New York Giants 2003 NFL Free Agency Preview: If the last three Super Bowl winners tell us anything, it is to confirm the age old proverb that defense wins championships. The defense of the Ravens and Buccaneers did it with superior talent, the defense of New England did it with some outstanding schemes from the premiere defensive coach in the league. The Giants do not have the benefit of an outstanding defensive coaching staff so they are going to have to significantly upgrade their defensive personnel. They also need help in the kicking game and a few tweaks on the offensive side of the ball.
The Giants will undoubtably focus on defense in the 2003 NFL Draft. But it is important to keep in mind that rookies usually don’t start or make a huge impact. There are always exceptions, but it would be unwise to count on the rookie class to solve the talent problems in the starting units. That’s where free agency must come in.
Free agency starts on February 28th – two and half weeks from now – and many of the players due to become unrestricted free agents will be re-signed before then, or protected with a “Franchise” or “Transitional” tag. On the positive side, a whole host of players who are currently under contract will be released and therefore become available. This is how the Giants acquired Michael Barrow for example.
The free agent landscape will change tremendously in a few weeks. But I’m bored and it’s fun to talk about what might happen – so let’s play general manager. The players I listed below are all due to become unrestricted free agents. There are some interesting restricted free agents as well, but I chose not to focus on those players at this time.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE: The Giants’ defense has been fraying at the edges for a few seasons now. Fans point to the defensive collapses against the Titans (loss), Colts (win), and 49ers (loss) in 2002, but keep in mind the 4th quarter meltdowns under John Fox in 2001. The Giants defense gave up late game-winning drives to the Rams and Eagles (at home) in 2001, as well as surrendering 14 points against the Vikings and 17 points to the Eagles (away) in the 4th quarter. It is fair game to criticize the coaching, but it is blatantly obvious that, personnel-wise, the Giants’ defense is lacking both in the starting unit and among the back-ups. During the defensive collapse against the 49ers in the playoffs, the Giants had Byron Frisch playing at right end and Frank Ferrara playing at defensive tackle. Yuck!
Let’s look at how to fix this:
Defensive Line: DE Michael Strahan is still one of the best defensive ends in the game, but he wore down in 2002 due to constant double-teams and no breaks. The Giants’ depth situation was so bad that Strahan could never take a breather on the sideline. DT Cornelius Griffin has size and athletic-ability, but he has not been consistently disruptive since his rookie season in 2000. Part of that has to do with what appears to be becoming chronic ankle sprains. There is talk he may be moved to defensive end, but much of that will most likely depend on who the Giants are able to sign in free agency and/or draft. DT Keith Hamilton is coming off a serious and potentially career-ending injury (Achilles’), but is said to be rehabbing well. It will be great if he can come back strong, but keep a few things in mind: (1) he is making a lot of money, (2) he wasn’t playing particularly well even before he got hurt. Still, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that an effective Keith Hamilton is starting at right defensive tackle in 2003; I just wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket.
Kenny Holmes picked up a respectable 8 sacks in 2003, but I was not impressed with his performance. Three of those sacks came against the expansion Texans and two against the Cowboys at home (on one play he was unblocked and the other was a coverage sack). Holmes rarely if ever saw a double-team, yet he seldom put any heat on the quarterback. That’s a big no-no from a weakside defensive end in a 4-3 defense – especially from a guy who is mediocre at best at defending the run. Some press reports indicate that Holmes is as good as gone while another recently said the Giants would be interested in keeping him if he accepted another pay cut. Regardless, I really don’t want Holmes starting in 2003. Is he terrible? No. But the Giants’ defense will never achieve dominance with him at that spot.
The rest of the defensive linemen are journeymen who I would not be unhappy to see go: Lance Legree, Matt Mitrione, Dwight Johnson, Ross Kolodziej, Frank Ferrara, and Byron Frisch simply don’t impress. Frisch has some talent, but again, I wouldn’t count on him.
The defensive line is the biggest priority for the Giants this offseason. A good pass rush from your down four defensive linemen changes everything. It allows you to take less risks on defense and makes things much easier on your coverage. Opposing quarterbacks under press duress tend to make costly mistakes. Just watch how the Tampa front four got consistent pass pressure on League MVP Rich Gannon in the Super Bowl; Gannon threw 5 interceptions against soft coverage because of the pressure.
Who are some the quality defensive linemen who are currently scheduled to be available on February 28th?
- DE Vonnie Holliday, Green Bay Packers (6-5, 290lbs): Probably the best complete defensive end available and he is only 27. Can rush the passer and play the run. Hard to imagine the Packers not protecting him.
- DE Hugh Douglas, Philadelphia Eagles (6-2, 280lbs): Douglas is the best pure outside pass rusher available. Team leader and trash talker. He picked up 12.5 sacks in 2002 and 9.5 sacks in 2001. He will turn 32 years old in July, but he doesn’t have a lot of wear-and-tear on his body.
- DE Adrian Dingle, San Diego Chargers (6-3, 272): An up-and-coming player who picked up 4 sacks last year in a part time role. Plays behind two outstanding pass rushers or else he would probably start. Turns 26 in 2003.
- DE Chike Okeafor, San Francisco 49ers (6-4, 265lbs): Did a decent job on the strongside of the 49er defense by picking up 6.0 sacks in 2002 in his first season as a full-time starter. Turns 27 in 2003.
- DE Antonio Cochran, Seattle Seahawks (6-4, 292lbs): Decent two-way defensive end who had 4.5 sacks in 2001 and 3.0 in 2002. Has some experience at tackle. Turns 27 in 2003.
- DE Peppi Zellner, Dallas Cowboys (6-5, 262lbs): Athletic defensive end who suffered a serious knee injury in 2000. Started at defensive end for much of the 2001 season for the injured Ebenezer Ekuban and accrued 53 tackles and 3 sacks that year. Had 45 tackles and no sacks in 2002 in a back-up role. Turns 28 in 2003.
- DE Chidi Ahanotu, Buffalo Bills (6-2, 285lbs): Signed by the Bills late in the preseason. Accrued 5.0 sacks. Turns 33 in 2003.
- DT Daryl Gardener, Washington Redskins (6-6, 295lbs): Gardener was waived by the Dolphins last year due a chronic back condition, but he was one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league in 2002. He picked up 4 sacks and an outstanding 71 tackles and was the focus of regular double-teams. Concerns about his long-term health remain.
- DT Cletidus Hunt, Green Bay Packers (6-4, 303lbs): Hunt had his best season, using his explosive size and strength to penetrate and rush effectively. Accrued 5.5 sacks. Just 27 years old.
- DT John Thorton, Tennessee Titans (6-2, 292lbs): Quality, unsung player on the Titans’ defense. Powerful and aggressive defensive tackle against the run. Only picked up 2 sacks in 2002 and none in 2001. Turns 27 in 2003.
- DT Montae Reagor, Denver Broncos (6-3, 285lbs): Back-up, undersized defensive tackle who flashes inside pass rush ability. Turns 26 in 2003.
- DT Brian Young, St. Louis Rams (6-2, 278lbs): Lacks size but very quick and can be disruptive. Young underwent wrist surgery after the season, and injuries prevented him from playing at the level he did in 2001. Was in on 78 tackles and 6.5 sacks that season. In 2002, he production fell to 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
- DT Brandon Noble, Dallas Cowboys (6-2, 312lbs): Overachiever who is a decent run defender; not much of a pass rusher (no sacks in 2002). Turns 29 in 2003.
- DT Michael Myers, Dallas Cowboys (6-2, 292lbs): Back-up defensive tackle who flashes some ability. Had 72 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2001 and 45 tackles and no sacks in 2002. Just 27 years old.
- DT Jeff Zgonina, St. Louis Rams (6-2, 300lbs): Steady, dependable player and a team leader. Picked up 4 sacks last season. Turns 33 in 2003.
Linebackers: I like strongside linebacker Brandon Short as a 2-down player, but the Giants made a big mistake by playing him in 3rd down situations if you ask me. He simply isn’t quick or fast enough to excel in pass coverage, especially in short zones against wide receivers. I remain a fan of MLB Michael Barrow and expect him to rebound from a sub-par season, but Barrow will turn 33 years old in 2003 and could be slowing down. Dhani Jones wasn’t bad in 2002 as he was third on the team in tackles. He can run and cover, but he didn’t make many impact plays. He should improve, but the Giants need some serious competition for his spot. Factoring into the competition at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker are Nick Greisen and Wes Mallard, respectively. But both still have a lot to learn.
- MLB Takeo Spikes, Cincinnati Bengals (6-2, 245lbs): Arguably on par with Ravens’ MLB Ray Lewis. A super-talented 3-down linebacker. Impact player and team leader. Hard to imagine even the woeful Bengals would be stupid enough not to protect him. Turns 27 in 2003. Press reports indicate he will be “Transition” tagged.
- LB Keith Brookings, Atlanta Falcons (6-2, 245lbs): Pro Bowl linebacker who has experience both inside and outside. Recorded 167 tackles in 2001 and 140 in 2002. Team leader. Most likely will not hit the open market. Turns 28 in 2003.
- OLB Anthony Simmons, Seattle Seahawks (6-0, 242lbs): Play-making linebacker with Pro Bowl ability. Three-down player who can do it all. Was in on 101 tackles in 2001, but was slowed by a high ankle sprain in 2002. Turns 27 in 2003.
- WLB Mike Peterson, Indianapolis Colts (6-1, 234lbs): Peterson is an emerging player who many expect big things from. Accrued 104 tackles in 2002 despite being hindered by a broken bone in his hand. Turns 27 in 2003.
- MLB Chris Claiborne, Detroit Lions (6-3, 258lbs): A former first round draft pick with good size and athletic-ability who has been unable to put it all together. But his numbers certainly look good…accrued 101 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions in 2002. Will turn 25 in 2003.
- WLB Shawn Barber, Philadelphia Eagles (6-2, 237lbs): Eagles thought they were getting a role player from the Redskins, but Barber impressed enough to become a starter. Former safety in college who runs very well and can cover. Second on the team with 119 tackles; also had 1 sack, 2 interceptions, forced 1 fumble, and recovered 3 fumbles. Will turn 28 in 2003.
- MLB Shelton Quarles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1, 225lbs): Quarles is a steady but unspectacular player who can play all three linebacker spots. Accrued 113 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 interceptions in 2003. Will turn 32 in 2003.
- MLB Kevin Mitchell, Washington Redskins (6-1, 257lbs): Back-up linebacker who has played solidly when he has played. With Jeremiah Trotter in DC, Mitchell wants to go someplace where he can compete for a starting job. Posted 82 tackles in 2001 when he started 13 games. Will turn 32 in 2003.
- WLB Rob Frederickson, Arizona Cardinals (6-4, 242lbs): On the downside of his career and coming off an injury-plagued season. When healthy, he is play-maker who does well in coverage. Turns 32 in 2003.
- SLB Al Singleton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2, 228lbs): Improving player with good range. Accrued 58 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception in 2003. Will turn 28 in 2003.
- WLB Jeff Posey, Houston Texans (6-4, 249lbs): Accrued 60 tackles and 8 sacks in 2002, plus one interception (against the Giants). Quick, agile player who can rush the passer; improving in coverage. Turns 28 in 2003.
- MLB Jay Foreman, Houston Texans (6-1, 240lbs): Was in on a 136 tackles in 2002. Has good speed. Will turn 27 in 2003.
- SLB Keith Newman, Buffalo Bills (6-2, 248lbs): Good all-around player. Picked up 21 tackles and 3 sacks in 2002 and 62 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2001. Misused in Buffalo. Will turn 26 in 2003.
- WLB James Darling, New York Jets (6-0, 250lbs): Nickel backer and primary reserve on the Jets. Good special teams player. Turns 29 in 2003.
Defensive Backs: General Manager Ernie Accorsi made this point a couple of years ago, but he is 100 percent right: a third corner is more important than a starting strongside linebacker because the third corner is on the field more often. The Giants have two keepers in Will Allen and Will Peterson, but they need to determine who their third cornerback will be. Obviously this depends on what they do with CB Jason Sehorn.
There isn’t much out there in free agency. Chris McAlister of the Ravens is a stud and Tyrone Williams of the Packers is darn good too, but neither is going to come to the Giants as a third corner. There’s the rub. If a guy is really good, he will not want to come to New York. So the Giants need to keep Sehorn, hope someone like Ralph Brown or Kato Serwanga can handle the job, or draft someone and put a lot of responsibility on the rookie. Ideally, I think the best solution would be to re-structure Sehorn’s deal. Sehorn will count approximately $6 million against the 2003 cap, but he will cost another $700,000 if he is waived before June 1st. Sehorn should also be better in 2003 after having a full training camp on a healthy knee. Then draft someone and see what you got in Serwanga and Brown. No one out there in free agency who would sign with the Giants is better than Sehorn.
Shaun Williams is set at strong safety. Omar Stoutmire did not stand out at free safety, but he wasn’t bad either. He has good speed and is fair against the run. The big knock against both safeties is that they did not come up with more interceptions. There are three guys on the free agent list who caught my attention:
- FS Tebucky Jones, New England Patriots (6-2, 218lbs): Former first rounder. Was tried at corner early in his career, but seems to have found a home at free safety. Improving. Fast, aggressive player with a knack for making plays. Big hitter, but inconsistent tackler. Superb special teams player. Turns 29 in 2003.
- FS Kwamie Lassiter, Arizona Cardinals (6-0, 202lbs): Kwamie was “Franchised” by the Cardinals last season and wants out of Arizona desperately. Aggressive player and big hitter. Picked off 9 passes in 2001 and 2 in 2002. Will turn 34 in 2003.
- FS Dexter Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1, 203lbs): The Super Bowl MVP picked the right time to have the biggest day of his career. Probably will be overpriced. Solid free safety who plays the run well and had 3 interceptions in 2002 (and 2 in the Super Bowl). Turns 26 in 2003.
SPECIAL TEAMS – Kickers: The Giants need a punter. Matt Allen will not be back and Steve Cheek is camp fodder. I’d feel a lot better too if the Giants got a veteran placekicker who has a history of performing well in the clutch. It would be a shame to see Super Bowl dreams go down the drain because Bryant choked. I hope Ernie Accorsi has learned his lesson about going cheap with kickers. And obviously the Giants need to find a decent long-snapper.
- P Todd Sauerbrun, Carolina Panthers (5-10, 211lbs): Pro Bowler. Led the league in punting with a superb 45.5 yards-per-punt average and a 37.5 yard-per-punt net. Wants to be paid big bucks. 30 years old.
- P Craig Hentrich, Tennessee Titans (6-3, 202lbs): One of the most consistent punters in the league. Averaged 41.9 yards-per-punt in 2002. Can kick off. Turns 32 in 2003.
- P Jeffrey Feagles, Seattle Seahawks (6-1, 211lbs): Still punting strong despite his age. In fact, had one of his best seasons in 2002; averaged 41.7 yards-per-punt (with an excellent net of 37.0). Turns 37 in 2003.
- P Sean Landeta, Philadelphia Eagles (6-0, 215lbs): Why not? Was a key to the Eagles’ field-position success until tearing a calf muscle in early December. Averaged 42.9 yards-per-kick in 2002. Obviously, he knows the Meadowlands as he spent most of his career with the Giants. 41 years old.
- PK Morten Andersen, Kansas City Chiefs (6-2, 217lbs): Why not? He wanted to stay in New York last season and he is as clutch as you can get. The ageless one turns 43 in 2003, but was kicking well for the Chiefs, hitting his first 15 attempts and 21 of his first 23 until a torn meniscus in his plant leg began limiting his accuracy and distance. He missed the last two games but still finished 22-of-26 with 6-of-10 accuracy from 40-plus.
- PK John Carney, New Orleans Saints (5-11, 180lbs): Was 31-of-35 with a long field goal of 48 yards in 2002. Turns 39 in 2003.
- PK Mike Hollis, Buffalo Bills (5-7, 178lbs): Was 25-of-33, including three field goals of 50+ yards. Turns 31 in 2003.
OFFENSE: The only glaring need is for a short-yardage back, but there are a few spots where the roster can be tweaked. Adding depth and competition to the offensive line will be addressed. Accorsi says Ron Dayne will stay. If he doesn’t, then the Giants need to find a viable back-up to Tiki Barber. I would not be shocked at all if Accorsi’s big move in free agency is to pursue an impact wide receiver such as David Boston or Peerless Price.
Offensive Line: Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I don’t want to see the Giants fool around with a young offensive line that rapidly gained cohesion last season. And cohesion is the key word; this group works well with each. I’d like to see the Giants re-sign LT Luke Petitgout, OC Chris Bober (restricted), RG Jason Whittle, and RT Mike Rosenthal and then go from there. If they sign somebody who can beat out Whittle or Rosenthal in camp, great. But I wouldn’t count on it. Forget the Giants pursuing expensive left tackle prospects such as Orlando Pace (Franchised), Walter Jones, or Wayne Gandy unless Petitgout leaves.
- OG Randy Thomas, New York Jets (6-4, 301lbs): Athletic and quick for an offensive lineman. Smart and strong. Will turn 27 in 2003.
- OG Mo Collins, Oakland Raiders (6-4, 325lbs): Big, mobile offensive lineman with quick feet and position skills. Has some experience at tackle. Will turn 27 in 2003.
- OG Zach Piller, Tennessee Titans (6-5, 315lbs): Strong and tough. Plays with an aggressive attitude. Will turn 27 in 2003.
- OG Ed Mulitalo, Baltimore Ravens (6-3, 340lbs): Big, strong blocker. Turns 27 in 2003.
- OT/OG Solomon Page, Dallas Cowboys (6-4, 325lbs): Former high round draft pick who has been somewhat disappointing in Dallas. Has good tools…athletic with excellent size. Can play guard or tackle. Will turn 27 in 2003.
- OG Doug Brzezinski, Philadelphia Eagles (6-4, 305lbs): A solid back-up behind a talented Eagles’ offensive line. Can play guard or center. Has starting experience. Will turn 27 in 2003.
Running Back: Charles Stackhouse did some nice things as a rookie, but he’s not what you are looking for as a lead blocker. Whether the Giants are willing to spend free agent dollars on a fullback is a matter open to debate. Tiki Barber is the starter at halfback and Dayne is the back-up. However, neither is a good short yardage running back.
- FB Lorenzo Neal, Cincinnati Bengals (5-11, 240lbs): Pro Bowl fullback who is an outstanding lead blocker. Good receiver too. Turns 33 in 2003.
- FB Mack Strong, Seattle Seahawks (6-0, 245lbs): One of the better blocking fullbacks in the league. Turns 32 in 2003.
- FB Jon Ritchie, Oakland Raiders (6-1, 250lbs): Split time at Stanford University with Greg Comella. Ritchie was considered the much better blocker of the two. Can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. Turns 29 in 2003.
- FB Zack Crockett, Oakland Raiders (6-2, 240lbs): A bit of a halfback-fullback ‘tweener. Short-yardage specialist who excels at picking up first downs and touchdowns. Turns 31 in 2003.
- FB Marc Edwards, New England Patriots (6-0, 245lbs): Decent blocker and a tough player.
Turns 29 in 2003.
- FB Rob Konrad, Miami Dolphins (6-3, 255lbs): Better receiver than blocker, but not bad lead guy for Ricky Williams. Turns 27 in 2003.
- FB Richie Anderson, New York Jets (6-2, 230lbs): Anderson isn’t a top blocker, but he is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Caught 45 passes in 2002. Turns 32 in 2003.
- Stacey Mack, Jacksonville Jaguars (6-1, 238lbs): One of the better back-up running backs in the league, Mack would be a good fit for the Giants as he runs with more straight-ahead power than Tiki Barber. However, Mack is apparently looking for a starting job. Turns 28 in 2003.
- HB Shawn Bryson, Buffalo Bills (6-1, 228lbs): Big back with some speed and power. However, Bryson is coming off his second major knee injury.
Wide Receiver: After Amani Toomer, there are a lot of question marks. Ron Dixon is a restricted free agent who had some very good games last year but who also showed he wasn’t the most dedicated or brightest guy in the world by missing meetings and appointments with doctors. Most likely, he will be re-signed and challenge for a starting job. Tim Carter showed tremendous potential, but suffered a very serious Achilles’ injury. The Giants are hopeful he will be alright. Ike Hilliard is still recuperating from a serious shoulder injury and has a ton of wear-and-tear on his young body. He is a free agent looking for long-term security; he is unlikely to get that from the Giants. Daryl Jones was a disappointment in his rookie season and will have to fight to make the team in training camp. Tony Simmons will get a chance to impress. If everyone comes back healthy (specifically Hilliard and Carter), this can be a very good unit. But that’s not a sure thing.
I would not be shocked to see Accorsi go after a high-profile free agent here and turn a very good Giants’ offense into an outstanding one. Much will depend on who is available, the asking price, and the health/contract situations with Dixon, Hilliard, and Carter.
- WR David Boston, Arizona Cardinals (6-2, 222lbs): One of the most talented receivers in the NFL. An impact player with excellent size and speed. Tore his patella tendon last season and has had some off-the-field issues (pleaded no contest to a DUI charge and faces possible suspension under the League’s substance abuse policy). Turns 25 in 2003.
- WR Peerless Price, Buffalo Bills (5-11, 190lbs): Pro Bowl alternate coming off an excellent season (94 catches for 1,252 yards and 9 touchdowns). A bit volatile off the field. Turns 27 in 2003.
- WR MarTay Jenkins, Arizona Cardinals (6-0, 200lbs): One of the NFL’s fastest players. An inconsistent, but improving receiver who is a dangerous kick returner. Coming off an injury (fractured shoulder). Turns 28 in 2003.
- WR Kevin Dyson, Tennessee Titans (6-1, 208lbs): A speedy receiver with good size who has not lived up to expectations in Tennessee. Was placed on Injured Reserve last season with a torn hamstring. Suffered serious knee injury in 2000, but rebounded well in 2001 with 825 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. Turns 28 in 2003.
Tight Ends: The Giants are set here with Jeremy Shockey, Dan Campbell, and Marcellus Rivers if the Giants are able to re-sign Campbell. If they don’t, they have a big need for a blocking tight end. After Petitgout, I think Campbell is their most important free agent to re-sign.
Quarterback: No need here if the Giants re-sign Jason Garrett as their third quarterback.