One of the bigger New York Giants questions of 2016 is what to expect from Jason Pierre-Paul. The 2010 first-round pick, who lost his right index finger in a fireworks accident last July 4, is back on a one-year deal and believes he will play much better than he did upon his midseason return last year. He has said he won't have to wear the heavy "club" wrap he wore on his damaged right hand last year, and teammates and coaches spoke last week about his intensity and focus. He and they believe he's in for a big 2016.
But in what role, exactly? Due to the state of his right hand, Pierre-Paul likely can't line up as a full-time starter at the right defensive end spot. He used to live over there, asked to beat left tackles with his burst and athleticism. But the Giants signed Olivier Vernon in March, and his salary indicates they expect him to fill that role. Pierre-Paul's production got more reliable last year when the team moved him to left defensive end, where he could play with his left hand on the ground, and that's where you should expect him to see most of his action this coming season.
The other way in which a healthier, better-practiced Pierre-Paul can help this year is by moving inside to play defensive tackle on passing downs. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to load up with pass-rushers on third down, and he's likely to take run-stuffer Damon Harrison (more on him later) off the field on passing downs and move someone like Pierre-Paul or Kerry Wynn to the inside, with Wynn, Owa Odighizuwa or someone else playing the defensive end spot. Those roles and plans all have to be sorted out over the coming months, but if Pierre-Paul is as spry as everyone says he is, he offers a level of positional versatility that will allow the Giants to move him around the line to their advantage.
Some other defensive line thoughts as we await the start of organized team activities:
Harrison will team with Johnathan Hankins on early downs, and while his $9.5 million-per-year salary feels high for a two-down player, the Giants believe he will benefit them on third downs by lengthening the distance their opponent has to go with his work on first and second downs. Giants opponents converted 47 percent of their third-down opportunities in 2016, the highest figure in the league. Third down is a concern the team is attacking from every possible angle, and Harrison was signed with that down in mind.
Hankins is coming off a pectoral injury that cost him the final seven games of the 2015 season. He's also entering the final year of his rookie contract. Assuming he stays healthy, the Giants could look to lock up their 2013 second-round pick long-term next offseason. He doesn't turn 25 until next March 30 and would be a smart long-term investment. But we said the same thing about Linval Joseph in 2014, and the Giants didn't bring him back. So don't assume.
Odighizuwa is someone to watch. The Giants had high hopes for him as a developmental pass-rusher when they picked him in the third round last year, but injuries cost him a large part of that development, and he played in only four games. Odighizuwa has special athleticism, and the Giants believe he can be an asset. The question is how soon, given that he went into training camp last year admittedly needing to develop several pass-rush moves and didn't get as much practice or playing time as they hoped he would.