June 25, 2023 | 05:53
What a sweet deal Drew Wilkins got last season, his first with the Giants.
As the new outside linebackers coach, he succeeds Azeez Ojulari, who set a franchise rookie record with eight sacks in 2021.
Next, Wilkins was introduced to Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 draft.
Not a bad way to kick off your Giants coaching career — handed a pair of young hustlers to send on seek-and-destroy missions targeting opposing quarterbacks.
Thibodeaux was always available after missing the first two games of the season with a knee injury.
Ojulari, having also missed the first two games, was not.
The big plan went wrong.
There were only seven games in the regular season where Ojulari was able to get on the field with Thibodeaux, and in only one of those games was Ojulari able to play more than 60 percent of the snaps on defense.
This offseason, the flashy newcomers on defense are Bobby Okereke, a starting inside linebacker, and Deonte Banks, the first-round pick and the presumed starter at one cornerback spot.
It is tempting to also count Ojulari as a newcomer given his repeated and prolonged absences in 2022.
The Giants, who started work in the spring, did everything they could to get Ojulari ready for what lay ahead without experiencing setbacks.
So far, so good – with so, so far to go, with this year’s training camp set for the last week of July.
“Azeez is moving around really well,” Wilkins said last week as the Giants closed out their mandatory minicamp. “He worked really hard in the offseason. We have a really good strength program, really good coaches. He put together a good plan – here are areas where he can attack things differently.
“He did a lot of things really well last year. He had a great training camp. Obviously, he had to struggle through some things, but when you look at the stats at the end of the year, we’d love to have him out there a lot more than he was. Really, he had one of the highest sacks per rush in the league. It’s making sure he’s out there and he’s rolling, because when he is, he can be a problem.”
The main problem with Ojulari was not what he inflicted on others, but what he was unable to do for himself.
In the spring, he strained a hamstring while practicing away from the team and missed the first three weeks of training camp.
He came up limping with a calf strain in a joint practice with the Jets on Aug. 25 that kept him out of the first two games of the season.
He played in two games before suffering another calf injury that put him on injured reserve – missing the next seven games.
On Christmas Eve in Week 16, he rushed in for a sack of Kirk Cousins, but turned his ankle on the play.
Ojulari lasted just seven snaps the next week against the Colts and sat out the regular season finale.
In two playoff games, Ojulari, clearly not fully healthy, was on the field for a total of just 22 snaps.
When he was right, Ojulari was a force.
He had 5.5 sacks in just 140 pass rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Thibodeaux, in 409 pass rush snaps, had four sacks in his rookie year.
Only eight players in the league averaged more than Ojulari’s 0.79 sacks per game. match.
Cowboys star Micah Parsons also averaged 0.79 sacks per game. game, but he played in all 17 games to rack up his 13.5 sacks.
There’s no question the Giants count on Ojulari and Thibodeaux to be rising players, as there was no real movement at the position.
Veteran Jihad Ward and 2019 third-round pick Oshane Ximinez were re-signed, and oft-injured Elerson Smith remains on the roster.
The Giants are running back with their outside linebackers.
“I really like that space,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “I like its personality. Drew Wilkins does a great job with them. They’re leaders in their own right. I just think if you’ve seen ‘Zeez, and you’re around him all the time, you see that he, the best way I could describe it, is a lot more robust this year. We’ll see how it plays out, because it’s a crazy league. We’ll see how it plays out.”
The Giants need “more robust” to translate to “more games played” for Ojulari.
If he can stay healthy, the Giants believe he can stay among the NFL’s kicking leaders.
“We’re excited,” Wilkins said, “where he’s going to take his thing.”