New York Giants rookie defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson smiled when asked about potentially starting his first regular-season NFL game Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s a dream come true to play in the NFL, and just be able to play in this game.”
It took a lot of hard work though for the Giants’ second-round draft pick to get to this point. Although he was widely considered polished given his college pedigree—he played for Nick Saban at Alabama—Tomlinson admitted that when he first arrived at the Giants, he was trying to find his way.
To do that, he hit the playbook—hard—determined to get as much of the mental part of the game down before the time came to don the pads.
“That was the biggest thing for me,” Tomlinson said Thursday. “Being able to recognize the offense and the details. I think the mental thing was the biggest thing, learning the playbook and getting used to things.
“It wasn’t too new, because it was like the defense I played in college, but it was really getting used to the players beside me cause to be a great defensive line, you have to be able to play with different people around you and know how their skillset can work with yours.”
So far, so good for the rookie, who has impressed his veteran teammates with his work ethic in the classroom.
“His confidence,” said defensive tackle Damon Harrison when asked where he has seen the biggest jump in Tomlinson since the OTAs.
“His ability to diagnose plays and be confident and his understanding of blocking schemes and how teams try to attack him. Just he has all the physical tools since day one, that’s why he got drafted so high, but his confidence is just changing.”
“He’s been showing a lot of improvement,” added defensive end Olivier Vernon. “I know a lot of people were waiting to see what he was going to do once he got in pads, and he seems to be getting better every day. He’s always working on his craft and we like what we see. We have a young guy coming in and he’s just trying to make his play known.”
The challenge of fitting in on a defensive line that last year finished tied for third against the run with the New England Patriots—both Harrison and Vernon finished in the top-10 league wide in total tackles among defensive linemen.
The Giants defensive line also finished tied for 14th in sacks (35.0) has not been lost on Tomlinson, who was a team captain at Alabama but who now must prove himself all over again.
While some guys might be intimidated by that challenge, Tomlinson has embraced and accepted it.
“Regardless if you’re a leader, you can always learn something,” Tomlinson said. “You always have to get better so I think whether you’re a rookie or a 10-year veteran, you’re always going to be learning something about yourself and about this game.
“My d-line teammates have been in the NFL a long time and they have a lot of things they can teach me to help me progress in my NFL career.”
“Pretty much just the things like when watching film, they always critique things that I don’t always see because they have a different point of view. That opens my eyes as far as what I need to work on because they’re showing me from their point of view. I feel like that’s something that really helps me out.”
Also helping him out has been the experience he’s received not just against his teammates but in the preseason games against other opponents.
“We like the fact that as far as his pass rush capability, being out there in 1-on-1s and working his moves and getting more comfortable with it because he’s been facing guys out there who have been playing in the league for quite a while,” said Vernon. “That helps him with his experience and what he’s trying to learn so he’s taking it all in stride.”
Tomlinson smiled sheepishly when asked if playing alongside of three veterans—Harrison, Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul—was a blessing or a curse.
“I think sometimes it can put more pressure on you,” he admitted. “You see the level that they play at and you see them do these amazing things and you’re like, ‘I want to be able to do that as well.’ But you can’t let that affect you; you have to just be yourself and play your game.”
Tomlinson obviously wouldn’t reveal how much or in what capacity he will be deployed Sunday night when the Giants try to slow down running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys offense, but head coach Ben McAdoo said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from the rookie.
“Dalvin is developing. He is good with his hands. He was good when he got here with his hands. He continues to improve being a violent and physical player,” he said.
Those traits are key given the challenges presented by the Cowboys offensive line which, despite a couple of changes, still boasts its Pro Bowl core of left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zach Martin.
“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us, but it takes the whole defense to stop the run especially against a unit like this,” McAdoo said. “If you don’t set an edge, build a wall and track the hip, you don’t have a chance versus these guys.”
Tomlinson wants to make sure that he does his part to give the Giants a chance. While he doesn’t have specific goals in mind as far as numbers are concerned, his objective, starting Sunday night and for however long his NFL career runs, is simple.
“I want to go out there and be a dominant defensive lineman, first off by stopping the run and then making big plays and contributing to the defense, and then over time be able to rush the passer and things like that so I can be a 3-down player and be effective anywhere on the defensive line,” he said.
The Giants would love nothing better if he can accomplish that goal.