Apr 062015
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George Selvie, Dallas Cowboys (December 15, 2013)

George Selvie – © USA TODAY Sports Images

As discussed in our spotlight on defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis, the defensive line of the New York Giants has been in a state of decline. This has been most noticeable at defensive end where the Giants have seen the deterioration and departure of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka, not to mention the roller coaster productivity of Jason Pierre-Paul.

To help reinforce this unit, the Giants signed unrestricted free agent George Selvie from the Dallas Cowboys on March 20. The contract was reportedly a 1-year, $1.4 million deal that included a $200,000 signing bonus.

The 28-year old Selvie was a collegiate teammate of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul at the University of South Florida. And it is Selvie, and not JPP, who holds school records for career sacks, sacks in a season, and tackles for a loss in a season. In 2007, Selvie was named “Big East Defensive Player of the Year” when he accrued 14.5 sacks. Indeed, at one time, Selvie was considered a better pro prospect than Pierre-Paul. But not by the Giants and the rest of the NFL.

After the Giants drafted Pierre-Paul in 2010, Giants Vice President of Player Evaluation was asked why the Giants like JPP better than Selvie. “(Pierre-Paul) is a great player,” replied Ross. “Selvie – not much. This kid helped Selvie… They are totally different players; totally different skill set; totally different athletic ability. The media was talking about Selvie – the guy had a tremendous sophomore year. He had 15 sacks or so. But his production has gone down and that is where you evaluate their skill set; their athletic ability; the height, weight, speed, the quickness, the strength, those things.”

While Pierre-Paul was drafted in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Giants, Selvie fell to the 7th round where he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. The head coach of the Rams at the time was Steve Spagnuolo. Selvie only lasted one season with the Rams. He played in all 16 games as a rookie and finished the year with 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Spagnulo waived Selvie in early September 2011 before the regular season started. Selvie was immediately claimed by the Carolina Panthers but then waived a month later after playing in four games as a backup. A month after that, in November, he was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he played in seven games as backup. In all, Selvie finished the 2011 season with only six tackles and half a sack.

Selvie missed the first five games of the 2012 season with a knee injury. When he returned, Selvie played in nine games as a reserve for the Jaguars, collecting 15 tackles and one sack.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Selvie as a free agent in April 2013 after the Jaguars decided not to tender him. However, Tampa Bay became the fourth NFL team to cut ties with Selvie when they released him a month later.

It was at this point in time where there would occur another connection between Selvie and the Giants. After being cut by Tampa Bay, Selvie was invited to try out at the Giants rookie mini-camp in May 2013. However, Selvie did not do enough to impress the team and he was not offered a contract.

At the time, that looked like the last hurrah for Selvie. But two months later, the Dallas Cowboys signed him after their training camp opened. Defensive end Anthony Spencer was having knee issues and defensive end Tyrone Crawford had just tore his Achilles. Although Selvie was not expected to make the team, the Cowboys were desperate for bodies. However, Selvie did more than that as he quickly earned first-team reps and was named the starter at left (strongside) defensive end in the preseason.

For the Cowboys in 2013, Selvie started all 16 regular-season games and finished the year with 45 tackles, seven sacks (second most on the team), 22 quarterback pressures, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Selvie’s first sack as a Cowboy was on Eli Manning in the opener. Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinellis affectionately nicknamed him the “Bricklayer.”

“It’s something coach Marinelli came up with,” said Selvie. “You know sometimes you got guys who will just keep going out there and work, just through time lay bricks, lay bricks one at a time to get better. That’s an analogy they try to use with me, so it just kept.”

Selvie’s productivity in Dallas declined in 2014. He played in all 16 regular-season games with 13 starts at left defensive end. He also started both playoff games for the Cowboys. Selvie finished the regular season with 30 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. He added six post-season tackles, including five against Green Bay. Selvie was credited with 20 quarterback pressures in the regular season, down by just two from 2013. And he continued to cause problems for the Giants, sacking Eli again and being credited with eight tackles in two games against Big Blue in 2014.

When Dallas signed one of the better defensive ends in free agency in Greg Hardy in March 2015, Selvie became expendable. The Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – two teams that had already looked at him just two years earlier and had rejected him – were both interested once again. Selvie signed with the Giants, whose new defensive coordinator, Spagnulo, had also previously waived Selvie.

“I’m excited to be here,” Selvie said. “It’s a great opportunity for me. And I’m excited to be playing with JPP again, along with Spags. I’m excited for the opportunity to be here.

“There have been great defensive linemen that have played (with the Giants), and I want to be one of those. I felt like this was a great situation. With Jason being over there (at right defensive end), he gets a lot of attention. I hope I can get free with that. It’s a great opportunity and a great fit.”

Pierre-Paul also appears thrilled to be playing with his old collegiate teammate.

“I think that’s a great pickup,” Pierre-Paul said of the Giants signing Selvie. “He’s a good player. George can play the run and rush the passer. From the film I’ve watched, he’s gotten better as a player…He’s a dedicated worker, and I know he’s going to work to try to get better and better.”

So how does Selvie fit in with the Giants? At 6’4”, 270 pounds, the journeyman Selvie has demonstrated an ability to be a decent run defender at left end, where he has started 31 regular- and post-season NFL games since 2013. He also has 10 sacks and 42 quarterback pressures in the last two regular seasons. That alone gives him a decent shot a starting job at strongside end if the Giants choose to keep JPP at weakside end. Selvie will compete with Damontre Moore, Robert Ayers, and Kerry Wynn – along with any potential 2015 draft pick – for a starting job. No one yet has the inside track.

“George is going to fill in that gap that we have on that other side,” Pierre-Paul said. “He is going to fight for that starting spot. That’s a good thing. That will make everybody work harder.”

The big question is what is Selvie’s upside? Was 2013 his career year for a journeyman now with his sixth team? Is he the kind of guy you look to replace, or can become a valuable starter or reserve in New York? That remains to be seen. Like a bad penny, Selvie keeps turning up. Spagnulo, the Buccaneers, and Giants all wanted him back after cutting ties. At the very least, it will be interesting to see if Selvie’s presence on the team has an impact on JPP’s mental outlook and overall game.

Apr 012015
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Kenrick Ellis, New York Jets (November 24, 2014)

Kenrick Ellis – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Heading into the offseason, it was clear to many, including team officials, that the New York Giants had to get better on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The once-vaunted defensive line has clearly declined. While the Giants actually finished fourth in the NFL in sacks (47), that statistic was misleading as the team went long stretches without being able to consistently pressure the passer. Worse, the Giants were 30th against the run in terms of yards per game (135.1) and dead-last in the NFL in terms of yards per rush (4.9).

To help rectify that problem, the New York Giants signed 27-year old unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis from the New York Jets on March 18. The contract was reported to be a 1-year, $1.65 million deal that included $500,000 in guaranteed money.

Barring injury, the up-and-coming Johnathan Hankins will start at one defensive tackle position. But the second spot appears up for grabs between 34-year old Cullen Jenkins, who is coming off a down season where he was bothered by a troublesome calf injury; 2012 7th-rounder Markus Kuhn, who did little to excite in 2014; 2014 3rd-round Jay Bromley, who mostly rode the bench his rookie season; and journeyman Dominique Hamilton, who spent the year on the team’s practice squad. The Giants could also add another defensive tackle in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The Jamaican-born Ellis is a huge (6’4”, 346 pound) run-stuffing defensive tackle who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Jets out of Hampton University. Ellis transferred to Hampton after he was dismissed from the South Carolina Gamecocks in May 2008 for repeated violations of team and university drug policies. Ellis also ran into legal problems at Hampton. In April 2010, he was arrested by university police and served jail time after a felony assault charge on another student.

With the Jets, Ellis’ numbers were as follows:

  • 2011: 5 games, 2 starts, 7 tackles
  • 2012: 12 games, 2 starts, 18 tackles (missed four games with a knee injury)
  • 2013: 16 games, 1 start, 16 tackles
  • 2014: 14 games, 0 starts, 12 tackles, 1 sack

So overall, in four seasons with the Jets, Ellis played in 47 games with five starts. He only accrued 53 tackles and one sack during that time. Those are hardly superlative numbers. However, it is important to keep in mind that (1) Ellis was valuable reserve on a very talented Jets defensive line, and (2) his role on the team was not to make plays but to tie up blockers, allowing others to make the tackle.

Ellis was expected to start in 2013, but he was injured in training camp and beaten out by Damon Harrison, an undrafted free agent. In 2014, Ellis only played 158 snaps behind Harrison.

“I am a run-stopper and I like doing it,” said Ellis. “That is the strength of my game. I look forward to helping the Giants get back to their glory.

“I’m a journeyman. I come in and do my job. You don’t get much recognition for it, but you get the job done and it helps out the team. I’ll take on the double-teams and take on the work no one else wants to do. It’s just who I am. I take pride in what I do, which is being a big man in the middle and try to make sure no one runs the ball.”

Despite his low production and his own claims to being a journeyman, Ellis may be more than that. And he has legitimate chance to start for the Giants in 2014. Ellis has the tools. Not only is he naturally strong and huge with long arms, he’s pretty darn athletic for his size. He is also competitive and plays with a bit of a mean streak. Ellis can take on double-team blocks and he is extremely difficult to move off the line of scrimmage. And despite having only one career sack, Ellis does flash explosiveness. The knocks on him coming out of college were his off-field issues, inconsistency, and instincts.

“Ellis is a big human,” said Coughlin. “The young man on our practice squad, Hamilton, is a big human, so I am looking forward to seeing what they can do, too… We realized that big dominating guy in the middle is a good starting point for the D-Line.”

“(The Jets) took a lot of pride in (stopping the run) while I was there, and I want to take the same pride here and start something special,” Ellis said.

Mar 292015
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J.T. Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars (December 18, 2014)

J.T. Thomas – © USA TODAY Sports Images

As discussed in our free agent spotlight on linebacker Jonathan Casillas, the New York Giants have been forced to upgrade the linebacker position in free agency because of their failed attempts to do so from the college ranks. After four seasons, the Giants decided to part ways with Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger and sign Casillas from the New England Patriots and J.T. Thomas from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Giants signed 26-year old J.T. Thomas in March 2015 to a 3-year, $10 million deal that included $4.5 million in guaranteed money and $1 million escalators in 2016 and 2017.

Thomas – a three-year starter at the University of West Virginia – was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve after suffering a hip injury in the preseason. In February 2012, Thomas was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge (marijuana). He played in all 16 games for the Bears in 2012, but did not start and finished the season with six special teams tackles and one forced fumble.

The Bears waived Thomas in August 2013. He was immediately claimed off of waivers by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thomas played in 15 games with the Jaguars in 2013, starting two contests and finishing the season with 17 tackles (12 solo) on defense and six special teams tackles (third on the team). Thomas also blocked a punt that resulted in a safety.

Thomas remained a back-up at the beginning of the 2014 season, but started the last 10 games of the year at middle linebacker after Paul Posluszny got hurt. He finished the season with 84 tackles, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.

“I really like J.T. Thomas,” said Jacksonville Jaguars’ Head Coach Gus Bradley after the Giants signed Thomas. “Really, the good thing about J.T. is flexibility. He played at all three positions for us. He can go in at all three positions at any time and play extremely fast, as far as knowing what he’s supposed to do.

“He took really good command of the defense. When (Posluszny) got hurt for us, we were scrambling a little bit. When J.T. came in he settled things down. It’s very important to him. I can’t say enough good things about J.T.”

In the week 13 match-up against the Giants, Thomas finished the game with 12 total tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Head Coach Tom Coughlin pointed to that game as a significant factor in the team’s evaluation of Thomas, who also had double-digit tackle numbers in games against the Colts and Titans.

Despite that productivity, the Jaguars still saw Thomas as back-up material as the team signed Dan Skuta from the San Francisco 49ers to start along side Posluszny and Telvin Smith.

“What his role would be for us, with a guy like Puz coming back, it would be more a role where he was a back-up,” Bradley said. “He saw himself more as a starter.”

Right or wrong, the Giants seem to think Thomas can be a viable NFL starter too, ideally at weakside linebacker to replace Jacquian Williams. On the surface, this does seem to be his best position given his size (6’1” and 236 pounds) and overall athletic ability (4.65 speed). The Giants also think Thomas will improve their special teams.

“We think Thomas can be a WILL ‘backer,” said Coughlin. “Casillas is basically the same kind of guy. Both are excellent special teamers. They’ll make contributions in both ways.”

Thomas lacks ideal size, but is a good athlete. In a nutshell, he is a run-and-hit linebacker who is at his best when he is protected and does not have to take on blockers at the point-of-attack. Thomas is intense, instinctive, and involved in a lot of tackles. While Thomas is not afraid to stick his nose into the scrum, he is not a strong or physical player. He won’t shock you as a hitter, and many of his tackles are of the down-the-field variety. Thomas is good in coverage and should help the New York defense deal with the plethora of tight end and running back receiving threats in today’s NFL.

In terms of intangibles, Thomas has some off-the-field issues in his past. Aside from the drug charge, in college, Thomas was arrested for being involved with a stolen laptop. On the flip side, he is known for his charity work with children with medical issues. Thomas also has the reputation for being a hard worker and team leader. His on-field personality is demonstrated when he was mic’d up in a December 7, 2014 game against the Houston Texans.

How does J.T. Thomas fit in with the Giants? He is probably the favorite to start at the weakside linebacker spot though he will face competition from Jonathan Casillas. At worst, he could be a valuable reserve as he can play all three linebacker spots and is a good special teams player. The big question with Thomas is what is his upside? Jacquian Williams was the heir apparent to Michael Boley but he couldn’t handle the job. Is Thomas another placeholder or can  he be a 4-5 year starter at the position? Thomas wanted the opportunity to prove himself, and now he has it. He seems to be a hungry player.

“I am an aggressive player,” said Thomas when he signed with the Giants. “Bang, bang plays, turnovers – that is my thing. I am good at getting the ball back (by) creating turnovers. I think that is what will help us win ballgames, and that is my goal.”

Mar 242015
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Dwayne Harris, Dallas Cowboys (November 23, 2014)

Dwayne Harris – © USA TODAY Sports Images

When the free agent period officially opened on March 10, the New York Giants moved quickly to sign five players. Wide receiver and returner Dwayne Harris of the Dallas Cowboys was one of the five. And surprisingly, Harris’ 5-year, $17.5 million deal was by far the largest in terms of the number of years and overall value. Harris also received the largest amount in guaranteed money ($7.1 million with a $4 million bonus).

On the surface, that appears to be a lot of money for Dallas’ 4th wide receiver/back-up slot receiver and punt/kickoff returner.

The 27-year old Harris was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cowboys. In four seasons with the Cowboys, Harris has played in 52 regular-season games with three starts, catching 33 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns. Harris finished 2014 with just seven catches for 116 yards and no touchdowns, down from nine catches in 2013 and 17 catches in 2012.

Harris also averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kickoff return in 2014. Those decent but not stellar figures were 9th- and 13th-best in the NFL last year.

So why the big bucks for a guy who has been only a good role player to date?

“Harris is a well-kept secret to a lot of people, except the teams in NFC East,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He is one of the top all-around special teams players in league and a solid third or fourth receiving option.”

Harris indeed was far more impressive on special teams in 2013 as he averaged 12.8 yards per punt return and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Those figures were 3rd- and 2nd-best in the NFL that season, helping him to earn “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” twice, including once against the Giants.

Harris also won another another “NFC Special Teams Player of the Week” honor in 2012 against the Philadelphia Eagles. That season, Harris averaged 16.1 yards per punt return, 2nd best in the NFL. Harris returned punts for touchdowns in both 2012 and 2013. Bringing him on board strongly suggests that the Giants do not want to risk Odell Beckham on punt returns.

On the downside, he Harris six career fumbles on punts, including four in 2014. Ball security has been an issue for him going back to his college days at East Carolina.

Harris’ contributions on special teams are not limited to the return game. Harris is an excellent coverage man on special teams. Indeed, it was Harris’ coverage work against the Giants on opening day in 2013 that earned him the “Special Teams Player of the Week” award. In that game, Harris made three special teams tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered by Dallas. In 2014, Harris was credited with 18 special teams tackles – a very high number.

“I am a physical player,” Harris said. “I think all of the Giants fans are going to find that out soon. I am a physical player and I like the physical nature of the game. I like being the guy who hits players. I take a lot of hits during the game. It is always fun to return the favor.”

But $17.5 million with $7.1 million in guaranteed money still seems like a lot of money for a special teams player. Could the Giants see Harris as a bigger contributor at wide receiver than his 33 career catches to date indicate?

Assuming everyone stays healthy, the top three receivers on the Giants should be Beckham, Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle. Since Harris is experienced playing the slot receiver position, the Giants may consider Harris to be an insurance policy if Cruz struggles or re-injures himself. Preston Parker was the reserve slot guy in 2014, finishing with 36 catches for 418 yards and two touchdowns. Parker also returned both punts (6.6 yard average) and kickoffs (24.2 yard average) for the Giants in 2014. The Giants might see Harris as an upgrade over Parker not just as a returner, but as a receiver.

Heading into the offseason, the Cowboys felt they could re-sign wide receiver Cole Beasley or Harris, but not both. Harris provided more special teams value, but Beasley is the primary slot receiver for the Cowboys. Dallas re-signed Beasley with a 4-year, $13.6 million contract that included $7 million in guaranteed money and a $4 million signing bonus. As soon as that deal was done, Harris was sure to sign elsewhere.

Harris has flashed at receiver. While he is not a big (5’10”) or exceptionally fast (4.5 range) target, Harris is a solid 202-pounder with good quickness and run-after-the-catch ability. He is tough and physical and an excellent blocker for the ground game, something repeatedly mentioned by those who followed him in Dallas.

“This was just a perfect fit for me with what (the Giants) do,” said Harris. “They are going to give me a chance to play my old team, the Dallas Cowboys, twice a year.”

Mar 222015
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Marshall Newhouse, Cincinnati Bengals (November 30, 2014)

Marshall Newhouse – © USA TODAY Sports Images

It was anticipated by many New York Giants fans that the team would aggressively pursue one of the more highly regarded (or recognizable) names in free agency for the much-maligned offensive line. There was speculation that the Giants might attempt to sign guard Mike Iupati (49ers), tackle Bryan Bulaga (Packers), or guard/tackle Orlando Franklin (Broncos) among others. But those players did not seem to appear on the team’s radar scope as there were no reports of visits or even interest.

In the end, the Giants did move quickly to sign one offensive lineman on the opening day of free agency. However, it was a surprise candidate and one that did little to excite: Marshall Newhouse, who was signed to a 2-year, $3 million contract from the Cincinnati Bengals.

The scouting reports on Newhouse coming out of college in 2010 were mixed. He was a three-year starter at left tackle at TCU. While Newhouse has good bulk (325+ pounds), he lacks ideal height (under 6’4”). Newhouse tested very well athletically for a big man, tying for the best three-cone time (7.4 seconds) at the NFL Combine, demonstrating very quick feet. However, because of his “dumpy” body and lack of functional football strength, combined with his lack of proper technique and leverage, Newhouse was regarded as a mid-to-late round “developmental” prospect.

The most severe pre-draft criticism was that he was a soft, passive, and inconsistent player who alternated between good and poor play. Some thought his best position might be guard, while others thought he might be over-drafted based on his measurables and not his on-field performance.

The Green Bay Packers drafted Newhouse in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, being picked 169th overall. Newhouse did not play in any games as a rookie. But the “developmental” prospect became a factor quicker than expected in 2011 when he ended up starting 10 games at left tackle for the injured Chad Clifton and three games at right tackle for the injured Bryan Bulaga. While Newhouse had his issues at times in pass protection, he played better than expected for a team that finished the regular season 15-1 before being knocked out of the playoff by the Giants in the NFC divisional round.

“I think (Newhouse) has the personality makeup to (be our left tackle of the future), the athletic ability to do that, the feet and the smarts to be a very, very solid left tackle for us,” said Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers in December 2011.

In 2012, Newhouse started all 18 of the Packers’ regular-season and post-season games at left tackle. But the Packers were not thrilled with Newhouse’s play and the plan was to upgrade at that position by moving shifting 2010 1st round pick Bulaga to left tackle. Newhouse simply wasn’t a very physical run blocker and he was still making too many mistakes in pass protection, resulting in sacks, pressures, and holding penalties.

Entering the 2013 training camp, it was anticipated that Newhouse would have a good chance to win the starting right tackle job. But he lost the job to undrafted second-year man Don Barclay. And although Bulaga tore an ACL in training camp, the Packers chose to start rookie 4th rounder David Bakhtiari at left tackle instead of re-installing Newhouse at the position. Newhouse became the primary back-up at both tackle spots, though he did start two games at right tackle in November, including one against the Giants.

In 2014, Newhouse signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an unrestricted free agent. He did not win a starting job but became the primary back-up tackle. However, Newhouse struggled when forced to start at right tackle for three games due to an injury to Andre Smith and was benched due to his poor play. In particular, Marshall was terrible in a Week 10 game against the Cleveland Browns where he almost got Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton killed. Bengal fans felt it was an upgrade for their offensive line when he signed with the Giants.

Overall, Newhouse has played in 62 regular-season games with 36 starts (26 of those starts coming at left tackle in 2011-12). But it is important to note that he lost starting tackle jobs with the Packers during the 2013 preseason and the Bengals during the 2014 regular season. And both fan bases were glad to see him sign with other teams. Newhouse remains the what he was coming out of college: an intriguing size-athletic physical specimen who is simply too finesse a run blocker and too inconsistent a pass blocker.

On the plus side, Newhouse does bring versatility to the table as he can play either tackle position. And despite being only 26 years old, he has already has a lot of starting experience. Ben McAdoo was also on the Packers’ coaching staff during all four years of Newhouse’s stay with Green Bay, so one would assume McAdoo still sees something in the offensive lineman.

“(McAdoo) was a big part (of my decision to join the Giants),” Newhouse said. “It is good to always have familiarity, and he knows what I can do. I am just looking forward to proving him right and then some.

“I can do both (play either tackle). I have played plenty of left. I have started over 20 games at left and I have played plenty at right. I can do whatever they need me to do.”

“Newhouse is another guy who brings starter experience and depth,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He can play tackle on either the left or the right side.”

So what will Newhouse’s role be on the Giants? It is most likely that Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin envision as the primary reserve tackle behind Will Beatty at left tackle and Justin Pugh (or whomever starts) at right tackle. In effect, he has replaced James Brewer on the roster. But Newhouse failed miserably in that same role with the Bengals when called upon to play in 2014. It remains questionable at best if Newhouse can reinvigorate his career with his third team in three years. Inconsistent veterans usually don’t become more magically consistent. And soft linemen hardly ever change their stripes and become tougher and more physical players. The Giants signed offensive tackle Charles Brown in free agency last offseason. He was supposed to provide veteran depth too, but the Giants ended up cutting Brown in November. Hopefully history doesn’t repeat itself here with Marshall Newhouse.

Mar 192015
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Jonathan Casillas, New England Patriots (December 14, 2014)

Jonathan Casillas – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Linebacker has been a sore spot for the New York Giants for quite some time. The Giants have had to rely on free agent acquisitions and a trade to beef up a unit that the team has been unable to satisfactory address in the draft. After four seasons with the team, the Giants apparently have given up on 6th round draft pick Jacquian Williams and undrafted rookie free agent Spencer Paysinger. To fill these vacancies, the Giants signed unrestricted free agents J.T. Thomas from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Jonathan Casillas from the New England Patriots.

The 27-year old Casillas was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the New Orleans Saints after the 2009 NFL Draft. He has played for the New Orleans Saints (2009-11), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2013-14), and Patriots (2014). In 2014, Casillas played in five games for the Buccaneers before being traded to the Patriots in late October. In eight games for the Patriots with three starts, Casillas accrued 28 tackles and forced one fumble.

Casillas is a local talent, having been born in Jersey City and going to high school in New Brunswick. He has played on two Super Bowl championship teams: the Saints (2009) and Patriots (2014). After arriving in New England in mid-season, Casillas was mainly a back-up pass coverage specialist and core special teams player for the Patriots. Casillas signed a 3-year, $8 million contract with the Giants on March 10. He has already been given Paysinger’s #54 jersey number.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Casillas said. “After so much time away and playing ball in New Orleans and Tampa and New England, being able to come back home and be able to play in front of your home crowd and my family is really a blessing.”

In five seasons, Casillas has played in 64 regular-season games with 18 starts. He missed the entire 2010 season with a foot injury that he suffered in the preseason.

At 6’1”, 227 pounds, Casillas is an undersized linebacker. But he is an excellent athlete with good speed and agility for the position. Indeed, when he came out of college at the University of Wisconsin, there was some talk he might be better suited to the safety position at the pro level. As you would expect for such a linebacker-safety ‘tweener, Casillas is good in pass coverage and special teams. Against the run, while he has good instincts and range, he is not a physical player and he can have trouble at the point-of-attack due to his lack of size. He is a solid tackler.

Casillas only has three career sacks, all three coming in 2011 with the Saints. Despite being very sound in pass coverage, Casillas does not make many plays on the ball. He has never intercepted a pass at the pro level and only has five career pass defenses.

As for his role with the Giants, Casillas will compete for a starting outside linebacker spot, but he most likely will be a situational pass coverage linebacker. That is an important role in today’s pass-happy NFL that features athletic receiving threats at running back and tight end. He is a guy who can match-up against tight ends and backs split out wide or in the slot.

Casillas should also become one of the Giants’ better special teams players. He has 22 career special teams tackles in 70 regular- and post-season games. He recovered an onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV.

“The Giants are getting a real football player,” Casillas said. “Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve been under the radar, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve found a way to make plays and contribute, and also to make a healthy contribution to the city I’m in by doing things in the community. I try to do things the right way.”

Mar 172015
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Shane Vereen, New England Patriots (October 16, 2014)

Shane Vereen – © USA TODAY Sports Images

As the New York Giants entered 2015 NFL free agency, it was anticipated that the team would pursue a quicker, shiftier running back with pass receiving skills in order to compliment the bigger bruisers, Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams. The Giants signed arguably the best candidate on the open market in Shane Vereen to a 3-year, $12.35 million contract that included $4.75 million in guaranteed money.

“Vereen gives us lots of versatility as a receiver and runner,” said General Manager Jerry Reese.  “He is one of the best as a receiver out of the backfield or detached. He is very hard to handle for most linebackers. And he has big game experience.”

Vereen has been favorably compared to another former Patriot all-purpose back: Kevin Faulk. For Giants fans unfamiliar with Faulk’s body of work, think David Meggett, who ironically signed with the Patriots as a free agent in 1995. While many remember Meggett for his special teams kickoff and punt return exploits, Meggett was also a major component in the Giants offense from 1989 to 1994. On a team that did not emphasize the short passing game, Meggett not only rushed for 1,228 yards and five touchdowns, but more importantly he caught 231 passes for 2,194 yards and 10 touchdowns. He kept the chains moving for Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler, and at times provided the big play.

If he stays healthy, Vereen should put up bigger numbers for the Giants. In the last two seasons in New England, Vereen caught 99 passes despite missing half the year in 2013. In the Giants West Coast-style offense under Ben McAdoo, the running back is a featured component in the passing game, not only as a check-off option when other targets are covered, but as a primary receiver. The West Coast offense is designed to exploit the field not only vertically, but horizontally, exploiting holes in defensive coverages. Vereen is a smaller, shiftier back who is a match-up problem for most linebackers. If teams focus their attention on Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz – as they should – then Vereen could feast against the underneath coverage.

What makes Vereen such a good receiver is not just his athletic ability and hands, but he is a precise, trustworthy route runner. He doesn’t make mental mistakes. And his skill set allows him to not only catch shorter passes on dig, drag, swing, and screen passes but also deeper routes where his split out wide like a conventional wide receiver. Indeed, there are times when the observer will understandably initially confuse Vereen for a wide receiver because of his route-running and pass-catching adeptness. He is like having another legitimate wideout on the field. Vereen has pass receptions of 83, 50, and 49 yards in the past three seasons.

What will be interesting to see is how the Giants use Vereen. Under Kevin Gilbride, Vereen probably would have been limited to a third-down back. But in Ben McAdoo’s system, although Vereen won’t be a conventional “starter”, he should see the field much more on first and second down, depending the opponent and game plan.

There are those who say it does not matter how good a pass catcher Vereen is because Eli Manning doesn’t have a good feel for throwing to running backs. While this certainly isn’t the strength of Manning’s game, the numbers don’t support that argument. When Eli had Tiki Barber, Barber was a favorite target of Eli’s, catching 54 passes in 2005 and 58 passes in 2006. Derrick Ward caught 41 passes from Eli in 2008 and Ahmad Bradshaw 47 passes in 2010. Despite being limited to 11 games with just nine starts, Jennings caught 30 passes from Manning in 2014. What these figures demonstrate is that even in an offense that was more vertically-oriented, Manning has productively thrown to running backs when the talent is there.

Another important component to Vereen’s game is that he does a good job or recognizing and picking up blitzes despite his lack of size. He has only fumbled twice in his pro career, losing one.

Vereen usually will not wow you as runner. He has good quickness and speed, but he is not a dynamic breakaway threat. His longest run from scrimmage at the pro level is only 21 yards. And at 5’10 and 205 pounds, he is not going to run over a lot of defenders. But Vereen can be a factor in the running back, especially out of the shotgun formation that McAdoo likes to employ. In his last two seasons in New England, Vereen ran the ball 140 times for 599 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

Perhaps the biggest negative on Vereen is that in three seasons, he has only played a full 16-game schedule once. And that was in 2014. He missed 11 games in 2011 with hamstring issues, three games in 2012 with a foot injury, and eight games in 2013 with a fractured wrist. Obviously, for a New York Giants team that has been ravaged by injuries in recent years, Vereen’s injury-plagued past is a bit disconcerting.

But if Vereen stays healthy, it is not unreasonable to project him as a 50+ catch target in the New York offense. He should become a key figure in keeping drives alive and therefore increasing overall offensive productivity and scoring. Keeping drives alive will allow more opportunities for Manning, the wideouts, and the running backs. In the simplest terms, Vereen will make the New York Giants a much better offensive football team.

Feb 162015
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Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants (November 3, 2014)

Jason Pierre-Paul – © USA TODAY Sports Images

The New York Giants must decide soon whether or not to use the Franchise or Transition tag on soon-to-be unrestricted free agent defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Starting today (February 16), NFL teams have a two-week window to decide on to designate Franchise or Transition players about to become unrestricted free agents. That window closes on March 2. Other teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 7 and sign the to contracts on March 10.

A Franchise tag binds a player to the team for one year if certain conditions are met. Each team may only designate one player each year as that team’s Franchise player. There are two types of Franchise tags:

  • An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player.
  • A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position for the previous year, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

Teams can also use a Transition tag, which also guarantees the original club the right of first refusal to match any offer the player may make with another team. The transition tag can be used once a year by each club. A transition player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top 10 salaries of last season at the player’s position or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no compensation.

The upside to using a Franchise tag on Pierre-Paul is that the team could ensure that he remains with the Giants in 2015. The downside is he would count for about $15 million against the 2015 salary cap.

In his fifth NFL season, Pierre-Paul had his second-best season in 2014, starting all 16 games and finishing with 77 tackles, 12.5 sacks, six pass defenses, and three forced fumbles. Pierre-Paul played the run well most of the year and finished up strong as a pass rusher after a slow start, with nine of his sacks coming in the last five games of the season. Pierre-Paul was originally drafted in the 1st round of the 2010 NFL Draft. His best season came in 2011 when he accrued 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks. 2012 and 2013 were down seasons for him with a total of only 8.5 sacks. Pierre-Paul had surgery in June 2013 to repair a herniated disc in his lower back and suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last five games of that season.

The Giants have used the Franchise tag twice in recent years, once for running back Brandon Jacobs in 2009 and once for punter Steve Weatherford in 2012. But both were signed to long-term deals soon after being tagged.

Dec 272014
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Antrel Rolle, New York Giants (August 9, 2014)

Antrel Rolle – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and safety Antrel Rolle both joined the New York Giants in the 2010 offseason. Now after five seasons, with their contracts set to expire after Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, both may be leaving Big Blue during the same upcoming offseason. Free agency begins on March 7 and JPP and Rolle will surely test the free agent waters if not re-signed by that date.

Rolle signed a 5-year, $37 million contract with the Giants as a free agent in March 2010 after being cut by the Arizona Cardinals in a salary cap-related move. Pierre-Paul was the 15th player selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Both were a critical part of the 2011 Giants defense that finished 27th in term of yards allowed during the regular season but got hot by year’s end. In the last six games that season – including four playoff games – the Giants held opponents to an average of less than 14 points per contest and won an NFL Championship.

Initially Rolle had difficult accepting Tom Coughlin’s coaching methods. Yet he eventually warmed up to Coughlin and became an important leader of the defense. In five seasons, Rolle has never missed a game with the Giants. He has intercepted 14 passes and averaged over 90 tackles per season in 79 regular-season games. Rolle received All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2010 and 2013, the latter being arguably the best season of his career.

2014 has been a down season for Rolle, who turned 32 this month. While he has accrued 79 tackles and three interceptions, he has not made many big plays on a defense that is currently ranked 28th in the NFL. Rolle still has talent, but he is an aging, 10-year veteran on a defensive team that needs a shake-up, an infusion of talent and speed, and may have a new defensive coordinator in 2015.

“I would love to finish my career here,’’ says Rolle. “That’s not my call to make. This is a great fit. I feel like next year, when we get all our guys healthy and we can get on the same page at the same time, I think it’s going to be wonderful… It would be great to stay here with these guys and build something.

“I want to be with JPP and (Odell) Beckham and I can’t wait to see (Victor) Cruz come back. These are all my boys, these are my brothers who I’ve shared (the) battlefield with. (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) is someone I helped bring here, and he always tells me I ain’t going anywhere.’’

Despite his down season, Rolle firmly believes he can stay play at a high level. And because of that, the odds are he will want to be paid well in what could be his final pro contract.

“I feel like I can still go out there and definitely be one of the best safeties in this league,” said Rolle. “I’ve never worried about age. I’ll put myself up against any 32-year-old.”

How long does Rolle think he can play? “Who knows? Maybe at 13 (seasons),” said Rolle, “I’ll say two more (years). I’m just going with the flow and whatever my body tells me at this point.

“Outside looking in, I don’t know how people are going to say what, or view what. Is this my best season? No, it is not my best season. Am I playing ball? Yes, I am definitely playing ball. I am not giving up touchdowns. I am not giving up huge plays. I am playing the way I am supposed to be playing. I am playing multiple roles.’’

Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants (August 9, 2014)

Jason Pierre-Paul – © USA TODAY Sports Images

The Pierre-Paul situation is different. JPP turns 26 in January. His best football clearly could still be in front him. That said, Pierre-Paul has had difficulty recapturing his tremendous productivity from his sophomore NFL season in 2011 when he accrued 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks. Those numbers plummeted to 66 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2012 and 27 tackles and 2 sacks in 2013.

Pierre-Paul had surgery in June 2013 to repair a herniated disc in his lower back and he never seemed to fully rebound from that procedure during the 2013 season. He flashed some of his old form in Week 10 that year but also suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last five games of the season.

JPP has rebounded in 2014 with 72 tackles and 10.5 sacks. Though he can be vulnerable to misdirection, Pierre-Paul is a very stout player at the point-of-attack against the run. And after a slow start in terms of rushing the passer, Pierre-Paul has sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times in the last four games.

Much more was hoped for and expected in 2014, but JPP remains the one player in the front seven that other teams need to account for. If he leaves, the Giants will have a major hole to fill on a defense already pot-marked with holes. But bringing him back is not a no-brainer. There is a salary cap and JPP clearly believes he is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and wants to be paid like it. The Giants know Pierre-Paul has had inconsistent productivity the last three years, as well as back surgery and shoulder issues.

JPP sounds much more intent on testing the free agent market and does not seem to be overly concerned with remaining in Giants Blue. On Friday, Pierre-Paul was asked if he expected to re-sign with the Giants.

“I don’t know,” responded JPP. “Everybody asks me that question and I really can’t answer that question truthfully. I don’t know what my future holds. Who knows if I am going to be in a Giant uniform, who knows where I am going to be in the offseason. Like I said, now, the numbers are there, I had a great season, and everybody sees it. There really is nothing else to say, just negotiations and it is coming.

“At the end of the day, it’s business, it’s business. Everyone knows that, even the fans know that, my family members know it, and I am going to make the best decision to better me and my family.

“I‘d love to be a Giant for the rest of my career, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t always fold like that. Look at Justin Tuck, look at Osi Umenyiora, look at Brandon Jacobs, it doesn’t matter.

“I think I am worth a lot of money.”

Pierre-Paul was asked if he would give the Giants a hometown discount.

“Like I said, it is going to be a business situation, it’s going to be about my family, and what I want to pursue,” replied Pierre-Paul. “At the end of the day, I’m here. Like I said earlier in the season, if I am a Giant, then I will be a Giant for my whole life. I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Changes are coming on defense. At least they ought to be. In the last four years, the Giants defense has finished 28th, 31st, 8th, and is currently projected to finish 28th. Will Rolle and Pierre-Paul be a part of the rebuilding project moving forward? Should they be? The answers to those questions will be discovered in the next two months.

Sep 182014
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Trumaine McBride and Jon Beason, New York Giants (December 22, 2013)

Trumaine McBride and Jon Beason – © USA TODAY Sports Images

It didn’t take long for the phone call to be made.

Shortly after New York Giants cornerback Walter Thurmond III found out his injured pectoral muscle was torn, sidelining him for rest of the 2014 season, the self-proclaimed best nickel corner in the game dialed fellow corner Trumaine McBride.

Trumaine McBride, New York Giants (December 15, 2013)

Trumaine McBride – © USA TODAY Sports Images

McBride, who last saw sporadic nickel snaps six years ago, saw his phone light up with Thurmond’s name and answered.

“He just told me if I need anything, as far as tips about playing nickel, to reach out to him,” McBride said.

While McBride may be lacking experience as a nickel cornerback, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been preparing for this moment throughout the offseason.

Back on March 12, after enjoying a breakout season, McBride re-signed with the New York Giants. With Corey Webster and Aaron Ross gone, McBride was expected to compete for the starting position opposite Prince Amukamara.

But the ensuing months were filled with moves that pushed McBride further and further down the depth chart. Zack Bowman, Thurmond and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were signed and Bennett Jackson drafted.

The group of Amukamara, Thurmond and Rodgers-Cromartie began boasting claims as the league’s best trio. Last year’s surprise star was suddenly rendered an afterthought.

With every addition the Giants made to the secondary’s meeting room, McBride took notice. Despite playing nearly his entire career as an outside cornerback, he knew his opportunity to play may not be at the place he’d been most comfortable at. During the offseason, McBride began studying some of the best nickel cornerbacks in the league and working specifically with the group. He wanted to be prepared for anything.

If Amukamara went down, McBride wanted to fill in outside. If Thurmond went down, he wanted to have his named called there, too. One of the best ways to do that? Watch and learn from Thurmond himself.

“Walt’s a guy that plays hard every down and is a very smart, physical cornerback,” McBride said. “Just watching the way he approaches the game. He’s a great guy and a great player on the field.”

McBride said that playing nickel, as opposed to outside cornerback, is vastly different. While cornerbacks have the sideline to their advantage, nickel cornerbacks need to guard both the inside, and outside, portions of the field.

Trumaine McBride, New York Giants (December 22, 2013)

Trumaine McBride – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Not to mention, being a nickel corner requires a different physicality. Being closer to the line of scrimmage, McBride knows he’ll have to stick his head in on some running plays, comparing nickel cornerback to a “cornerback-linebacker” hybrid position.

“It’s just an overall different game plan,” McBride said. “You aren’t going up anymore against guys that are 6-foot-2, you’re going up against guys that are 6-feet and shifty. You have to adjust to the shiftiness of an inside slot receiver.”

While Thurmond has offered help, McBride admits what may be the biggest beneficiary to him learning nickel is the fact he gets to face receiver Victor Cruz every day in practice. During his five-year NFL career, Cruz has established himself as one of the league’s best slot receivers.

“Going up against him every day definitely helps you,” McBride said. “There aren’t many guys out there better than Vic.”

The Houston Texans, who McBride and the Giants will face on Sunday, like to move each of their receivers in and out of the slot in Bill O’Brien’s new offensive scheme. Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Demarius Johnson have all seen over 20 reps inside this year.

There isn’t a set player McBride can expect. Does that make his life harder? Not at all.

“I’ve been preparing for this since the offseason,” McBride said. “I knew it could be a possibility of me moving inside. So as far as mentally, I have no issues.”