The Giants believed Azeez Ojulari could make an impact as a pass rusher as a rookie, but the second-round pick has exceeded those expectations in an otherwise disappointing season for the franchise.
The 21-year-old linebacker has a chance to become the first player in team annals to reach double digits in sacks in his initial NFL campaign.
Ojulari’s eight sacks through 15 games technically already represent the most for any first-year player in Giants history, although legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor registered 9.5 in 1981 — one year before the stat became officially recognized by the NFL.
With two sacks over the Giants’ final two games against Chicago and Washington, the 21-year-old Ojulari would eclipse even LT’s unofficial total — albeit with one additional game on the schedule — from 40 years ago.
“I’m just working every week, every single game. Sack or not, just trying to get to the quarterback and impact the game as much as I can,” Ojulari said after practice on Friday. “If it happens, it happens. I’m just focusing on winning, so that’s the main thing, trying to win and get the [W] at the end of the day.”
Ojulari, who had 9.5 sacks last season at Georgia, was grabbed with the 50th-overall pick after the Giants had traded down from No. 42 with Miami.
He recorded a sack in each of his first three NFL appearances, something the incomparable Taylor didn’t even do as the second-overall draft selection in 1981. Ojulari also became the first NFL player to accomplish that feat since No. 1-overall pick Myles Garrett did it for the Browns in 2017.
By comparison, Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan — another second-round pick who went on to become the Giants’ all-time sack leader with 141.5 — managed only one during his rookie season in 1993.
With 13 sacks already, Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons has a chance to eclipse Jevon Kearse’s league rookie record of 14.5 in 1999. Ojulari eclipsed B.J. Hill’s team rookie mark of 5.5 (2018) in Week 12 against the Dolphins.
“Man, I just thank God. I’m just blessed to be healthy right now and just going out there and competing every week,” Ojulari said. “Sticking to the script, sticking to my schedule. Everyone has their own schedule — sticking to it and doing it every single day, every single week, just to make sure my body’s good. Because it’s a long season and you’ve got to prepare and stay to the script, and I’ve been doing that.”
While first-round receiver Kadarius Toney has been limited to 10 games due to a variety of injuries — including this week with a shoulder issue — Ojulari has played in all 15 games (11 starts) for the Giants (4-11), with 45 tackles (28 solo), including eight for a loss, and one forced fumble.
“I think it’s a long season and I’d also say the other thing for any of these young players the first time going through a season of this length — training camp, preseason games, 17 regular-season games — their bodies really aren’t used to it, that’s just the truth,” head coach Joe Judge said Friday. “That’s for any player in any year in any program. That’s no different.
“You talk about that rookie wall and different things they have to face. This year having a little bit less time for different reasons or less exposure for different reasons puts more of a challenge on some of the young players, as well to kind of get acclimated to this season length. It takes these guys really a full year to get used to the rigors of an entire NFL season and get their bodies used to it.”