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The New York Giants learned two valuable lessons in 2016: (1) if done wisely, you can dramatically improve the team by spending in free agency; and (2) a team weakness can rapidly become a team strength, and unfortunately visa versa.
Last year at this time, the New York Giants entered free agency with approximately $60 million in salary cap space – the most by far in team history. The goal was to rapidly improve a defense that finished dead last in the NFL. The Giants re-signed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (1-year, $10.5 million). Then they went out and spent big bucks on cornerback Janoris Jenkins (5-years, $62.5 million), defensive tackle Damon Harrison (5-years, $46.25 million), and defensive end Olivier Vernon (5-years, $85 million). They also gave fairly sizable short-term contracts to linebacker Keenan Robinson (1-year, $3.5 million) and cornerback/safety Leon Hall (1-year, $2 million). The results were exceptional. The Giants improved from dead last in defense to 10th in yards allowed and 2nd in scoring allowed. Pierre-Paul, Jenkins, Harrison, Vernon, and Robinson were all major factors in the dramatic turnaround. 2016 certainly rivals 2005 (linebacker Antonio Pierce, right tackle Kareem McKenzie, and wide receiver Plaxico Burress) as the franchise’s most successful free agent period to date.
But as the defense rose, the offense declined, falling from 8th in 2015 to 25th in 2016, with precipitous drops in both the passing and running games. The decline was an unpleasant surprise and the team now unfortunately has question marks at every offensive position.
A week ago, the Giants had about half as much cap space ($30 million) as they had last year. But the decision to place the Franchise Tag on Pierre-Paul has now reduced their available salary-cap space to $13 million. The situation is fluid as a renegotiated long-term deal for Pierre-Paul could improve the picture. On the other hand, if the Giants are able to re-sign defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, they will not have much operating room.
The Giants are in a bit of an uncomfortable position. This is a relatively young roster with one major exception: the starting quarterback. Eli Manning is most likely in the twilight of his career. Because of that, there is an extreme sense of urgency to put this team over the top right now. But urgency can cause decision makers to make rash, short-term decisions that end up proving costly. The Giants may feel they have to be aggressive and take some risks in free agency, but they also have to be careful. The worst-case scenario would be sacrificing medium- and long-term cap health and then finding out that Manning is already done.
QUARTERBACK: Eli Manning is under contract for three more years. But decisions need to be made in terms of his short-term back-up in 2017 as well as his long-term replacement. Ryan Nassib and Josh Johnson are both unrestricted free agents. Keith Wenning is the only other quarterback currently under contract. The Giants will probably re-sign Nassib or Johnson, and possibly draft a quarterback. If neither Nassib or Johnson are re-signed, the Giants will have to sign a veteran back-up in free agency.
RUNNING BACKS: Unless Paul Perkins is the real deal, this position is a mess. Rashad Jennings was cut. Bobby Rainey and Orleans Darkwa are both unrestricted free agents who probably should not be re-signed. George Winn, Jacob Huesman, and Daryl Virgies are most likely camp fodder. That leaves 3rd-down back Shane Vereen, who tore the same triceps muscle twice in 2016 and who has an injury-plagued history. The Giants will have to draft a running back, but they may look to add a veteran in free agency as well.
FULLBACKS: Will Johnson missed all of 2016 with a neck injury. Nikita Whitlock missed the season with a Lisfranc injury and will not be re-signed. The most important question moving forward here is does Ben McAdoo want to employ a fullback in his offense? If so, they may add another veteran in free agency to compete with Johnson.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Odell Beckham, Jr. is one of the best receivers in football. Sterling Shepard had a very solid rookie season and will remain the team’s top option at the slot receiver position. But the Giants need another viable outside threat opposite of Beckham. Victor Cruz was cut. McAdoo dramatically reduced Dwayne Harris’ playing time in 2016, and he is more of a slot receiver-type too. Journeyman Tavarres King made some noise late in the season. Roger Lewis, Jr. will be entering his second year. Darius Powe and Kevin Norwood are two bigger receivers who face an uphill climb. Much depends about how the Giants truly feel about King and Lewis. If there are doubts, this is another position where the Giants may sign a veteran in free agency.
TIGHT ENDS: This position has been a revolving door for years and the lack of a serious receiving threat has really hurt Ben McAdoo’s West Coast offensive scheme. The blocking here has also been sub-par. Second-year tight end Jerell Adams has the tools to be a decent two-way player, but does he have the mental make-up? Will Tye (re-signed) appears to be more of a role player/back-up type. Matt LaCosse (re-signed) has not been able to stay healthy. Larry Donnell will not be back. There is a major “Help Wanted” sign at this position. The Giants will undoubtedly draft a tight end. But they should also be taking a serious look at all veteran tight ends on the open market in free agency.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Giants are comfortable with their left guard and center. The big questions here are do they want to move Ereck Flowers from left tackle to another position, and if so where? And do the Giants see Bobby Hart as a legitimate starter at either right tackle or right guard? How the Giants brain trust answers these questions will determine their strategy in free agency and the draft. The bad news is that good left tackles either entering their prime or in their prime rarely hit the open market. So the Giants will have to gamble on an inconsistent player or an aging veteran if they want to move Flowers. The Giants are not likely to re-sign Will Beatty. But they may decide to re-sign John Jerry at right guard and Marshall Newhouse as a reserve, swing tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Assuming the Giants and Jason Pierre-Paul eventually agree on a deal, the big question mark is can the Giants re-sign Johnathan Hankins? If the Giants re-sign both, the team is in good shape on the defensive line. The dilemma with JPP is that he is seeking a big, multi-year contract and he’s a guy who has had trouble staying on the field in recent years. One also wonders about his focus once he signs a big contract. That said, JPP is clearly one of the best defensive ends available in free agency. The Damon Harrison-Johnathan Hankins combo inside was a big reason why the Giants defense improved so dramatically. But the Giants have had a history in recent years of letting quality tackles go in their prime (Barry Cofield, Linval Joseph) and replacing them through the draft. If Hankins departs, unless the Giants are high on Jay Bromley or Robert Thomas (re-signed), then the Giants will have to draft his replacement and/or sign another veteran free agent.
LINEBACKERS: There are no headliners at this position on the Giants. The team probably would like to re-sign Keenan Robinson if his contract demands are reasonable. Robinson had a good initial season with the Giants, but has an injury-plagued history. The team may not make much an effort to re-sign Kelvin Sheppard or Mark Herzlich. The surprise is that the Giants have not cut J.T. Thomas ($4 million cap hit) yet. Look for the Giants to sign one or two cheap veteran linebackers, especially if Robinson and Sheppard leave.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: The Giants are in great shape at cornerback with Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (JPP). But depth is a bit of a concern. Coty Sensabaugh and Trevin Wade are unrestricted free agents. That leaves Michael Hunter and Donte Deayon. The Giants will need to re-sign someone or add additional bodies in free agency and/or the draft. The Giants are set at strong safety with All-Pro Landon Collins. But free safety is a question mark. Darian Thompson (Lisfranc) and Mykkele Thompson (knee) are coming off of serious injuries. Nat Berhe can’t stay healthy and Andrew Adams, Rahim Moore, Eric Pinkins, and Ryan Murphy are guys you don’t want starting. Much depends on the health prognosis for Darian Thompson. Aging veteran and unrestricted free agent Leon Hall could be a short-term option as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Brad Wing and long snapper Zak DeOssie (re-signed) are under contract. Dwayne Harris ($3.8 salary cap hit) is the returner unless the Giants release him for space. But the team has a major question mark at place kicker. 35-year old Robbie Gould is an unrestricted free agent. The Giants will need a veteran to compete with Aldrick Rosas.
SUMMARY: Much of the media and fan focus will be on upgrading the offense this offseason. The Giants may need new veteran starters at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and one or two spots on the offensive line. They also need to settle on a back-up quarterback. The defense looks to be in better shape IF the team is able to re-sign Pierre-Paul and Hankins. But in doing so, much of their available salary cap space will evaporate quickly. Other than these two, the main question marks are whether to re-sign or replace Keenan Robinson and what to do at free safety. The team also needs a place kicker.
Free Agent Wish List:
- Second-string quarterback (Ryan Nassib, Josh Johnson, or another veteran)
- Running back who can compete for the starting job
- Fullback who can compete with Will Johnson
- Wide receiver who can compete for starting outside position
- Tight end who can compete for starting job
- Offensive tackle who can compete for starting job
- Re-sign or replace John Jerry
- Re-sign or replace Johnathan Hankins
- Re-sign or replace Keenan Robinson
- Re-sign or replace Kelvin Sheppard
- Re-sign or replace Trevin Wade
- Re-sign or replace Coty Sensabaugh
- Free safety who can compete with Darian Thompson
- Re-sign or replace Robbie Gould
The Giants will not be able to address all of these needs in free agency. Some will have to be handled via the draft. But there is much work to be done in order to get this team to the next level.