Sports

Leonard Williams must prove himself again for Giants

Leading into the July 27 opening of Giants training camp, The Post will analyze 11 position groups based on personnel, strengths, weaknesses and key depth chart battles. Today’s look-in: Defensive line.

Overview: The Giants knew they were not willing to break the bank to retain Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson, made the determination to prioritize Williams and, as a result, watched Tomlinson sign a two-year, $21 million deal with the Vikings. The three-man line utilized by coordinator Patrick Graham was a plus in 2020 and needs to be again. It is a fairly young and beefy group, perhaps short on explosive players but long on point-of-attack grit.

Personnel: Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Danny Shelton, Austin Johnson, B.J. Hill, RJ McIntosh, Raymond Johnson, David Moa.

Rundown: Clearly, the Giants view Williams’ breakout season not as an aberration but as an awakening. A player who totaled 7.5 sacks in his three previous years erupted for a career-high 11.5, shedding the label as an “almost’’ pass rusher.

Leonard Williams
Leonard Williams
AP

The trade to get him from the Jets was (rightfully) scrutinized and critiqued, and now Williams must prove himself, again, after signing a three-year contract worth $63 million, with $45 million in guaranteed money. He is a big plus when it comes to locker-room popularity and head coach Joe Judge is a big supporter, which carries weight.

Consider this: Williams had 14 run stops for zero or negative yards. He had a beast of a season. Lawrence astounds teammates with impressive athletic ability for someone so large (342 pounds) and might have to develop a mean streak to take his game to the next level. Is he a difference-maker? This is the year to find out.

Danny Shelton
Danny Shelton
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The signing of the massive (347 pounds) Shelton adds a veteran run-stopper who must come off the field on passing downs. This is year No. 4 for Hill, who has not done much since his rookie season, so he has to show something to this coaching staff after limited work in 2020. It has also been a waiting game for McIntosh, a fifth-round pick in 2018, who has somehow survived this long.

This unit, directed by personable Sean Spencer (anyone with the nickname “Chaos’’ had better be personable) was a big strength last season, as the Giants were 10th in the league against the run, allowing only 111.4 yards per game.

Camp combat: Shelton and Johnson figure to battle for the starting nose tackle spot vacated by Tomlinson’s departure, and that should be a beefy and sweaty competition. Johnson, 27, was mostly a backup in four years with the Titans, and at 314 pounds does not have the prototypical size to anchor the middle of a three-man line, but he was solid for the Giants in a reserve role. Shelton, also 27, has not lived up to his draft status (first round, 2015, by the Browns) but did help the Patriots win a Super Bowl. He did not do much with the Lions last season and needs to pick up the pace with his fourth NFL team. Is there one roster spot for Hill and McIntosh to fight over? Could be.

Position potential: In some ways, how Lawrence goes will determine the success of this group. When he was selected (No. 17 overall in 2019), general manager Dave Gettleman insisted Lawrence was more than a big run-stuffing body. We shall see. He had a career-high four sacks in 2020 and needs to take it to a much higher level to be viewed as a legitimate pass rusher. There are snaps when he mauls people against the run, and the frequency of those plays needs to rise.

Tomlinson was adept (just ask middle linebacker Blake Martinez) at occupying two offensive linemen, giving himself up to allow others to make the tackles. He also batted down passes. Shelton and/or Johnson need to prove they can do the same.

Williams with his low-key California vibe does not seem like the sort of guy who will tense up trying to prove he is worth the huge investment the Giants made in him. You never know, though. His salary will be mentioned every time he does something, good or bad, and that can be tough for even the most grounded athlete to handle. It is now In Leonard We Trust for the Giants, who want no part of seeing an “overpaid’’ label attached to their most expensive defensive player.

Next up: Quarterback.

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