The New York Giants wouldn’t be in the playoffs without the performances of quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. Yet the pair of pending free agents aren’t the only stars who have proved valuable this season.
Nose tackle Dexter Lawrence II has been dominant at the heart of coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s defense. Lawrence recorded another sack and broke up three more passes during Week 17’s 38-10 postseason-clinching win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Numbers like those are why the fourth-year defensive lineman has been named among the best non-QB MVP candidates by Zoltan Buday of Pro Football Focus. An interior defensive lineman being so honored is rare, but Lawrence has already earned his first Pro-Bowl nod and will be integral to how far the Giants go in the playoffs.
Unheralded Player MVP of Giants’ Unit
Buday listed the underlying numbers that should put Lawrence into any MVP conversation: “Lawrence might be the least talked-about player on this list amid a 2022 breakout season that has flown under the radar. Lawrence currently sports a 92.0 PFF grade despite not earning an 80.0-plus grade in any of his first three seasons. The Giants’ defensive captain ranks second in total pressures among interior defenders (63) but is the lone nose tackle among the top 10 on that list. We have rarely seen a defender his size be this productive rushing the passer. As a result, his 92.4 pass-rushing grade ranks second in the NFL, behind only Myles Garrett.”
The statistics are beyond impressive, but they won’t be enough to yield a league-wide award for a member of the trenches. Not ahead of the star quarterbacks who usually pass the MVP gong from one to another each year.
Lawrence won’t win it, but there’s no doubt he’s the most valuable member of the Giants’ defense. He’s been its most dominant member, status Lawrence underlined by mauling Colts’ All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson for a sack, a takedown highlighted by Art Stapleton of Record Sports:
Plays like this form part of Lawrence’s awesome stat line that includes 7.5 sacks, 28 QB hits and seven tackles for loss. Those numbers are a credit to his individual improvement, but Lawrence has also proved invaluable because of how he’s created plays for other members of Martindale’s unit.
The first example is this interception by Roadarius Williams against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. As Nick Falato of SB Nation’s Big Blue View pointed out, the takeaway was caused by immediate pressure from Lawrence:
Pressure has always been a root cause for turnovers. Quarterbacks unable to step up and throw from clean pockets will often find out their passes landed in the arms of the enemy.
A strong rush from the inside can also create sacks for others, the way it did for backup Ryder Anderson when the Giants beat the Washington Commanders 20-12 in Week 15. Lawrence split a double team and forced Taylor Heinicke to climb the pocket to escape, only to be wrapped up by Anderson, per Bobby Skinner of Talkin’ Giants:
Wrecking offenses, either alone or by helping others do the same, has let Lawrence set the tone for a loaded front seven that’s carried the Giants’ defense. Most of the talent is up front, where Lawrence acts as the fulcrum of a group featuring Azeez Ojulari and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux on the edges and fellow tackle Leonard Williams on the inside.
The group has been dubbed a “fearsome foursome” by Dan Duggan of The Athletic. It’s the kind of quartet the Giants have used to win Super Bowls in the past.
Front Fours Win Championships for Giants
Duggan’s colleague Charlotte Carroll compared this season’s front four to the line that helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLII to cap the 2007 season. Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka dominated quarterbacks, including Tom Brady and the 18-0 New England Patriots in the big game.
The Pats were again the victims four years later, when Umenyiora, Tuck, Chris Canty and Linval Joseph powered a 9-7 Giants team to another title. Expecting 2022’s vintage to reach similar heights may be wishful thinking, but it’s not exactly fanciful.
A quick look at the playoff bracket has the Giants, locked in as the No. 6 seed in the NFC, slated to play either the Minnesota Vikings or San Francisco 49ers, according to Giants.com Managing Editor Dan Salomone.
Both matchups would favor Lawrence and his mates up front causing havoc. The Vikings win or lose based on a passing attack led by QB Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Pressuring Cousins usually leads to takeaways in key moments.
The 49ers are more balanced, but despite the support of a strong running game, rookie passer Brock Purdy could wilt under an intense rush. He has only four starts to his credit as a pro.
There’s a strong recent history of the Giants backing into the playoffs then using a dominant front four to go all the way. If Lawrence made it happen a third time it would be better than winning any MVP award.