EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The top of the first round was shaping up like a dream for James Bettcher. As the sixth overall pick got closer and closer, there were still a couple of prized, elite defensive players on the board.
And yes, the Giants defensive coordinator wanted them. He had his eyes on Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen and Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver. Those two have Pro Bowl potential, according to many scouts. They could’ve changed the makeup of the Giants’ defense.
What defensive coordinator wouldn’t have wanted one of them instead of Duke quarterback Daniel Jones?
“If you want to ask me, ‘Would you have loved to have Josh Allen or Ed Oliver?’ Bettcher said, “I think if you lined up 32 coordinators, or however many hundreds of coordinators have ever coordinated in the National Football League on defense, and you said ‘Hey, you’re getting picks 1 through 5 in the draft and you get to draft whoever you want,’ I’ve got a pretty good feeling they’d probably take all defensive players.”
Of course, Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t, choosing to pass on Allen, Oliver, and every other defensive player to make Jones the Giants’ quarterback of the future. And by the time the decision was made, Bettcher had a pretty good idea which way it was going to go. It was a highly controversial decision that became an instant and easy target for the GM’s many critics.
But Bettcher wasn’t about to join the chorus wondering what might have been, especially since the Giants have gone out of their way to take care of him and his defense this offseason. The Giants drafted seven defensive players with their 10 picks, including defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence with the 17th overall pick and cornerback Deandre Baker when they traded back into the first round.
Those pieces were added to a bunch of free agents that Bettcher seems to love – safety Antonio Bethea, whom he lauded for his leadership, edge rusher Markus Golden (“Don’t ever forget that before (his knee injury) he was one of the best pass rushers in this league”), and safety Jabrill Peppers who came over in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade and “is a highly ascending player”.
Yes, they traded away Olivier Vernon and didn’t resign Landon Collins, and they traded away cornerback Eli Apple and defensive tackle Damon Harrison in the middle of last season, too. But Bettcher is convinced their replacements, while maybe not splashy, will make for a dramatic improvement for a defense that ranked 24th in the NFL last year.
“If I’m sitting back and hoping what it can be, I’m hoping it can be an aggressive, attacking defense that dictates,” he said. “As I look at where it’s at today, I believe that’s what it can be.”
Bettcher has to be right, too, because his first season as defensive coordinator was a huge disappointment. He came from Arizona with the reputation being a hyper-aggressive coordinator who knew how to make the most of whatever talent he had. Instead, most of his players seemed to fall far short of their potential, and the Giants’ pass rush had just 30 sacks – the second-worst in the league.
Then this offseason, the Giants turned up the heat. How many times have Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur talked about all the late leads the defense blew last season, as if most of the blame for the 5-11 record fell on that side of the ball? They didn’t blame Bettcher explicitly, though. They admitted they didn’t have enough – or any – defensive playmakers.
Of course, that makes it even more ironic that they passed on Allen – who had 17 sacks in his final year at Kentucky – to take a quarterback who won’t play this season if all goes well.
But again, Bettcher isn’t complaining. He made it clear he didn’t feel like he was ignored during the draft process, that Gettleman gave him a chance to make his argument.
“He wants to hear your opinion,” Bettcher said. “He cares what coaches’ opinions are. He wants to hear what the plan is and how you’d use guys.”
Because of that “great communication,” Bettcher said he really felt no emotion on draft night when the decision to pass on Oliver and Allen was announced. And in the end, he said, he was on board with whatever’s in the best interest of the franchise – even if that interest isn’t necessarily his.
“You can’t talk about team and not be about team,” Bettcher said. “You can’t talk about building culture and not be about it. You can’t talk about it to your players as a coach and not live that life, right?”
So there’ll be no lamenting what has been lost. He will plug the 345-pound Lawrence into the middle of his defense because he’s “one of the biggest humans I’ve ever seen who can move as quick as he can move.” He’ll see what Baker can do opposite cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and whether he can prove to be “the best cover, tackling cornerback in the draft,” as Bettcher put it.
He’ll hope that the 28-year-old Golden can rediscover the form he had in 2016 when he had 12 1/2 sacks, before he tore his ACL. He’ll see if the 23-year-old Peppers is what the Giants always thought he’d be when they considered drafting him in the first round back in 2017. And maybe he’ll even get some production out of edge rusher Oshane Ximinies, the Giants’ third-round pick out of Old Dominion, too.
Would he likely get more if the Giants had taken Allen or Oliver? Without a doubt.
Time will tell if Gettleman made the right choice. But it’s up to Bettcher to do the best with what he’s got to help him out.