In mid-November, this wasn't a conversation worth having. At that point, Justin Tuck was a washed-up veteran on the wrong side of 30 who had recorded only 10.5 sacks in 37 games over a two-and-a-half-year span.
Ten games into the 2013 campaign, he had just one game with a full sack. Yeah, he's a decent run defender, and he brings heat more often than those base sack numbers indicate, but you usually have to overpay players on the open market, and the Giants don't usually break the bank for 31-year-old pass-rushers who don't close.
For proof, look no further than Osi Umenyiora. This example is imperfect because the team was dealing with more restrictive salary cap restraints, but they let Umenyiora walk as a 31-year-old free agent last offseason after he picked up just six sacks in 2012.
Now they're in the same situation with Tuck, who made things complicated by exploding during the final six weeks of the 2013 season. In fact, he had more sacks in that six-game stretch than he had in his previous 35 games, dating back to the third week of the 2011 season.
|Justin Tuck since 2011|
|First 37 games||10.5|
|Latest 6 games||9.5|
The Giants know more than anyone that it's nearly impossible to contend without a quality pass rush, which is why they scooped up defensive linemen Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore on the second night of the NFL draft last April. But now they have to decide whether or not to invest in a pass-rusher who may be rejuvenated or may be in the process of pulling a fast one on the free-agent market.
What should we make of Tuck's strong finish to 2013? On paper, it's hard to ignore.
|Most sacks during final 6 weeks of the season, since 2000|
|1. Justin Tuck||2013||9.5|
|1. Peter Boulware||2001||9.5|
|1. Jason Taylor||2003||9.5|
|1. Jason Taylor||2002||9.5|
|5. Dwight Freeney||2004||9.0|
|Pro Football Reference|
Here's the thing: Tuck's pressure numbers, which are tracked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), didn't increase dramatically during that hot second half. In fact, they basically teetered between four and six per game from Week 4 on.
|Justin Tuck, pressures per game (average per month)|
|Pro Football Focus|
The difference is he started closing.
Let's break down those 9.5 sacks he had to close out the year...
Week 12 vs. Tony Romo
Here, Tuck benefits from the Cowboys having no extra pass protectors, with Jacquian Williams blitzing on his side.
Dallas right tackle Doug Free barely brushes Tuck before picking up Williams.
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is slow getting over to help, and it's an easy play for Tuck at that point.
Week 13 vs. Robert Griffin III
Now, this was definitely a stat-padding game, because Griffin was sacked five times. However, it's still quite impressive that Tuck had four of them. Plus, all of them came in the final 17 minutes.
The first came late in the third quarter, with Washington facing a 3rd-and-long while trailing. In other words, the Giants were beginning to pin their ears back. Tuck was lined up inside and drew a one-on-one matchup with Redskins right guard Chris Chester, who is not a strong pass-blocker.
It took him less than three seconds to get to Griffin. The beat was all about sheer speed.
The coverage was also very good...
Week 13 vs. Robert Griffin III (Take 2)
Here, he beat right tackle Tyler Polumbus fairly quickly, but that's nothing new.
What made this sack impressive was that he chased down a scrambling Griffin.
Week 13 vs. Robert Griffin III (Take 3)
This is a sack that doesn't happen against most NFL starting quarterbacks, but RGIII hangs onto the ball too long.
Two full seconds after the snap, Tuck hasn't gotten past the right guard, Chester.
Two full seconds later, he's still being manhandled, but Griffin is running right toward him as the rest of the pocket breaks down.
That was easy.
Week 13 vs. Robert Griffin III (Take 4)
Polumbus steps right to deal with a blitzing Terrell Thomas, Chester pulls left by design, and center Will Montgomery is taken care of by defensive tackle Mike Patterson. In other words, Tuck is unblocked.
Once Griffin is through with his play-action fake, he's already in big trouble.
The elusive RGIII was able to wiggle away for a moment, but Tuck did drag him down with some late help.
Week 14 vs. Philip Rivers
This is a straight-up victory over rookie Chargers right tackle D.J. Fluker.
Although it helped that the pocket collapsed immediately on both sides, essentially sending Rivers into Tuck's arms.
Week 14 vs. Philip Rivers (Take 2)
Similar play with Tuck getting the better of Fluker.
But in this case, he's credited for the sack because he's able to reach in and jar the ball loose, forcing a fumble.
Week 15 vs. Russell Wilson
Tuck does a great job setting the edge against the mobile Wilson.
But he's sort of in the right place at the right time after Moore does most of the work to push Wilson into Tuck's territory.
He gets half a sack, deservedly.
Week 17 vs. Kirk Cousins
Familiar matchup inside with Chester.
Tuck wins it easily and then chases down Cousins.
Week 17 vs. Kirk Cousins (Take 2)
Another one-on-one matchup with Polumbus...
And another forced fumble. This one took exactly three seconds, which is solid.
Let's keep in mind that Griffin and the Redskins were a mess, especially in pass protection, and six of those sacks came against that team after the wheels had come off. Two, in Week 17, were against Cousins, who was a deer in headlights that day. And as good as Wilson is, he was pressured more than any other quarterback in the league this year, according to Pro Football Focus.
Plus, the entire defense started playing better at this point, especially in coverage. That helped.
Did Tuck pick his game up? Sure, he was beating some tackles and guards at the snap, just like old times, but that sack number has been inflated by the aforementioned circumstances. Ultimately, only about half of those sacks were Tuck being a playmaker.
But those sack numbers and the demand on the open market for pass-rushing threats could drive up Tuck's price.
There are plenty of other quality pass-rushers slated to hit said market (including Brian Orakpo, Greg Hardy, Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett, Jared Allen and Anthony Spencer), and that market didn't really spike as much as expected last year, so it's anyone's guess what the type of prices will materialize this time, but even Mathias Kiwanuka is making $4.3 million per year.
Jason Pierre-Paul is expected to be healthier in 2014, and Moore was drafted for a reason. If need be, the Giants can go back to that well for another defensive end. But whatever they do, they should not shell out $5 million or more for a wild card like Tuck.