This is now a lost season for the New York Giants. They've been outscored by 85 points in four consecutive losses to start 2013 and are 0-4 for the first time since 1987. They aren't mathematically eliminated, though, and the 1992 Chargers made the playoffs after an 0-4 start, so Tom Coughlin won't let them throw in the towel.
That's fine, and the next 12 games still matter when it comes to assessing everyone on the roster and instilling the right attitude entering the 2014 offseason. But many in the media and a large portion of the fanbase are definitely prepared to begin discussing that offseason right now.
Let's jump-start that discussion right now by looking at how the Giants can right this ship as quickly and efficiently as possible...
Finally, Money to Spend
The Giants had to hunt for bargains on the free-agent market this year. They just didn't have the salary-cap space to splurge, although that hasn't typically been the team's modus operandi anyway.
It's tough to predict cap space this early, but the initial numbers accumulated by OvertheCap.com indicate that if the salary cap is once again in the $123 million range next year, the G-Men will enter the offseason with about $16 million to spend freely. But they might actually wind up with a lot more space than that. B/R Giants correspondent Patricia Traina explains:
Specifically, there is approximately $11.5 million of potential cap savings that can be recognized if the 2014 contract years of tight end Brandon Myers, guard Chris Snee and cornerback Corey Webster are voided.
If that happens, the Giants' Top 51 commitment will shrink to approximately $94.874 million, which, if we use the current $123 million cap figure as a basis, would give the Giants roughly $28.125 million to spend.
I think we can agree that you're better off building (or in this case, rebuilding) a core primarily through the draft, but sometimes it simply has to be both the draft and free agency. This is one of those situations.
Eli Manning will be 33 next year, and Coughlin is already the league's oldest head coach. In this era of extreme parity, you can retool very fast. The Giants have a lot of problem areas, though, and the clock is ticking on the Manning/Coughlin era. That's why they'll need to both sign and draft key cogs in the spring of 2014.
Time to Move On
Coughlin is one hell of a coach, but one of his flaws is that he sometimes holds on for too long. You have to know when to walk away from players before they become expensive liabilities. The Giants did a good job in this area this past offseason, cutting ties with Chris Canty, Michael Boley, Ahmad Bradshaw and Kenny Phillips, but cap constraints might have played a bigger role there than a shift in philosophy.
But the Giants would be smart to free up space by waving goodbye to Snee, Webster and Justin Tuck. They aren't committed to any of those three veterans beyond this season, and it's just not worth keeping them around at this point. All three 30-somethings are in decline.
As Traina pointed out, they can free up some serious cash by releasing Snee, Webster and Myers. That has to be the route to go, and they'd be better off looking for a younger replacement for Tuck.
So, Who Do They Target?
First, the Giants will have some important decisions to make regarding in-house free agents. Only 36 players are slated to be under contract at that stage, and Hakeem Nicks is the poster boy for that group of impending free agents.
The Giants might have to commit some cash to Nicks, as well as reliable trench players Linval Joseph and Kevin Boothe, both of whom are in contract years. And they'd be smart to consider thinking long-term with Jason Pierre-Paul, Prince Amukamara and Antrel Rolle, all of whom are scheduled to hit free agency in 2015.
Combine the money spent there with the cash they'll have to commit to draft picks and role players and there will probably be room for them to sign a few veterans on the open market.
Considering the state of the offensive line, the pass rush and the front seven as a whole, I think it's obvious where they should focus. Here's who I think they'd be smart to chase after:
At Least One Veteran Offensive Lineman
This will boil down to what rookie right tackle Justin Pugh is able to do over the next three months. If they're confident with him in that spot, they might only need a replacement for Snee. If they move Pugh inside, they might need a tackle. If Pugh is a bust this season, they might have to consider upping the ante.
Notable guards or tackles scheduled to hit the open market: Jon Asamoah, Eugene Monroe, Rodger Saffold, Jared Veldheer, Branden Albert.
At Least Two New Linebackers
Right now, the Giants have the worst linebacking corps in football. Jacquian Williams and Mark Herzlich shouldn't be playing such large roles, but they've got nobody else. They'll definitely have to draft a linebacker for the first time in three years, but they really need a new leader in the middle of this defense, and they can't afford to wait.
Notable linebackers scheduled to hit the open market: Brandon Spikes, Wesley Woodyard, Jon Beason.
At Least One Proven Pass-Rusher
It'll be interesting to see what rookie Damontre Moore is able to do, especially if they give him more opportunities down the stretch. If he can emerge as a suitable complement to Pierre-Paul, they'll be in decent shape here. Still, this team can't excel without a lethal pass rush, so they'd be smart to invest in a high-quality defensive end.
Notable defensive ends scheduled to hit the open market: Michael Johnson, Greg Hardy, Anthony Spencer, Michael Bennett, Lamarr Houston.
Draft Linemen Early, Linebackers Late
I still don't think taking a 4-3 linebacker in the first round is a good strategy, especially when the pass protection and the pass rush have to improve more than anything. It's almost impossible to win Super Bowls—and the Giants know this more than anyone—without a good quarterback and a good pass rush. The Giants already have a good quarterback, so the goal now has to be to protect and support Manning while sprucing up that pass rush.
Again, we'll have to wait to see what happens with Pugh this season, but with Boothe and Snee in their 30s and center David Baas becoming increasingly difficult to rely on, another offensive lineman has to be added to the mix in the first few rounds.
The jury's still out on Moore, too, but Joseph and Pierre-Paul could use as much help as possible up front.
A sleeper linebacker or two would make sense in the middle/late rounds, and another running back might be needed as well. But those still have to be secondary priorities in the draft.
Seven Men Whose Performances Will Shape the Decisions Coughlin and Jerry Reese Will Be Making in the New Year
1. Nicks: The Giants can afford to keep him, but if second-year receiver Rueben Randle can emerge, maybe they save the money and let him walk. Nicks is not off to a particularly good start and had a few drops in Sunday's loss.
2. Randle: He can make the Nicks decision very easy.
3. Wilson: You can bet he'll get plenty of chances to prove himself over the next three months. If he can't become a playmaker who can also secure the ball and pick up blitzes, the Giants might have to look for another long-term option in the backfield.
4. Moore: Unless the rookie starts getting some playing time and delivering, they'll have to bring in a pass-rusher to help JPP.
5. Pugh: Will they need a guard or a tackle? Or both?
6. Kevin Gilbride: I do believe Gilbride is a good game-planner, but sometimes it feels as though things get a little too predictable. He can be a stubborn play-caller, and his inability to make adjustments is sometimes baffling. The offense has been the problem this year, so the offensive coordinator has to be on the hot seat.
7. Perry Fewell: The defensive coordinator has to take at least some of the blame for a D that has given up 132 points in four games. If this unit doesn't turn it around, Coughlin and the front office would be smart to go in a new direction.
Nobody except Coughlin, Manning, Victor Cruz and maybe Prince Amukamara and Will Beatty should be safe. This team has a lot of work to do. Might as well get started now.