect Pat Shurmur has to be just itching to tap into the season and let him go full speed. I talked about this in last week's Fact or Fiction; the reception numbers for running backs were pretty crazy last season. Le'Veon Bell had 85, Alvin Kamara had 81, and Christian McCaffrey had 80. The latter two were rookies by the way, and they were not second overall draft picks.

LANCE MEDOW: When you look at some of the top rookie running backs from 2017, their numbers fluctuate across the board. The Panthers' Christian McCaffrey averaged 12 touches per game, Alvin Kamara of the Saints 13 and the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt 20. I think Barkley will match Hunt with about 20 touches per contest. I don't think he'll record as many catches as McCaffrey (80) and Kamara (81) did last season but he should be in the same ballpark as Hunt (272) with respect to carries. Keep in mind, last year, Barkley averaged 21 touches per game at Penn State so that type of workload isn't a stretch.

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