Watching the replay of the Giants’ astonishing upset of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII last weekend provides a great reminder of just how far today’s team is from adding another Lombardi Trophy to the case. It's also another reminder of how important it is for Dave Gettleman to get this year’s draft right.
The central image of that game is David Tyree’s remarkable helmet catch in the fourth quarter that sparked an electrifying comeback, and that iconic moment will always be the most celebrated of all from that game. Deservedly so.
But watching the game from beginning to end makes you understand that Eli Manning-to-Tyree would not have had the same kind of impact if not for the absolutely brilliant work of the Giants’ defense in shutting down Tom Brady’s offense.
Brady was under constant pressure from the Giants’ front seven. Defensive linemen Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora were brilliant, and so were linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell.
Manning was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after driving the Giants to two fourth-quarter touchdowns in their 17-14 win over the previously undefeated Patriots – one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. But it was the defense that set the stage for Manning, and without that wondrous performance, there would have been no championship.
Gettleman was the Giants’ pro personnel director during that run, and he saw firsthand the value of what a great defense can provide. As he ponders what to do with this year’s draft, he certainly is mindful of finding impact players on defense who can do for this team what the great defenders did for the 2007 Giants.
Which brings us to the No. 4 pick. Will Gettleman go after the best available defensive player on the board, or will his infatuation with finding “hog mollies” along the offensive line prompt him to take one of the draft’s highly ranked tackles?
Gettleman has been dropping some pre-draft crumbs that lead you to believe that offensive line is the way he’s leaning in order to give Daniel Jones some much-needed protection. Gettleman left similar hints in the run-up to his two previous drafts with the Giants, foretelling his selections of running back Saquon Barkley and Jones. And it sure feels as if he’s thinking offense again, although pre-draft smoke often can blur the lines of prognostication.
But there’s one player on defense who ought to get the general manager’s attention: Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
With Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young almost certain to be gone at No. 2 to the Redskins, Simmons can be the kind of playmaker for the Giants’ defense who helps turn them into a playoff contender. There aren’t many like him in this year’s draft — in fact, there may be no one quite like him. He’s perhaps the most versatile defender in the Class of 2020, a man who can play inside linebacker, outside linebacker and safety and even put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer.
Some scouts suggest this Swiss army knife ability means Simmons can’t truly dominate at any one position, but I’d argue that his speed, flexibility and innate football sense is just what the Giants need in a league that’s much more dependent on getting offensive players into open space than ever before. What better way to defend against that than with a player who can do it all?
Simmons thinks of himself as a hybrid.
“Personally, I model my game after a couple people,” said Simmons, who last year had eight sacks, 16 ½ tackles for loss, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. “If I have to go look at film of somebody to get something, it would be Von Miller just for pass rush, Jalen Ramsey for man [coverage] techniques and Tyrann Mathieu, just because he plays around everywhere as well. I take bits and pieces from all of them and kind of throw them into my game.”
A combination of Miller, Ramsey and Mathieu? Where do we sign up?
There also are leadership qualities to admire from the former Clemson captain.
“I always preach to the younger guys that leadership doesn’t have an age on it,” Simmons said. You don’t have to be a veteran, you don’t have to be a starter to be a leader. A leader is somebody who does things in the right way, even when nobody’s looking.”
I'm not saying Simmons will be the second coming of Lawrence Taylor. I’ll never say that about a defensive player coming into the draft, not after covering most of Taylor’s career and seeing his brilliance firsthand. But as Super Bowl XLII showed, defense does indeed win championships, even if quarterbacks get most of the glory. P..S.: None of the five offensive linemen from that win — or the Super Bowl XLVI champion four years later — was a first-round pick.
It’s time for Gettleman to rebuild a defense that is a shell of what the 2007 and 2011 Giants were. That plan ought to include Simmons.
SIZING UP ISAIAH SIMMONS
40 time: 4.39
Strengths: Versatility has allowed him to play inside and outside linebacker, safety and edge rusher . . . Exceptional speed for a man his size . . . Great range as linebacker . . . Sure tackler . . . Excellent in blitz packages and pass coverage.
Weaknesses: Somewhat underweight for a true inside linebacker, although a pro-style training program will help . . . Can be slow on some reads on the inside . . . Needs to consistently take better angles.
Outlook: Can be an outstanding hybrid linebacker with a team that is willing to use him in a variety of ways.