General Manager Jerry Reese needs to be careful with how he manages the salary cap this year.
"George used to tell me, 'The cap is the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I think of before I go to bed," Ernie Accorsi, Young's successor as general manager, told The New York Times.
It’s easy to see why Young was so obsessed with the cap. There are so many “what if” scenarios, so many balancing acts to juggle that if a front office guesses wrong, it can set a team back for a couple of years.
Let’s explore this thing called the salary cap and how it could influence some of the Giants upcoming personnel decisions.
A Quick Salary Cap Primer
According to a report in USA TODAY, the projected 2014 cap is expected to be approximately $126.3 million. Each team is permitted to carry over any unused cap space from 2013 into 2014.
Will the Giants have enough money to be successful in free agency?
Last year, the Giants carried over $1 million, which adjusted their cap to $124 million. According to the NFLPA’s public cap report (as of Jan. 8, 2014), the Giants have $17,447 of cap space to carry over after signing five players to reserve/futures contracts.
On March 11, when the 2014 league year begins, the Top 51 rule also comes back into play. The “Top 51” rule, for those not familiar, stipulates that only the top 51 highest player contracts for that year (base salary, incentives and prorated bonuses) will count against the team’s salary cap.
This rule is in effect through the end of the preseason and is the reason why teams can expand their offseason rosters to up to 90 players without incurring any penalties.
In addition to active contracts counting toward the Top 51, any player cut after June 1 of the preceding year also shows up on a team’s cap report as “dead money.”
For example, defensive tackle Marvin Austin was cut by the Giants prior to completing his rookie contract. As a result, his remaining prorated signing bonus of $311,509 (per Over the Cap), will be charged against the Giants’ 2014 cap.
How the Money is Being Spent
According to Over the Cap, the Giants have committed $115,374,676 to 51 contracts for 2014. The breakdown, which does not include the $389,298 in dead money resulting from last summer's training camp cuts, is shown in this chart.
Before I go into some moves the Giants might be contemplating making moving forward, I want to draw your attention to an article in which I looked at five potential salary-cap moves that could potentially free up additional cap space.
The Giants could gain an additional $14.7 million in cap space if the contracts of guard Chris Snee, tight end Brandon Myers, cornerback Corey Webster, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and center David Baas are removed from the books.
Now let’s look at some likely spending the Giants will do in the offseason. All salary cap data is from Over the Cap, unless otherwise noted. All stats and grades are from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.
And as always, all opinions are mine, unless otherwise noted.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs)
The UFAs that I think the Giants will try to re-sign are linebacker Jon Beason, safety Stevie Brown, defensive end Justin Tuck, offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, cornerback Terrell Thomas, running back Andre Brown and cornerback Trumaine McBride.
I’ll break each one down in a moment, but first I want to address why I don’t have a couple of “obvious” players on this list.
I don’t think that DT Linval Joseph will be re-signed. Joseph is sure to command a hefty contract from someone who has a better cap situation and thus might be too expensive for the Giants to afford.
With Johnathan Hankins having shown a lot of promise when given some opportunities, I believe that Hankins will inherit Joseph’s spot, just as Joseph did a few years ago when Barry Cofield left for a better deal.
I also do not think WR Hakeem Nicks will be back. Nicks, who is coming off a disappointing season in which he didn’t record a touchdown reception, has in the last few weeks expressed a desire to return to the Giants.
However, he sometimes doesn’t sound convinced that he will return, based on what he told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger:
"We all know this is where I want to be," Nicks said. Added the expected caveat, though. "I understand the business side" #nyg— Conor Orr (@ConorTOrr) January 7, 2014
Nicks might have told reporters that his forthcoming free-agency decision isn’t “just about the money,” as noted by ESPN, but something tells me that if he doesn’t receive a deal in the same neighborhood as what Victor Cruz received, he probably will look elsewhere.
One last point abut Nicks. Is it really worth it to the team to pay him big money when they have Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan waiting in the wings?
If the team envisions a bigger role for those two players, bringing Nicks back would probably mean either Randle and Jernigan will ride the pine.
Now let’s look at some of the players that I think will be re-signed.
There will be very few Giants free agents in line for big money. Beason will probably be one of them.
While the Giants might have some reservations about dishing out a hefty contract to Beason given his injury history, he’ll certainly get a multi-year deal—I’m guessing it will be a four-year pact—that offers more than just the base salary and a bonus.
Brown is coming off a preseason ACL tear, but he told Orr that he was optimistic about returning to the Giants.
"I feel like I'll be back, and I want to be back so it's more so you just have to wait for the process now," he said.
Speaking of Thomas, he fulfilled his goal of making it back to the field after rehabbing from consecutive ACL tears.
Although he just barely finished with a positive overall grade of 0.4 from PFF, that he accomplished what he did is pretty impressive considering his revelation to NJ.com that he had microfracture surgery last year.
Moving forward, Thomas has said to me that he wants to compete for a starting job. That might not happen with the Giants, especially if their plan is to upgrade the position’s depth via the draft.
If the Giants do want Thomas back, his contract would probably be in the neighborhood of a two-year deal paying the minimum base salary.
If he does win a starting job, I’m sure there will be an escalator that bumps up his base salary.
McBride was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2013. Despite lacking ideal height, he stepped in after Corey Webster went down with injuries and performed very well.
Despite his play, McBride’s future might be more along the line of a role player rather than a starter. Remember, in Week 6 against the Chicago Bears, the coaching staff started Thomas ahead of McBride reportedly due to concerns about the 5’9” McBride matching up against Chicago's bigger receivers.
That’s why if he’s re-signed, it won’t be to a lucrative contract. Rather, he could get a deal similar to what I believe Thomas might get as far as structure and length.
Although Tuck was one of the best defensive linemen in 2013 and finished as the team leader in sacks, that does not mean that he should get another contract similar to the one he just finished.
Tuck took his share of hits last year, and his injury history has to be a concern moving forward.
Second, if the plan is to get Damontre Moore more snaps, Tuck could be reduced to a rotation player at both end and tackle, which would make it a poor investment to spend starter dollars on him.
My guess for Tuck is that he’ll receive a two-year deal to include a performance escalator if his status should change from rotation to starter.
There’s no doubt that the offensive line is going to be targeted heavily this offseason via a combination of free agency and the draft.
If the Giants need a veteran holdover, Boothe makes the most sense.
Although his level of play dropped off in 2013—he finished with a -11.3 overall grade from PFF, which was a far cry from his 2012 season grade of a 9.2—a logical explanation could be the difference in talent that lined up next to him this year versus last.
Put better talent around the versatile Boothe and he probably can give the team another two years of production at a reasonable price.
When he’s healthy, Brown is probably the most complete running back the Giants have. However, he’s had three major injuries to his legs.
Also, his production dropped off in the last quarter of 2013 season, a drop-off that included three lost fumbles in his last four games.
Brown might not be the “bell cow” running back the Giants need, at least in the opinion of former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride who shared some insights during a recent interview with SiriusXM Radio (h/t ESPN).
However, if he can fix his ball-security issues and stay healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t contribute strong numbers to the running game for the next four years.
Team COO John Mara was asked if the Giants needed to look at quarterback Eli Manning’s contract, which will count for $20.4 million in 2014, approximately 16.1 percent of the projected $126.3 million salary cap.
“I don’t think we need to do it,” said Mara. “It’s certainly something we’re going to talk about, though. It depends on how aggressive we want to be in free agency.”
Considering that the Giants have more than two dozen free agents looming and a major reconstruction job to do on the offensive line, they might just have to be a little more aggressive than they’d prefer to be.
The good news is that Manning seems open to work with the Giants.
“I haven’t thought about it, but if they come to me, yeah, we’ll discuss it and figure out a plan,” he told Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
Restructuring a deal that has two years remaining probably doesn’t make much sense from a cap standpoint. Extending the deal, which would end just one month shy of Manning’s 35th birthday, does make sense.
By tacking on additional years, the Giants can spread out any money to lessen their cap hit each year.
However, as Pro Football Talk points out, attempts to reduce Manning’s base salary via an extension might not be acceptable if it means that two-time Super Bowl MVP would potentially be paid less per year than other quarterbacks who have accomplished less.
For those wondering about Antrel Rolle and his $9.25 million cap number, I don’t think the Giants will touch his contract.
The only way they can lower the number would be to extend the 31-year-old Rolle, who has been their best defensive player the last few years. However, with 24-year-old Will Hill also entering the final year of his contract, the Giants might not want to have a situation where they have two safeties competing for a contract extension.
Granted, Hill’s off-field record makes for a huge risk in which to invest a lot of money, and Rolle’s play has shown no signs of declining.
However, you have to look ahead. Assuming Hill doesn’t slip up, it’s probably fair to say he’ll be a member of the team well after Rolle has moved on.
Restricted Free Agents (RFAs)
Per Pro Football Focus, the Giants will have five RFAs: Fullback Henry Hynoski, linebackers Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger, running back Da’Rel Scott and center Jim Cordle.
My guess is that only three of those five factor in the team’s plans.
Before injuries doomed his 2013 season, Hynoski was an up-and-coming fullback that, had he stayed healthy, might have been worthy of at least an original-round tender.
However, that was not the case. After fighting his way back from a chip fracture in his leg and an MCL injury in his left knee, the 25-year-old undrafted free agent who joined the team in 2011 saw his 2013 season end thanks to a fractured left shoulder.
Those injuries were apparently enough to cause some concern about him moving forward because the team decided to sign John Conner to a two-year deal instead of the standard one-year rental, which seemed to be the norm every time the Giants needed to pull in someone off the street.
The day after the season ended, Hynoski shared the good news that he was fully healed from his injuries. However, the real test will come on the football field, where he must answer questions about whether he still has the burst and power to be an effective lead blocker.
Assuming he is able to regain his 2012 form, he’ll likely get an opportunity to compete for the starting job against Conner, who by the way, is due to make a base salary of $730,000 in 2014.
Considering that Hynoski is coming off two significant injuries, it probably doesn’t make sense for the Giants to offer him an original-round tender.
Instead, I think he’ll be offered a one-year veteran minimum contract of $645,000, the minimum for a player with three years of accrued experience per the chart found at Steelers Depot. I also think he might be offered a small roster bonus if he makes the team.
Herzlich’s play as a starter in 2013—he finished with a -6.8 overall grade from PFF—combined with the arrival of Jon Beason probably put to rest any notion that he is a starting middle linebacker in this league.
Where earned his keep was on special teams, as he posted 10 tackles (seven solo) to earn a very respectable 3.5 overall grade for his play, and on the team’s goal-line defense.
Is that limited role enough to justify an original-round tender, which is expected to rise a little more from last year’s $1.33 million mark.
Probably not. Instead, I think Herzlich will be offered a one-year deal similar to what I anticipate Hynoski will be offered. As both players were signed as undrafted free agents in 2011, their numbers should be almost identical.
Herzlich’s early competition for a roster spot includes Allen Bradford, who will count for $570,000 against the Giants’ 2014 cap. The team will probably bring in additional linebackers looking to compete as well.
I initially thought that Paysinger might be the only one of the restricted free agents whom the team could justify tendering an original-round offer because he worked himself into a starting role and did well on special teams.
After giving it some more thought, I think it might make more sense for the Giants to take the same approach with Paysinger as I’m anticipating they’ll take with Hynoski and Herzlich.
The team has Jacquian Williams under contract for this year. If the plan is to continue splitting snaps at the weak-side linebacker spot, I don’t think it makes sound financial sense to pay Paysinger more than Williams, who is said to be the better athlete of the two and who could still challenge for the starting job full time.