Home New York Giants News Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari projected to be top pass rushers in 2023

Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari projected to be top pass rushers in 2023

by Guest Blogger

The Giants’ starting edge defenders are among ESPN’s Top 50 pass rushers

The New York Giants defense wasn’t particularly great a year ago. They made game-changing plays when the opportunities presented themselves, which contributed to the Giants’ trip to the playoffs, but they were lackluster on a down-to-down basis.

They finished 25th in yards allowed, 16th in points allowed, and were 29th in total DVOA (Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency). The Giants were at the bottom of the league in turnovers and the middle of the pack in sack production.

ESPN’s Seth Walder has some potentially good news for Giants’ fans on that front. Bottom line up front: both Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux cracked his projection for the Top-50 pass rushers in 2023.

Walder released his annual projection for the top pass rushers (exclusive content), which takes a number of factors into account, including:

  • Sack totals and rates over the past two seasons
  • Projected snaps, courtesy of ESPN’s Mike Clay
  • Pass rush win rate (PRWR), which uses player tracking data from NFL Next Gen Stats
  • How often a player’s defensive coordinator/head coach has blitzed in the past
  • How often opposing quarterbacks on each player’s upcoming schedule get sacked
  • A player’s team’s win total, which matters because a winning team forces opponents to take greater risks and pass more
  • How often a player rushes from edge as opposed to the interior

Thibodeaux came in at 39th overall with a projected 6.5 sacks, while Ojulari ranks 25th. Walder said of Thibodeaux and Ojulari:

It might not feel strong, but this is a bullish projection, with DraftKings setting a line of just 5.75 sacks (and it opened lower) for Thibodeaux.

The No. 5 overall pick from last year’s draft got off to a slow start but finished with an 18% pass rush win rate, an above-average rate which was good for 15th among edge defenders. Plus, he plays for coordinator Wink Martindale, who blitzed at the highest rate in the league last season. Add in the caveat I gave about Hutchinson — that the model probably is underrating top draft picks early in their career — and Thibodeaux has a chance to break out.

I was a little surprised to see teammate Azeez Ojulari ahead of him, but Ojulari has strong numbers, including eight sacks as a rookie in 2021 and a 21% pass rush win rate last year at edge. He didn’t play enough for that second number to qualify, but would have ranked 12th if he had.

Speaking of Ojulari, his projected 7.3 sacks is half of Carl Banks’ prediction of a 15-sack season for Ojulari.

However, it’s worth noting that the ESPN’s most ambitious prediction is Myles Garrett, who tops the list at 13.2 sacks. Walder projected 12.1 sacks for Garrett in 2022, following a 16.0-sack season in 2021, and Garrett finished with 16.0 sacks in 2022.

So it’s certainly possible that Ojulari — or Thibodeaux — will out-perform their projections with more opportunities, more consistent coverage behind them, and another year of development.

It’s also notable that Dexter Lawrence, who had 7.5 sacks last year, didn’t crack the Top 50. However, as Walder says with regard to Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (who had 15.0 sacks last year and is projected to have 10.0 this year) “Being a defensive tackle naturally depresses any sack forecast”.

It will be interesting to see how the “Wink Effect” impacts the Giants’ various sack totals. Martindale specializes in using alignment and blitzes to create one-on-one match-ups or free runs into the backfield. Individual match-ups will likely favor Thibodeaux, Ojulari, Lawrence, or Leonard Williams. However, we don’t know how often the EDGE defenders will be dropping into coverage or the defensive tackles will be tasked with holding double teams.

The Giants lead the league in blitz rate by a significant margin, and the 4.2 points they lead the No. 2 team (Arizona) by was about the same margin as was between Arizona and the team that was ninth in blitz rate (Carolina Panthers, 29.9 percent). Martindale is likely less concerned with any player’s individual stats as he is getting the Giants’ sack numbers (40, 13th in the NFL) closer to their league-leading blitz rate.

Elsewhere in the NFL

Taking a step back, the Giants have games against 18 of the top 48 pass rushers (excepting Thibodeaux and Ojulari). Eight of those pass rushers reside elsewhere in the NFC East, meaning the Giants will see them twice. They are:

  • Micah Parsons (Dallas Cowboys – 11.9 projected sacks – 3rd )
  • Haason Reddick (Philadelphia Eagles 10.8 sacks – 5th)
  • Josh Sweat (PHI – 8.6 sacks – 15th)
  • Daron Payne (Washington Commanders – 7.0 sacks – 30th)
  • Jonathan Allen (WASH – 6.8 sacks – 36th)
  • Brandon Graham (PHI – 6.6 sacks – 38th)
  • Montez Sweat (Wash – 6.4 sacks – 43rd)
  • Dorance Armstrong (DAL – 6.0 sacks – 49th)

We’ve previously written regarding the Giants’ potentially tough slate of defensive matchups this year. Seeing the names of the pass rushers with whom the Giants’ offensive line will need to contend, and just how many of them there are, puts that into focus.

As we said before, the Giants’ offensive line looks to have its work cut out for it this year. Hopefully the investments in the line will pay off, and the Giants’ own pass rush will cause more problems for their opponents than opposing rushers will for the Giants.

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