Giants' defense banking on Lorenzo Carter, rookies to make impact

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A look around the New York Giants' defense at mandatory minicamp says it all. There are times when six rookies or second-year players are on the field with the first-team defense.

This is what coordinator James Bettcher has to deal with in Year 2 with the Giants. There is pretty much an entire meeting room of untapped potential.

The Giants are going to rely heavily on 2018 third-round pick Lorenzo Carter at outside linebacker as their primary pass-rusher. He has flashed as a first-team mainstay this spring, and Bettcher believes he is "rushing with a plan" when a year ago he was just trying to get off the ball quickly and make something happen.

They are likely going to lean on first-round pick Deandre Baker opposite Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. He's already working with the first-team defense. Baker has impressed early in camp by making plays and refusing to back down.

"He has been doing that on a pretty steady basis," coach Pat Shurmur said this week at minicamp. "I think he has made a play or two at each practice."

The defense has held its own against quarterback Eli Manning and a more experienced offense this spring. Let's call it a draw on the days the media have been allowed to watch. That is an accomplishment for a defense filled with more potential than proven talent.

So what is realistic given the youth and lack of impact players on defense? Even the Giants seem ready to throw their hands in the air and wait to see what the season has in store for them.

"We are just going to go out there and play ball, see what happens," Shurmur said.

Veteran safety Antoine Bethea and Jenkins are the only players on the roster to ever make a Pro Bowl for their defensive contributions. Jabrill Peppers, 23, with two years under his belt is considered a veteran the Giants are banking on to be a difference-maker. There are some in the organization who believe the safety they acquired as a centerpiece of the Odell Beckham Jr. trade can be better than Landon Collins, the talented Pro Bowl safety he is replacing.

That isn't going to be easy. Neither will making this into a top unit after the housecleaning that occurred over the past year. The Giants traded defensive tackle Damon Harrison, edge rusher Olivier Vernon and cornerback Eli Apple. They allowed Collins to leave uncontested and sign with the rival Washington Redskins. They finished 24th in total defense, leaving general manager Dave Gettleman determined to improve the defense.

"It's not easy to win games when you don't have playmakers," he said after the season. "We need to improve the defense, guys. Just like I looked you right in the eye last year and told you we've got to fix this O-line, we've got to get better on the defensive side."

His answer was to strip it down and build it back up. Gettleman was insistent on getting two defensive starters on Day 1 of the draft. He believes he did with defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence and Baker.

Only now the Giants are young on defense. The average age of their projected starters will be 25.7 years come Week 1. Of the top five defenses last season, only the Chicago Bears (25.9) were even close to being that young on their opening-day defense.

Most of the top defenses averaged 27 years of age. That two years of experience is a significant difference.

"[Defensive captain Alec] Ogletree is going to have his hands full. The senior guys on that team are going to have their hands full," former Giants DE Justin Tuck said this week at the Newark Mentoring Movement Charity Golf Outing. "Listen, when you're a young player, you're going to make mistakes that young players make. But what I found that was very important, and this is something I learned from [Michael Strahan], the young players keep you young. There were some times midway through the year where I was like, 'I need a break,' and JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) was over there doing backflips or Damontre Moore was leading the team in some rap song that just came out. It wakes you back up and kind of rejuvenates you to get your job done ... You have to take the greats of [young players] and the negatives of that. You have to have the right people in the locker room to kind of foster that the right way."

The Giants have worked hard on finding the right mix. They insist the early returns are positive. Bettcher spoke Wednesday of how impressed he was with the way his unit was working behind closed doors. The player-driven approach they've formed is ideal.

The reality with all the young players is that some will blossom and others will stumble. It happens every year. Maybe last year's third-round supplemental pick -- cornerback Sam Beal -- thrives. Maybe one of this year's first-round picks gets slowed by injury. The Giants are just in a wait-and-see-approach with their defense.

"There is going to be someone that comes out the pack and we say, 'He's playing beyond his years.' Trust me," Bethea said. "It always happens like that."

Only most teams don't have a full unit of players whose fortunes could go either way. It makes for a lot of uncertainty with this defense, but also hope for the future.