Mathias Kiwanuka has not received as much attention as he probably should in his eight-year career with the New York Giants.
The 30-year-old defensive end has been a member of both recent Super Bowl teams, all while manning a different position from the one he was drafted to play when he was selected 32nd overall by Big Blue in the 2006 draft. On the 2007 and 2011 championship teams, Kiwanuka was a starting outside linebacker, even though he was drafted out of Boston College to play defensive end, his current position.
Kiwanuka was not involved in the first Super Bowl playoff run, since his season ended prematurely in Week 11 due to a broken leg, but his play through the first 10 games that year helped the Giants get off to a 7-3 start.
He has also been relatively durable, not missing a game in six of his eight seasons in the league.
Even though Kiwi is a two-time Super Bowl champion, while being a consummate team player during the ride, he really doesn’t have a trait that stands out on the defense. He is not a vocal leader, like Antonio Pierce and Michael Strahan were on the 2007 team and Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle were four years later.
He does not have a defining season, such as the one registered by Jason Pierre-Paul in 2011. Heck, he can’t even lay claim to a defining moment, like the one Corey Webster gladly owns courtesy of his interception of Brett Favre in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship game.
Kiwanuka has simply been a quiet, solid player, who only diehard Giants fans have truly appreciated these last eight years.
Well, Kiwanuka will be thrust into the spotlight this offseason, but not for reasons any NFL player wants.
His transition back to defensive end in 2013 was not a smooth one, after two consecutive seasons—and three of the last six—at linebacker. Kiwanuka did record six sacks and two forced fumbles while playing in all 16 games. However, his minus-28.1 Pro Football Focus rating (subscription required) proves that his play was poor when he wasn’t sacking the quarterback or stripping the football.
Especially troublesome is his minus-19.3 PFF rating as a pass-rusher, which was ranked dead last (subscription required) among the 52 defensive ends graded in a 4-3 scheme.
A big reason for this putrid mark was the fact that Kiwanuka only had 22 quarterback hurries in his 892 snaps played. By comparison, among 4-3 defensive ends who had between 849 and 900 snaps in 2013, Greg Hardy, Justin Tuck, Robert Quinn and Chris Long all racked up at least 44 quarterback hurries.
When a 30-year-old player is coming off a bad season, the first item that will be reviewed by the team in the offseason is his contract situation. For Kiwanuka, it is clear that the money he will make in 2014 far exceeds what he is worth, based on his 2013 performance.
According to Spotrac, he is scheduled to earn a base salary of $4.375 million this upcoming season and will count $7.05 million against the cap. Even worse, if the Giants cut him before June 1, they will only open up $1.8 million in cap space. This number increases to $4.425 million if he is set free after June 1, but that savings won't do the Giants much good with most, if not all, useful free agents off the table.
Kiwanuka’s 2013 performance was bad enough, though, that saving nearly $2 million through a pre-June 1 cut is an enticing idea. Why keep a player, even if the savings are minimal, that hurt the team more than helped it last season?
As Jordan Raanan of NJ.com smartly points out, Kiwanuka still has some value, which makes a case that he should stick around:
The dilemma the Giants face is that Kiwanuka's the only reliable defensive end the Giants have under contract this offseason. Jason Pierre-Paul struggled this past season with back and shoulder problems, and still may need an operation to fix the latter. Rookie Damontre Moore had an uneven rookie season and Tuck is set to become a free agent.
Sure the Giants could alleviate a lot of this uncertainty by signing a marquee free-agent defensive end, like Greg Hardy, Jared Allen or Michael Johnson. However, these guys will all probably command lengthy, expensive contracts north of $10 million per year, especially in the case of the younger Hardy and Johnson.
The Giants simply have too many other needs to address in free agency, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to warrant signing a defensive end to a contract worth eight figures annually.
Therefore, keeping Kiwanuka and hoping that his poor play in 2013 was simply a case of him struggling to transition back to his old position makes sense. Taking this leap of faith at a $7 million cap hit, though, is hard to justify.
That’s why the Giants should only retain Kiwanuka if he is willing to take a pay cut. There is motivation for him to agree to a salary reduction too.
If he is cut, Kiwanuka would be paid his remaining signing bonus of $5.25 million, but he would lose out on his aforementioned base salary this year and the $4.775 million he is scheduled to make in 2015.
If the Giants can get Kiwanuka to agree to reduce his base salary to $2.5 million for this year and in 2015, it would be a win-win for both parties.
Kiwanuka would have the opportunity to make $10.35 million (which includes his base salary, signing bonus and annual $50,000 workout bonus) if he plays out the last two years of his contract, nearly double what he would get if he is cut. Given the fragile nature of an NFL career, this is a hard offer for a player that will be 31 at the start of next season to pass up.
As for the Giants, they retain a member of a unit littered with question marks for a cap hit that is $75,000 less than it would have been if Kiwanuka were cut. (His $2.5 million base salary, $2.625 million signing bonus hit in 2014 and $50,000 workout bonus add up to a $5.175 million cap hit.)
It may not be for an All-Pro season or a crucial play in overtime of a conference championship game, but Kiwanuka will make news this offseason. If Big Blue and Kiwanuka are smart, his time in the spotlight will end with a revised contract that makes sense for both parties and keeps a long-time Giant in East Rutherford for at least one more season.