Jerry Reese and John Mara – © USA TODAY Sports Images
Restocking the New York Giants for One More Run
In the history of the New York Giants, the 2005-2011 time period will be remembered as one of the franchise’s golden ages. In seven seasons, under the combined leadership and skill of Head Coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning, the Giants made the playoffs five times, won three NFC East titles, two NFC Championships, and two NFL Championships.
What was remarkable about the second title was that the Giants were able to win it despite losing foundation players after the 2007 Championship. By the time 2011 rolled around, gone were Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce, Barry Cofield, Fred Robbins, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, Kevin Boss, Shaun O’Hara, Rich Seubert, and others. Championship teams seldom lose core players like that and still manage to win another title. But the Giants reloaded with players such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Linval Joseph, Chris Canty, Michael Boley, Antrel Rolle, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham, Jake Ballard, and David Baas.
As we enter the heart of the 2014 offseason, more of those core components of the glorious 2007 and 2011 campaigns are gone, will soon be gone, or have faded. Can the Giants restock their roster once again in order to provide the 67-year old Coughlin and the 33-year old Manning one more realistic shot at a ring?
Regardless of unforeseen factors or excuses, Senior Vice President and General Manager Jerry Reese miscalculated in 2012 and 2013. Reese believed that major components of the 2011 team would not have to be replaced quite so soon. He gambled he could postpone the inevitable transition by simply tweaking the roster, not tearing it up. The result was a combined 16-16 regular-season record and two no-shows in the playoff tournament.
2013 was a disaster and the Giants were far worse than their 7-9 record would indicate. While the defense improved, the once high-flying passing game regressed to the point of embarrassment. The Giants could not run the football or protect Eli Manning. The big-play receivers stopped making big plays. And the two-time Super Bowl MVP found himself once again the target of critics who had been cowering for the last five years. If the Giants had not played a string of teams with terrible quarterback issues, they likely would have finished the season with a 4-12 record or worse.
So is it over? Has the window closed? It may have. Reese appears to be gambling again that it has not. Coughlin is at an age when most retire but he will return for at least one more campaign. The 2013 season was not Coughlin’s fault. He will go down in history as one of the Giants’ best coaches along with Steve Owen and Bill Parcells. But replacing him with a younger man for what looks to be at least a moderate rebuilding project had to be considered as a viable option in January. If the Giants fail to make the playoffs in 2014 and Coughlin is let go in January 2015, then it was a mistake to retain him. Reese is betting that not only can Coughlin get this team back into the playoffs in 2014, but that he will be here a few more years in order to shepherd the Giants into one more legitimate title run.
Reese also appears to believe that Eli’s career can be resurrected. His current salary-cap busting contract is set to expire after the 2015 season. The safe bet would be to not re-structure his contract at the current time until the team can clearly see if he can rebound to his 2011 level. However, to not do so at the present time will limit what the Giants can do in rebuilding the roster since Manning currently accounts for roughly 15 percent of the Giants’ salary cap. It is important to note that all three of the Giants’ offensive assistant coaching hires this offseason are former quarterbacks coaches. The early indications – right or wrong – are that Reese believes Manning will be able to revert back to his 2011 form. If Reese re-structures Manning’s contract in the coming months, then that becomes a certainty.
So let’s assume Reese has already made the decision that the Coughlin-Manning combination has one more run in them. A coach and quarterback can’t do it alone. Can Reese and his personnel department provide Coughlin and Manning with enough support to seriously challenge teams like the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC? Right now, as of February 2014, the Giants are nowhere near their class. Equipped with only six draft picks and a moderate amount of salary cap room (which looks inflated right now due to all of unsigned players), it will take a superlative effort by the front office to close the gap.
Offense: The New York Giants finished the 2011 season 9th on offense (5th passing, 32nd rushing). The Giants fell to 14th (12th passing, 14th rushing) in 2012 and 28th (19th passing, 29th rushing) in 2013. Despite the public perception to the contrary, Eli Manning doesn’t need a strong running game to succeed. But he needs decent pass protection and quality play-makers to catch the ball.
Offensive Line: Another myth that surrounds Manning is that he has been the beneficiary of superlative pass protection during much of his career. That simply is not true. Both David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie had issues with outside rushers, particularly in 2011. But the Giants’ interior pass protection really deteriorated in 2013, combined with a very inconsistent and disappointing season by left tackle Will Beatty. It is astounding really that the Giants were able to win an NFL Championship in 2011 with a 32nd-ranked rushing attack, shoddy-at-times pass protection, and the 27th-ranked defense. But Eli Manning and the 5th-ranked passing game carried the Giants to the playoffs where the running game and defense finally showed enough improvement to help New York win its eighth NFL title.
In 2013, the deteriorating, inept offensive line finally made its impact felt. The running game continued to struggle, but now Manning became gun-shy as pressure hit him from all angles. The Giants couldn’t run the ball and they couldn’t pass it. The opposition controlled the line of scrimmage and the Giants were pushed around by more physical opponents. Perhaps the biggest knock of all against Jerry Reese is that he and his personnel department did not do enough to restock the line as Diehl-Seubert-O’Hara-Snee-McKenzie aged and faded.
Right now, the line is a mess. It’s arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL. The Giants have one player to build around: Justin Pugh. Pugh not only appears to have a bright future, but he is flexible enough to be plugged in anywhere on the offensive line. He will likely be the right or left tackle in 2014 depending on the injury status of Will Beatty, who suffered a serious leg fracture in the regular-season finale. The injury-prone and inconsistent Beatty, who was given a 5-year, $39 million contract last offseason, is coming off of a bad season. If he recovers quickly and if he can rebound to his 2012 level of play, that will help. But those are two big “ifs.” Then you have super injury-prone David Baas and the aging and breaking-down Chris Snee. The Giants counted on both to deliver in 2013 and neither could even make it past the first half of the season. It would be highly risky to count on Beatty, Baas, and Snee in 2014. Worse, Beatty ($7.4 million), Baas ($8.2 million), and Snee ($11.3 million) will take up almost $27 million in 2014 salary cap room unless they are cut or agree to take massive pay cuts. The problem with cutting them is dead money. Beatty is basically uncuttable with $15.5 million in dead money. Baas would cost $6.45 million in dead money if cut before June 1st; Snee $4.5 million. Kevin Boothe is a free agent and will turn 31 in July. As I said, it’s a mess.
And this mess is exacerbated by the fact that there is not a lot of young talent waiting in the wings to take over unless you have a lot of faith in James Brewer, Brandon Mosley, Stephen Goodin, Jim Cordle (free agent), and Eric Herman.
The Giants will obviously have to address the offensive line in the draft (with only six picks and many other needs) and free agency. Reese may feel he will be forced to gamble one more time on Beatty, Baas, and/or Snee. But if he does, and one, two, or three of these players end up on IR again or continue to struggle, then not only will the line once again be placed in a revolving door-type situation, but the offensive line rebuild that is necessary will be delayed yet another season.
I don’t think the offensive line can be fixed in one offseason. I think they can add one or two draft picks and add 2-3 free agents this offseason. But unless the Giants spend both their first and second round picks on linemen, it is only plausible that one rookie may start in 2014. On the free agent front, the Giants may be able to go after one premium offensive lineman, but the others will likely be older, short-term veterans merely signed to hold down the fort until more long-term reinforcements appear in 2015.
Tight Ends: Like the offensive line, the Giants have arguably the worst group of tight ends in the NFL. At times, it was like the Giants were playing with 10 men on offense. Brandon Myers is not a starting-caliber player. He is best suited as a role-playing H-Back. Since he is a free agent, there is a good chance the Giants won’t even bother re-signing him. Bear Pascoe is another role-playing type who is a free agent. He’s had a nice career here but the Giants need to do better. That leaves the physically-talented Adrien Robinson and Larry Donnell. But neither developed in 2013 and neither may have NFL futures. Journeyman Daniel Fells, who was signed in January, may actually be the best tight end on the roster right now. That’s scary. So is the fact that the Giants basically fired Mike Pope for Kevin Gilbride’s 34-year old son to coach the tight ends. Gilbride’s only experience coaching tight ends was at Georgetown University in 2006.
Ideally, the Giants would want to spend a first or second round pick on a tight end. But can they afford to do that with the mess on the offensive line? Tight end is likely to be an important position with the West Coast-oriented offense of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. Look for at least one veteran free agent to be added.
Wide Receivers: This position was supposed to be set for a while with Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Rueben Randle. But for whatever reason, Nicks hasn’t been the same player since Week 2 of the 2012 NFL season. Although he is only 26 and should be entering the prime of his career, Nicks is likely to depart by free agency, meaning the Giants will lose the services of another high-round draft pick before it should have been anticipated.
Eli Manning has proved that if you give him great targets, he can still carry this team with an average offensive line, tight ends, and running backs. But now Rueben Randle will be counted on to become the 2010-11 version of Nicks. If he doesn’t, then teams will continue to focus on shutting down Victor Cruz. It also remains to be seen if Jerrel Jernigan’s last three weeks of the 2013 season were a mirage. If Randle and Jernigan disappoint, the Giants will be in deep, deep trouble.
A strong case could be made that wide receiver is one of the most pressing needs on this team given the importance of the position to the Giants’ overall success. So I would not be shocked to see the Giants draft a wide receiver as high as the first round. But if they do so, the offensive line will continue to suffer. Pick your poison.
Running Backs: Another mess filled with question marks and arguably one of the worst groups in the league. (Notice the trend here those calling for the heads of coaches?) Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs got old and are gone. First-rounder David Wilson was supposed to become the new featured play-maker, but now his career is in jeopardy with a neck injury. The hope is he can return and become a Darren Sproles-like role-player. Andre Brown is an injury-prone free agent. Journeyman Peyton Hillis is also a free agent and it’s not even clear if the Giants want him back. Michael Cox flashed in the preseason but did not in the regular season. With not enough resources to deal with all of these positions, the “help wanted” sign is out here as well. The good news? The Giants have a very good fullback under contract (John Conner) and another one who may re-sign as a free agent (Henry Hynoski).
Offensive Summary: It’s a mess. Manning, Pugh, Cruz, Randle, and Jernigan must come through or it will be even worse. The Giants have more issues on the offensive line than they will likely be able to address in one offseason. The tight ends and running backs scare no one. Losing the 2010-11 version of Nicks removes a much-needed impact player.
Defense: Despite winning the Super Bowl in 2011, the New York Giants’ defense was embarrassingly bad in 2011 (27th) and 2012 (31st). Those defenses each gave up over 6,000 yards of offense – the first time that has ever happened in the Giants’ long and storied history. If it were not for the six-game run at the end of the 2011 season, Perry Fewell may have been fired. In 2013, the defense made a huge improvement, ranking 8th in the NFL (10th against the pass, 14th against the run). With the arrow pointed upwards, one may feel there are not many issues to be addressed on this side of the ball. But there are.
Defensive Line: Ever since the Giants switched back to the 4-3 in 1994, the defensive line has been the heart of the New York’s defense. But this once-formidable and deep unit is fraying at the edges. Long gone are Michael Strahan, Barry Cofield, and Fred Robbins. Osi Umenyiora and Chris Canty left the scene last offseason. Justin Tuck is coming off a strong season but he is inconsistent, aging, and has had health issues. 25-year old Linval Joseph, a former second rounder, is a free agent who the Giants may not be able to re-sign. Mathias Kiwanuka is steady, but he doesn’t make many plays and will count over $7 million against the 2014 salary cap.
In a nutshell, the transition on the defensive line basically started last offseason and will continue this offseason. The Giants will need to count on 33-year old Cullen Jenkins and 21-year old Johnathan Hankins inside, especially if they lose Joseph. Depth could become a problem. Markus Kuhn is still in the picture and the Giants will likely re-sign Mike Patterson or sign someone similar.
Bigger concerns exist outside at defensive end. The team desperately needs Jason Pierre-Paul to return to his 2011 form after two disappointing and injury-plagued seasons. Will Tuck re-sign? Should the Giants re-sign him or move on? Is Kiwanuka really worth the valuable cap space he is taking up? Damontre Moore flashed on special teams but not really on defense. The Giants need him to develop or the needs here become even greater. If the offense was not such a mess, a case could be made for drafting a defensive end in the first round.
Linebacker: Perry Fewell uses more 2-linebacker packages than 3-linebacker packages so there is not a premium placed on this position by the Giants. That said, the dramatic improvement in the Giants’ defense occurred last season once Jon Beason became the new starter at middle linebacker. Beason is a free agent but will likely be re-signed. The concern with him is his injury history. If the Giants lose him, the linebacking position becomes a real weakness again, especially inside. In a perfect world, the Giants draft an apprentice middle linebacker with the leadership, intelligence, and physical skills to play in Fewell’s defense.
Contrary to many people, I think the Giants can get by with Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams. But adding more talent would help. Keith Rivers is a free agent but could be a cheap re-sign. I would move on from Mark Herzlich. Allen Bradford will get a shot.
Defensive Backs: Cornerback is a bigger issue than safety. The Giants will be undergoing a significant transition at corner. Free agents Corey Webster and Aaron Ross will likely not be invited back. Free agents Trumaine McBride and Terrell Thomas may or may not return. Right now, the only players under contract are Prince Amukamara, Jayron Hosley, Charles James, and four practice squad players. A strong case could be made for the Giants drafting a corner in round one or two to team with Amukamara. The Giants need Hosley – who missed much of 2013 with an injury – and James to develop. Imagine how bad this position would look if Amukamara was lost due to an injury?
The concerns at safety have more to do with issues off of the field. 31-year old Antrel Rolle had his best season in 2013. He shows no signs of slowing down yet. However, Rolle will be entering the last year of a contract that will count $9.25 million against the 2014 salary cap. That’s a lot of money for a team that is basically rebuilding. 23-year old Will Hill seems like the heir apparent, but his off-the-field issues are worrisome. If these two play in all 16 games in 2014, then the Giants will be in good shape. The Giants drafted talented Cooper Taylor last offseason. And they probably hope to re-sign either Stevie Brown or Ryan Mundy.
Defensive Summary: The success of this defense is largely dependent on the play of the defensive ends and cornerbacks. And the Giants could use more help at both spots. Quality is more important than quantity here.
General Summary: The #1 offseason emphasis so far has to form a team around Eli Manning that can get him back on track. See the hires of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf, and running backs coach Craig Johnson. If you have a franchise quarterback in the NFL playing at a top level, you should be a playoff team. But the Giants currently no longer have a lot of talent around Manning. They need help at every other offensive position and it will be virtually impossible to address all of these needs in one offseason. The Giants may rebound well enough to challenge for the NFC East title given the sorry state of the division, but they are far from seriously challenging the defense of the Seahawks and 49ers.
Defensively, the Giants should not be lulled into a false sense of security despite the dramatically-improved defensive ranking. The defense line and cornerback positions are in transition and it remains to be seen if the Giants can adequately restock themselves at both positions.