It ain't easy being Jerry Reese these days.
Thanks to an 0-6 start that ended in a 7-9 record, the New York Giants general manager, who accepted his share of the blame in the debacle that was the Giants' 2013 season, has a lot of decisions to make to get the team back on the right track.
Before we can look at some of the most pressing decisions he faces and try to anticipate which direction the team will go in, the biggest question that still needs to be answered is what kind of salary-cap space the Giants will have.
According to the latest NFLPA public salary-cap report, the Giants have $17,447 of cap space. That number remains fluid and will likely change once the 2014 cap number is officially announced in the coming weeks.
In addition, Reese and company could be looking to purge inflated contacts of players who are no longer able to perform at a level commensurate with their scheduled earnings, though such moves would still have a direct effect on the salary cap.
Any way you cut it, there are many decisions to be made. Some are no-brainers, and others could go either way.
Let's look at seven of the toughest decisions Reese will have to make this offseason.
Both on and below the surface, Linval Joseph, who will be an unrestricted free agent, is a player the Giants absolutely, positively must find a way to re-sign.
What’s not to like? Besides finishing as the 22nd-best defensive tackle per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) with a 9.9 overall grade, Joseph was also the third-best defender on the Giants behind safety Will Hill (15.7) and defensive end Justin Tuck (15.4).
Joseph will be just 26 years old on his next birthday and is peaking at the right time. He is also the youngest of a free-agent crop that includes 31-year-old Jason Hatcher of Dallas, 27-year-old Arthur Jones of Baltimore and 28-year-old Pat Sims of Oakland.
Why is age important? Because Joseph’s age makes him an attractive option to sign to a long-term contract. The longer the contract, the more years (up to five) a team will have to spread a signing bonus over.
Simply put, that means Joseph is going to become a very rich young man by the time free agency is over.
It’s unlikely that the Giants and Joseph will come to a long-term deal before the start of free agency; he would be foolish not to test the market for the reasons I cited above.
The Giants could slap the franchise tag on Joseph to keep him from going anywhere, but based on last year’s amount for a defensive tackle, they’d be looking at an amount upward of $8.45 million—a huge figure to devote to one player when so many other needs exist.
Instead, I think the Giants are going to let Joseph walk, just as they did with Barry Cofield, whom Joseph replaced.
To protect themselves, they drafted Johnathan Hankins, who showed flashes this year and who almost certainly will step into Joseph’s role if he doesn’t return.
There's no taking away what Mark Herzlich, a cancer survivor, has accomplished.
Herzlich, who before his diagnosis was a dominating linebacker at Boston College, hasn't quite made it back to being a dominating force. He’s had three chances to make the starting middle linebacker job his, but he's been unable to hang onto it.
Last season, after having a head start to clinch the job following Chase Blackburn's departure via free agency, Herzlich ultimately lost out to free agent Dan Connor.
When Connor was lost for the year after Week 1, Herzlich got the starting job back. But he struggled, particularly in coverage, where he just didn’t seem to have the necessary foot speed or instincts.
Not surprisingly becuase of those struggles, he earned four consecutive negative grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the Giants went in another direction when they acquired Jon Beason in a trade with Carolina.
To his credit, Herzlich accepted his demotion from the starting lineup with class, telling Art Stapleton of the Bergen Record, "You don’t really want to be replaced by a scrub. If I’m replaced by someone, it better be someone really good, and I think Jon’s really good."
A restricted free agent, the Giants will need to decide if they are comfortable going into the season with Herzlich as the primary depth should he be needed to play for more than a game or two.
You can never have too many good special teams players, and while a valid argument could be made that Herzlich is replaceable should someone better come along, as the roster stands right now, the only other options at the middle linebacker spot are Marcus Dowtin and Allen Bradford.
Unless the Giants pick up a solid veteran on the free-agent market, I think Herzlich will return on a one-year deal for the veteran minimum.
It’s never supposed to end this way for a team player who's a role model both in and out of the locker room.
However, the end apparently has come for Chris Snee, who just turned 32 and whose body seems to be ready for retirement.
Understandably, Snee wants to return for at least one more season, as he told the New York Post earlier this month.
Unfortunately, Snee has a few things working against him.
First, there is the question of whether his body will be able to hold up through another round of NFL rigors. Sure, he might be feeling good after having surgery on his other hip as well as a clean-out of his elbow, but at some point, Snee, the father of three young boys, also has to take into consideration his post-football quality of life.
Second, can the Giants trust Snee to make it through another season? Team CEO John Mara noted at the end of the season how he had concerns last year about whether the offensive line would stay healthy.
Would a return by an aging, banged-up Snee do much to alleviate those concerns going forward?
Finally, there is Snee’s cap hit. Per Over the Cap, Snee is due to count for $11.75 million in 2014, the second-highest cap figure behind quarterback Eli Manning.
That’s a large amount of money to have to eat if Snee were to come back only to land up on injured reserve again.
That’s why Snee will likely be coaxed into retiring. If his contract comes off the books, the Giants will gain $7.25 million in cap savings, which is a nice chunk of change to use in pursuing other free agents.
In a perfect world, guys like Snee who give everything they have to the game should earn the right to go out on their terms.
Quite often what the heart wants doesn't necessarily align with what the body wants, which is the dilemma facing Snee and the Giants.
When David Baas is healthy, he’s actually not that bad of a center.
The problem is that Baas hasn't been able to stay healthy, not since signing with the Giants as an unrestricted free agent in 2011 after the lockout ended.
In 2012, the only season in which he was able to make it through all 16 games, he finished with a respectable 3.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranking him 22nd among NFL centers.
And so the Giants face a conundrum with the man they once envisioned as being their next Pro Bowl center. Baas will be 33 on his next birthday. He’s had numerous surgeries on his body in 2013—the known ones including his knee and elbow.
Perhaps the timing of the surgeries will allow Baas sufficient time to get himself right. After all, as the Giants’ fourth-highest cap number for 2014 ($8.225 million per Over the Cap), the savings would be a mere $1.775 million this year.
Their dead money hit, if they were to cut Baas and not designate him as a post-June 1 cut , would be a whopping $6.45 million.
If the Giants wanted to get a jump on their 2015 cap and move on from Baas, they could designate him as a post-June 1 transaction, which would increase their savings by another $3.225 million—the caveat being that they wouldn’t gain any kind of relief until after June 1.
They could also look to lower Baas’ $4.75 million base salary for 2015. But to do that, they probably would have to front him more money, which means that he becomes harder to cut in 2015 if they decide to move on from him.
Of course, if he agrees to a straight pay cut—never an easy sell to make to a player—that would solve part of the dilemma.
The question, though, is given Baas’ injury history, do they want to continue to take a chance on him becoming that Pro Bowl center they were hoping for?
If the goal is to get younger, I think we all know what the answer to that question is.
A year ago, Henry Hynoski, the Giants' affable fullback, looked like he was well on his way to becoming one of the top players at his position.
However, the injury bug had other ideas for the 25-year-old Hynocerous.
First, there was the double dipper of a chip fracture of the lateral plateau in his left knee and MCL injury, all of which required surgery and months of rehab.
To his credit, Hynoski attacked his rehab about as aggressively as he attacks opponents, working himself back to the field for opening day.
In retrospect, Hynoski might very well have needed more time to strengthen his knee. When he took the field, he didn't look anywhere close to being the force he was in 2012. Against Dallas in Week 1, he had his worst game in his young NFL career, a performance that earned him a minus-1.5 overall grade by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
While he looked a little better in Week 2, he still wasn't as explosive out of his stance. Then in Week 3, he played just three snaps before suffering a fractured left shoulder, an injury for which he underwent surgery.
So for those keeping score, that's a broken leg, a knee ligament injury and a broken shoulder—three significant injuries. That probably caused enough concern for Jerry Reese to sign fullback John Conner to a two-year deal instead of a one-year rental like the deals given to the other free agents the team brought in as injuries piled up.
With Conner under contract for 2014—Conner, by the way, finished with a 9.0 overall grade from PFF, the highest grade of any Giants offensive player—the Giants have a decision to make regarding Hynoski, who is due to be a restricted free agent.
As good as Conner was last year, I think the team will offer Hynoski a chance to return and compete for the starting fullback job again.
What will the offer be? I'd be surprised if the Giants tender Hynoski, who again is coming off significant injuries, at the original round tender, not when they have a healthy option in Conner counting for just $740,000 in 2014.
An original round tender doesn't make financial sense, certainly not when there are other more pressing needs where the money needs to be devoted, and certainly not when a player is coming back from multiple injuries.
If Hynoski can overcome what's usually a kiss-of-death injury for a fullback (shoulder) and regain the power and explosion that he showed in 2012, a potential competition with Conner could very well be one of the best in the upcoming training camp.
When it comes to guys who put the team first, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is about as good as they come.
He’s kept an open mind when asked in the past to change positions. In doing so, he sacrificed his personal stats, considered a bargaining chip in contract negotiations, for the good of the team.
He’s also been durable since overcoming a neck issue that landed him on injured reserve in 2010. Per KFFL, Kiwanuka has only been listed on the Giant’s injury report just once, in Week 1 of the 2012 season (groin).
The problem, though, is that Kiwanuka’s play has declined.
Although the 30-year-old this past year posted his second-highest single-season sack total (6.0), Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Kiwanuka 50th out of 52 defensive ends playing in a 4-3 system, giving him a minus-28.1 overall grade and the lowest grade, minus-19.3, against the run.
Those grades represent an extremely steep drop-off from his 2012 grades of minus-8.4 overall and minus-2.1 against the run.
With that kind of production, it might be impractical for the Giants to carry Kiwanuka’s $7.05 million cap number into 2014, a figure that includes a $4.375 million base salary, per Over the Cap.
However, here’s the problem the Giants face regarding Kiwanuka.
Currently, they do not have Justin Tuck under contract for 2014. Damontre Moore is about to enter his second season, and while he has a lot of upside, he still needs to demonstrate that he can be an every-down defensive lineman.
Most importantly, Jason Pierre-Paul, who missed the last five games of the 2013 season because of a shoulder injury, is hoping to avoid the need for surgery, according to Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger. If he does decide to have the procedure, he told Orr he would decide by the end of January.
While Kiwanuka’s production certainly doesn’t justify his hefty contract, the Giants might not have any choice but to carry him another year given all these uncertainties.
All of these factors are precisely why Kiwanuka is not a guarantee to be cut—if he were cut, the Giants would only save $1.8 million on the move.
What I think will happen instead is that the Giants might try to restructure Kiwanuka to lower his $4.375 million base salary.
While doing so would push money into 2015 and thereby lower the $4.825 million cap savings they’d get if they cut him in 2015, they might not have any choice but to carry Kiwanuka another season given the uncertainties they face with Tuck and Pierre-Paul.
After two seasons of struggling through injuries, Justin Tuck seemed to find the fountain of youth in 2013, finishing with 11.0 sacks, his first double-digit sack season since 2010, when his 11.5 sacks led to a Pro Bowl berth.
That production, which also saw him record 44 hurries, 63 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 21 quarterback hits, one interception, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles, was good enough to land him with a 15.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranking him seventh on the list of 4-3 defensive ends.
As good as Tuck was in 2013, re-signing him to any kind of long-term contract doesn’t make any sense for several reasons.
First, as noted in my commentary about Mathias Kiwanuka, no one knows if Jason Pierre-Paul will be really able to return to his 2011 form, nor does anyone know for sure if Damontre Moore is ready for a larger, every-down role on defense.
Second, while Tuck made it through the year relatively unscathed, how many times was he too slow to get up off the ground after making a play?
While you certainly don’t want to see a tough leader such as Tuck have to deal with any kind of injuries, he’s not getting any younger.
Also, after seeing his base salary jump from $1 million in 2009 to $4.5 million last season, it’s highly unlikely that the Giants are going to give Tuck another increase in salary, not if they plan to team Moore on the other side of Pierre-Paul.
Tuck certainly still has value as a player, but only in a rotational role, which would actually help keep him fresh over the course of a season.
His leadership is also valuable, though if Jon Beason is re-signed, I could easily see a scenario where Beason and Antrel Rolle take over as the defensive co-captains.
Should Tuck be re-signed? I think the potential reward in doing so far outweighs the risk. However, the price has to be right.