Secret Superstars 2014: Giants
Arguably no NFL team has had more roster turnover this offseason than the New York Giants. After a 7-9 season that was a lot worse than the final record indicated, Big Blue finally decided to move on from many of the aging veterans who were part of its 2011 Super Bowl run. Familiar faces like Justin Tuck, Corey Webster, David Diehl and Kevin Boothe all departed with little resistance, while New York signed no fewer than 16 free agents to help replace them.
However, not all of the Giants losses were players past their prime. Starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph left for a five-year, $31.5 million contract with the Vikings. A former Secret Superstar himself, Joseph is just 25 years old and had started all but one game in the past three seasons. However, there’s a reason to believe that the Giants were prepared for this loss and can replace Joseph’s production, and that would be their 2013 second-round pick and newest Secret Superstar, Johnathan Hankins.
Hankins entered the NFL with a mountain of experience and accolades from his three seasons at Ohio State. From being named the Buckeyes most outstanding first year player as a freshman backup to being voted second-team AP All-American as a full-time starter in his junior season, Hankins left a strong impression on both coaches and analysts. He had a hefty 6-foot-3, 322-lb frame, but was so quick that he was able to line up all over the defensive front, even outside the tackles.
As experts projected him to be a first-round pick, Hankins decided to forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. But as April grew nearer, Hankins stock started to fall. Scouts noticed that although he played all three downs and rarely left the field in his final college season, he appeared worn down and less effective by the end of games. And though he was an absolute force in run defense, just five sacks in three seasons brought questions about whether he could contribute as a pass rusher. Once considered a top talent, Hankins fell into the second round, where the Giants snatched him up with the 49th overall pick.
The first half of Hankins’ rookie season was a quiet one, save for one big performance. He earned a positive run defense grade in three of New York’s four preseason games, but once the regular season came he found himself inactive most Sundays. Coach Tom Coughlin has a pattern of playing veterans over rookies, and Hankins was last in line behind Joseph, Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, and Mike Patterson for snaps. Only a Joseph injury before Week 5 finally gave Hankins his first shot at action, and he made the most of it.
Against an Eagles rushing attack that was the best in the NFL last season, Hankins posted a team-leading +3.1 run defense grade with four run stops. He didn’t have a single negatively-graded play all game. Philadelphia’s Jason Kelce finished the season as our top-graded center, but he had a nightmarish -8.9 run blocking grade against the Giants that week thanks in part to Hankins. With 7:05 left in the fourth quarter, the rookie controlled Kelce at the point of attack and used one arm to tackle LeSean McCoy for a loss. On the very next play, he again handled Kelce and quickly got off the block to stop McCoy for a one-yard gain.
Despite his dominance, Hankins earned just eight snaps the following week against the Bears and was again inactive in Week 7. Only a Shaun Rogers season-ending injury opened up a spot for Hankins on the gameday roster. Though his next four games did not live up to his debut, with just one run stop and a +0.1 run defense grade, he following it up with a torrid December. In the Giants final five weeks, Hankins posted a +6.9 grade with six stops in the run game, despite playing on just 26.4% of the team’s defensive snaps.
All the scouting reports about Hankins’ excellent run defense coming out of Ohio State held true. He was so quick, asking an offensive lineman to reach block him was asking to lose. With 4:08 left in the first quarter against the Seahawks, left guard James Carpenter attempted such a move against the rookie, who merely dodged him and enveloped Marshawn Lynch in the hole. But being so large, Hankins also was an immovable object at the point of attack. At the 7:49 mark of the second quarter against the Lions, he held his ground against a double-team and pounced in for the tackle once one blocker left him. He also proved to be an excellent finisher, missing just one tackle all season.
Overall, Hankins’ +9.5 run defense grade for the entire season led all Giants defensive tackles and was +1.5 better than Joseph in one-third the snaps. If you factor in playing time, Hankins had the third-highest grade per run defense snap of any defensive tackle in the entire league. His 10.5 Run Stop Percentage was seventh out of 77 NFL defensive tackles with at least 100 run snaps last season. His pass rush left a lot to be desired (he only had three quarterback pressures the entire season), but he only had three snaps total in 3rd-and-long obvious passing downs. Keep in mind that Joseph himself was never a dominant pass rusher outside his 2011 season.
The Giants front office always drafts with a long-term plan in mind, and certainly they were cognizant of Joseph’s contract year when they selected Hankins. No team likes to lose a 25-year-old durable player in his prime, but paying a hefty price for a run-stopping defensive tackle isn’t a necessity when there’s a potentially better one waiting in the wings. Now that Joseph is gone, Hankins is a projected starter and will no longer have to wait for playing time. If his rookie year is any indication, the Giants will wonder why they were so patient in the first place.
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