When James Bettcher looks at the pass rushers on the Giants defense, he sees something that few others do. He sees potential. And he insists "We will never be limited by expectations of others."
That's good. Because those expectations are dangerously low.
The Giants had the second-worst pass rush in the NFL last season, with a paltry 30 sacks. Then they traded away Olivier Vernon, who had a quarter of that total (seven) and didn't bring in a proven replacement.
Bettcher, the Giants' defensive coordinator, isn't making any bold proclamations, but when he talks about his defense there is a tinge of optimism in his voice that few others have. About the best anyone outside the Giants will offer about the potential of this pass rush is that GM Dave Gettleman has assembled "some interesting pieces," as one NFC scout said.
That part, at least, is true. They drafted a 6-4, 342-pound mountain in the first round in defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who they believe is going to cause so much trouble in the interior of the line that Bettcher's edge rushers will have plenty of room on the outside to work. They added small-school sack machine in the third round in Oshane Ximines, who had a school-record 33 sacks at Old Dominion.
But the two most important pieces figure to be Lorenzo Carter, a third-round pick in 2018, and Markus Golden, a much overlooked free agent who signed with the Giants in March. The two of them are loaded with potential and plenty of questions, too. They are the keys to the Giants' pass-rush revival.
And if they have the seasons that team insiders are expecting, the Giants' pass rush might surprise a lot of people around the league.
The 6-3, 260-pound Golden is the most accomplished pass rusher on the Giants' roster. He also might be the most forgotten. He had basically fallen off the NFL's radar since he tore his ACL in 2017. He hasn't been the same since. When he signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal with the Giants in March, it just looked like Bettcher was bringing in a familiar face from Arizona.
But Golden could be so much more than that.
The last time he was healthy -- in 2016 -- he had 12 ½ sacks in Bettcher's defense. He's got the talent. He knows the scheme. If he's really healthy -- and he says he feels better than he has since before he got hurt -- it could be the perfect storm, and he could turn out to be a free-agent steal.
Clearly, that's what Golden thinks will happen.
"Now that my leg is healthy, of course I feel like I'm back," he told SNY. "I've been doing this my whole life. It's like, if you're healthy, you're able to go out and perform. I'm not even thinking about it. I feel ready physically and ready mentally."
"When you're coming off a knee injury, you need a year to be able to get back to the type of player you are capable of being -- and he's at that point now," Bettcher said. "I think a year ago he was really frustrated with his body that he wasn't able to play at the level that he expects from himself. But we are at that point now."
The best that can be said about the 6-5, 255-pound Carter's rookie season is that he showed "flashes." He was mostly a bit player, with four sacks, and he got close on a few others. He looked raw, like he was playing on only instinct and speed.
This year, though, he's combining that raw ability with knowledge and experience. And in camp, the Giants are seeing flashes of his pass-rushing ability more and more.
"He's much more confident," Bettcher said.. "He knows what he's doing, and now he's really trying to learn why he's doing it. He's also trying to learn, based on some of the looks that he gets, when he can cut it loose as a rusher, and when it's maybe going to be more run game. I see a guy that is a lot more confident and playing a lot faster now."
Carter feels the same way. He's starting to get what he didn't necessarily get in college -- that speed is great, but he needs much more than that to be a great pass rusher, especially in the NFL. There are speed rushers everywhere, and it doesn't take long for NFL offenses to figure out how to neutralize them.
The 23-year-old Carter wants to be much more than that.
"You don't want to put yourself in a box," he said. "So, I'll do one move and know that if they give me something else, then I'll counter it. But if they give me the same thing, I'll keep doing the same move all day if it works. So I'd say I've refined my moves. Just being able to know when to throw the moves, when to just go straight speed, or when to counter. I think that was a key emphasis for me this offseason."