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Azeez Ojulari, Kayvon Thibodeaux 'feed off each other'

THIBODEAUX-AZEEZ-BOBS

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Azeez Ojulari knows he might own a Giants record for just one year.

In 2021, Ojulari, a second-round draft choice, finished with a team-high 8.0 sacks, the highest total by a Giants rookie since individual sacks became an official statistic in 1982. He easily outdistanced the former mark of 5.5 sacks, set by B.J. Hill in 2018. Andy Headen (1983) and Cornelius Griffin (2000) each had 5.0 sacks, the only other rookies to reach that plateau in the 40 seasons sacks have been included in the record book.

If it was 41 seasons, the record would belong to Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, who had 9.5 sacks in his rookie season in 1981.

Ojulari was the first rookie to lead the Giants in sacks since Taylor, thus making him the first player to officially pace the team in his debut season. Dallas' Micah Parsons (13.0) was the only other rookie to top his team his sacks last season. Ojulari finished third among NFL rookies and also had a team-high 13 quarterback hits.

"It was a big blessing," Ojulari said today of establishing the Giants' rookie sack standard. "All the players that came through here – what a great franchise to do it at. And to see yourself improve daily, it was great. It's a blessing to be out there to play the game and to play at a high level and to go out there and ball and make those plays."

Catch up on all the action with photos from OTA No. 2 at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.

The next possessor of the rookie sack record might already be in the locker room. Last month, the Giants selected pass rush specialist Kayvon Thibodeaux with the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft. The 6-5, 258-pounder had 19.0 sacks in 32 games over three seasons at the University of Oregon. That included a school freshman-record 9.0 sacks in 2019.

Ojulari believes Thibodeaux has the capability of setting another first-year record with the Giants in the coming season.

"I believe so," Ojulari said. "Definitely, I definitely believe he does."

And how will be feel if Thibodeaux tops the record he just set?

"I'll be excited," Ojulari said. "We push each other out there already. To see him do that would be great, for sure. I believe we're going to feed off each other and we're going to help us in the long run. Can't wait."

Ojulari had 1.0 sack in each of his first three NFL games, the only rookie to accomplish that feat last year and just the fifth rookie to do so since 2000. The others were Baltimore's Terrell Suggs in 2003, Oakland's Tommy Kelly in 2004, and Cleveland's Barkevious Mingo in 2013 and Myles Garrett in 2017.

On Oct. 24, Ojulari had 2.5 sacks in a victory against Carolina, the second-most by a Giants rookie since 1982 (Hill had 3.0 on Dec. 2, 2018). He posted 5.5 sacks through the first seven games of a season, which were the most by a Giant since Jason Pierre-Paul (8.5) and Osi Umenyiora (6.0) in 2011.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Ojulari was far from satisfied. In the three months between the Giants' final game and the beginning of the Giants' offseason program, Ojulari added 10 pounds of muscle. He now weighs about 255, roughly the same as Thibodeaux.

"I just felt like trying to improve my game, my weight to just hold up," he said. "I just feel good. Just wanted to get bigger."

Ojulari played in all 17 games as a rookie, starting 13. He looks forward to helping Thibodeaux manage the challenges of being a rookie outside linebacker in the NFL.

"Definitely can, because I've been through it already," Ojulari said. "I can definitely give him some tips, give him some ups and downs and let him know how it's going. (It's about) taking care of your body. It's a long season. There's going to be banging, so you have to take care of your body. Stay in the playbook. You know you're going to be good."

What was Ojulari's reaction when the Giants secured Thibodeaux with the first of their two opening-round draft choices?

"I was excited," he said. "I was like, man, bring him on, let's work, because I know how elite he is and how good of a player he is, so why not. Just ready to go. … He's a great dude, so I was just happy to have him.

"He's explosive for sure, a great athlete, too. Just can't wait to keep playing with him and getting better every day with him."

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