In this, the second of three installments of my series, I look at the following six players: running backs Andre Brown and Peyton Hillis, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, linebackers Spencer Paysinger and Mark Herzlich and defensive end Justin Tuck.
Here’s a recap of the key free agents on whom the Giants will have to make a decision:
Let's jump right into exploring the prospective value of each player and whether he might have a future with this team in 2014.
Running Back Andre Brown (Unrestricted)
Brown, a 27-year-old running back, was originally a fourth-round selection by the Giants in 2009. As a rookie, he suffered a ruptured left Achilles in training camp, an injury that set the wheels in motion for a four-team odyssey that ended when he signed with the Giants' practice squad in 2011.
A big question with Brown has been his health, specifically back-to-back fractures in his left leg in 2012 and 2013, the same leg in which he suffered the Achilles injury.
While injuries are not necessarily the fault of the player, they can and do take a toll over time. Witness this season, where based on the statistics, Brown’s performance has actually declined.
As noted in the weekly Giants' "need to know" analysis for Week 17, Brown returned from the temporary injured reserve list with two 100-yard performances in his first three games.
Since then, he’s struggled behind a deteriorating offensive line both in yardage production—in three of his last four games, he’s run for 40 yards or less—and in his yards-after-contact totals.
Another issue that has developed of late has been his ball security. After going his entire career without fumbling, Brown now has two fumbles in his last three games.
Ball security is something a player can control regardless of who’s in front of him, and Brown appears to have gotten sloppy in that aspect of the game.
Let’s take a quick look at what went wrong for Brown last week against the Detroit Lions on his latest fumble.
In this frame, Brown can be seen with two hands on the ball. However, the nose of the ball is not pressed into the crook of his arm (red arrow), which means that instead of lying securely at a 180-degree angle, the tip hovers dangerously above the ground.
Although Brown struggled to keep the ball pressed against his body with both hands, given the shape of the ball, he had little chance of protecting it from coming out once the Lions defender got his arm (blue arrow) on the ball.
Had the end of the ball been tucked into Brown's elbow, he might have had a much higher success rate at securing it as he fell to the ground.
In addition to the ball-security issues, Brown’s pass blocking hasn’t been as sharp as it was at the start of his season.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he’s allowed two sacks and one quarterback hit in his last two games, which, not surprisingly, have resulted in him getting his two lowest overall grades of the season, minus-2.4 and minus-2.8, respectively.
So what do the Giants do with Brown in 2014?
Per Over the Cap, they have approximately $3.884 million committed to the running back position (including fullback), which includes David Wilson ($2.648,410), fullback John Conner ($730,000) and Michael Cox ($506,474).
Brown, whom this year played on a one-year $2.023 million tender, almost certainly won’t get more than Wilson, who, if he returns from his neck injury, is projected to be the starting running back.
For comparison purposes, Wilson’s average per year (APY) earning is $1.671 million; his contract also includes $5.382 million in guaranteed money.
Brown can probably expect a three- to four-year deal averaging anywhere from $1.1 to $1.3 million per year if he's being eyed for that change-of-pace role behind Wilson.
Running Back Peyton Hillis (Unrestricted)
Since joining the Giants in Week 7 of the season, Hillis hasn’t come close to being the dynamic running back he was in 2010 when he rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns.
What he has been able to do in the 163 snaps, statistic courtesy of Pro Football Focus, he’s taken as a Giant is show gradual improvement each week as a pass-blocker.
After allowing a sack to Oakland in Week 10, Hillis, who was inactive Weeks 11 and 12 due to the return of Brandon Jacobs, made the most of his handful of snaps by pitching a shutout in pass protection in Weeks 13 through 15 before being sidelined with a concussion.
He also showed flashes of being able to fill the role of receiver out of the backfield, catching 12 of his 16 pass targets for 90 yards with no drops, per Pro Football Focus.
If the soon-to-be 28-year-old has the opportunity to return to this team and really get into the playbook, he could very well become a key component in the Giants’ rushing offense next season, filling the role of a blocking back in pass protection.
Hillis has not provided any clues about whether he wants to continue in his career, but if he does, his services can probably be had for a very cap-friendly contract spanning at least two years.
Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph (Unrestricted)
Justin Tuck’s fears of another team potentially swiping Joseph away from the Giants might very well come true, as some team with a lot of cash to burn will probably draw Joseph away from the only pro team he currently knows.
The potential loss of Joseph, who is currently ranked as the 25th-best defensive tackle, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), might initially be viewed as catastrophic.
In reality, it might be something the Giants can overcome.
A closer look at the Giants' defensive line often shows that it’s Cullen Jenkins, and not Joseph, who has been drawing the bulk of the double-team blocks this season.
This could be the reason why Joseph’s 55 total tackles are more than double Jenkins’ 27.
However, look at the comparison of some of the other stats between the two after 15 games:
|Linval Joseph vs. Cullen Jenkins: 2013 Produciton|
|Total Tackles||Tackles for a Loss||QB Hits||Sacks||Pass Breakups||Forced Fumbles|
|Sources: NFL, New York Giants, Pro Football Focus|
While Joseph has been a big part of the Giants’ much-improved run defense, it’s certainly a valid question to wonder if Jenkins’ drawing the double-team blocks has an impact on Joseph's stats this season.
One final point regarding Joseph’s status. The Giants not only signed Mike Patterson to boost the depth along the defensive line, they also drafted Johnathan Hankins in the second round this year.
Joseph will no doubt get a nice contract from someone. Meanwhile, the Giants seem to be counting on Hankins to step into the role in his second season, just as Joseph did three years ago when he stepped in for Barry Cofield.
Linebacker Spencer Paysinger (Restricted)
An undrafted rookie free agent who signed in 2011, Paysinger began to quickly open eyes in training camp, doing well enough to step in with the starters when Michael Boley, then the starting weak-side linebacker, had to miss practice time.
Paysinger went on to participate in 15 games that season, amassing five tackles on defense while emerging as a mainstay on special teams, where he finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery.
In his second season, Paysinger continued his prowess on special teams, notching a team-leading 23 tackles, plus one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 16 games.
He also was given three starts on defense, finishing with 27 total tackles and two tackles for a loss.
When Boley was cut after the 2012 campaign, many people thought Jacquian Williams, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011, was the heir apparent.
The problem was that Williams had been bothered by a PCL injury that began in 2012 and continued into 2013, costing him practice time in the spring and part of the summer.
Meanwhile, Paysinger threw himself into his offseason training regimen a mere week-and-a-half after the 2012 season ended. His goal, which he accomplished for the first seen games of the 2013 season, was to become a full-time starter.
When Williams was healthy enough to where he was taking away snaps from Paysinger, the California native graciously accepted a reduced role for the benefit of the team.
Paysinger has taken 678 snaps on defense, per Pro Football Focus. He’s accumulated 62 tackles, two quarterback hits, one sack, one pass defensed and one fumble recovery over that span to earn a minus-2.3 overall grade.
While the Giants will no doubt look to add to their linebacker unit this offseason, there is probably no reason to think Paysinger won’t receive a right-of-first-refusal tender, the exact amount expected to be just a little higher than the $1.323 million tender amount from last offseason.
Defensive end Justin Tuck (Unrestricted)
After at least two injury-filled seasons that led former teammate-turned ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce with the opinion that Tuck wasn’t the same player he was in the 2007-2010 seasons, Tuck finally caught a break this year.
He was finally able to heal his body to the point where he told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger last month that this season was the best he’s felt since the end of 2009.
As a result, Tuck told reporters during a conference call earlier this month that he was able to train the way he needed to.
“Everyone knows my struggles to get healthy the previous two years and how that affected me on the football field,” he said. “But this year, I stayed out of the training room and started eating the right things and started doing the right things, and I've managed to stay healthy this year. That's the biggest difference."
How good has Tuck, the Giants’ team leader with 9.0 sacks this season, been?
Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, in a conference call with reporters prior to this weekend’s regular-season finale with the Giants, thinks the answer is very good.
“You better have to, the way he played us the first time,” Shanahan said, when asked if Tuck, who recorded four sacks against Washington in their first meetings earlier this month, was a guy they had to specifically scheme against.
“He did a great job and played extremely well. He’s always been a guy that has a lot of ability and can make plays at any time and he sure did a good job against us last time," Shanahan added.
With Tuck near the end of his contract, the nine-year veteran told Orr he’s “definitely not retiring” after the season.
“My body feels great,” Tuck said. “I definitely have a huge passion for the game, and we’ll see where everything stacks up at the end of the year."
The problem is that the Giants are trying to get younger. They drafted Damontre Moore this year in the third round with a vision of potentially teaming him opposite of a healthy Jason Pierre-Paul.
If the Giants believe Tuck has another year or two left in him, they might see if he’d be willing to accept a deal similar to the three-year, $8 million deal that defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins was given this past offseason.
A reasonable contract combined with a reduced role in the defense should be enough to keep Tuck, the team’s defensive co-captain, fresh for a 10th NFL season and beyond.
Linebacker Mark Herzlich (Restricted)
Herzlich is another member of the 2011 rookie class who helped the Giants win a second Super Bowl championship under Coughlin.
That he made it in the NFL is a testament to his sheer resolve to take back his body and his life from the draining effects of the chemotherapy and radiation.
However, Herzlich, who prior to his diagnosis was projected to be a first-round draft pick, hasn’t developed into the starter many thought he might become.
In his rookie season, he started two games at middle linebacker, recording six tackles before a late-season ankle injury put him on the shelf through the playoffs.
In 2012, he started two games, including one at middle linebacker when incumbent Chase Blackburn was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Herzlich, who also played in various sub-packages that season, finished with an overall minus-4.3 grade from Pro Football Focus after recording 19 tackles.
In 2013, Herzlich had his best chance yet to make the starting middle linebacker job his after Blackburn left the team via free agency. The Giants had signed a pair of older veterans, Dan Connor and Aaron Curry, to compete with Herzlich.
Herzlich initially jumped out to lead the competition, but eventually, Connor won the job. However, after the regular-season opener against Dallas, Connor landed on injured reserve with a pinched nerve in his neck, which opened the door for Herzlich to make the job his.
Unfortunately, the third-year player struggled, recording four consecutive negative grades from Pro Football Focus. Eventually, the Giants handed the starting middle linebacker job to Jon Beason, whom the team acquired in a trade with the Carolina Panthers.
"I mean, you don’t really want to be replaced by a scrub," Herzlich told Art Stapleton of The Bergen Record. "If I’m replaced by someone, it better be someone really good, and I think Jon’s really good."
Rather than sulk about his latest lost opportunity, Herzlich returned to his roots as a special teams contributor, a role that seems to fit him very well.
After recording 19 special teams tackles in his first two seasons, this year, Herzlich has 10, which is tied for the team lead with safety Will Hill (Herzlich has seven solo tackles to Hill’s five).
That brings us to the decision the Giants must make on Herzlich.
Considering he’s played in just 193 of the team’s 1,014 defensive snaps, per NFL GSIS, login required, this season, it probably would not be the best use of funds to tender him a right-of-first-refusal offer.
What the Giants could consider doing is offering him a two- or three-year deal with a modest signing bonus to retain his rights.
The structure of the deal could mirror what long snapper Zak DeOssie received back in 2012 (three years, $3.45 million with about $900,000 guaranteed, per Rotoworld). This type of deal would appear to be fair for a backup player whose primary role is on special teams.
This series concludes on Friday with a look at tight end Bear Pascoe, receivers Hakeem Nicks and Louis Murphy, linebacker Keith Rivers, defensive tackle Mike Patterson, safety Ryan Mundy, and corners Terrell Thomas and Trumaine McBride.