Money makes the world go round; no differently, it also makes pro football go round.
Some players are motivated by their coaches to perform—others by their teammates. A few antiques around the league are simply motivated by the love of the game. All players, however, are motivated by the lure of a big-money contract. The players set to hit unrestricted free agency on March 11 will make up the next crop of NFLers primed to cash in on their ability.
The 2010 season was technically an uncapped season (although the Cowboys and Redskins would argue otherwise), but the 2014 salary cap is the first to eclipse the bloated $128 million cap of 2009. Under the league's current collective bargaining agreement, agreed upon in the summer of 2011, the salary cap has remained relatively flat (around $120 million).
The New York Giants are in fighting shape heading into free agency.
Armed with $19.2 million in cap space, the Giants will be flexible enough to compete for players on the open market. They are not sitting on $66.3 million like the Oakland Raiders, but at least they're not in a $16.4 million hole like the Dallas Cowboys. About $5 million of New York's $19.2 million in cap space is expected to go toward signing the team's 2014 draft choices, according to this chart by Over The Cap.
New York has the potential, however, to expand its capacity to make an impact in free agency.
Padding the Wallet
As Bleacher Report's Patricia Traina pointed out in a recent article, the Giants were pinching pennies toward the end of last season with only $17,477 of salary-cap space—the NFL's lowest amount, according to this league cap report from the NFLPA. The Giants must be frugal spenders in 2014.
|E. Manning||QB||$7 M||$20.4 M|
|C. Snee||RG||$4.5 M||$11.3 M|
|A. Rolle||S||$2 M||$9.25 M|
|D. Baas||C||$6.45 M||$8.23 M|
|V. Cruz||WR||$13.1 M||$7.42 M|
|W. Beatty||LT||$15.5 M||$7.4 M|
|M. Kiwanuka||DE||$5.25 M||$7.05 M|
|J. Pierre-Paul||DE||$2.7 M||$4.6 M|
|C. Jenkins||DT||$1.33 M||$3.27 M|
|S. Weatherford||P||$2.63 M||$2.93 M|
New York already has about $2.8 million of dead money on the books, but there could be more coming.
Two players in the team's crosshairs are guard Chris Snee and center David Baas. The Giants, according to Pro Football Talk, have approached both Snee and Baas about taking a pay cut. Their respective cap hits in 2014 are the second- and fourth-largest on the team (Snee $11.3 million; Baas $8.225 million).
While Snee was generally receptive to the notion, according to SiriusXM NFL Radio on Twitter, no word on Baas' position has been reported. Both players struggled with injury in 2013, appearing in just three games each. If a pay cut cannot be reached with these players, and the team opts instead to cut these two linemen before June 1, savings would be nearly $9 million while dead money would approach $11 million.
Another player under scrutiny is defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.
His versatility led to a three-year, $16.5 million extension following the 2011 season. Kiwanuka can play anywhere on the defensive line, as well as linebacker. Unfortunately for the former first-round selection (2006, No. 32 overall), he can't play all those positions at once—and that's the only way I see the team's seventh-highest cap figure in 2014 ($7.05 million) gaining justification.
By cutting Kiwi before June 1, the Giants will save $1.8 million while incurring $5.25 million in additional dead money. It's a tougher call to make than either of the ones regarding Snee and Baas, but it's one to consider—especially with Kiwanuka's role likely to be reduced to a rotational one behind Jason Pierre-Paul and rising second-year man Damontre Moore.
Whose contract should be extended?
Another option to expand salary-cap space is doling out a contract extension or two. The two biggest candidates for an extension are quarterback Eli Manning and safety Antrel Rolle. Through an extension, much of Manning's and Rolle's cap hits ($20.4 million and $9.25 million, respectively) can be turned into a signing bonus and pushed over several years to come.
While Rolle sees an extension as his "ultimate goal," according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com, some view the extension of Manning, who is under contract through 2015, as a bridge not yet ready to be crossed.
Eyeballing the Market
New York's personnel must improve in 2014. While the NFL draft is the more celebrated way for a team to improve its roster, free agency is an underrated way to acquire starting talent. Even more underrated is a team re-signing its own free agents to new contracts.
It's the first order of business, as New York is likely laying the groundwork to lock up its most valuable impending free agents. Many of them, including defensive end and team captain Justin Tuck, are expected to at least test the waters of unrestricted free agency. They'll fully assess their value this way, and some are bound to find better deals elsewhere.
Which impending UFA would you most like to see retained?
Tuck's future is one of the murkiest among those of the team's impending free agents. Through two Super Bowl victories, Tuck has entrenched himself in the hearts of New York's faithful. Could he really land in another city after nine seasons with the Giants? He did rack up 11 sacks in 2013—Tuck's highest total since he was a Pro Bowler in 2010.
The fate of defensive tackle Linval Joseph is just as uncertain. Unlike Tuck, Joseph is clearly in his prime at just 25 years old.
The big run-stuffer—who's not too shabby as a pass-rusher, too—is probably New York's most-coveted impending free agent. Although Joseph has announced his desire to stay in New York, he joins the likes of Kevin Boothe, Terrell Thomas, Jon Beason and the Brown Triplets (Andre, a running back; Stevie, a safety; and Josh, a kicker) as players not guaranteed to be Giants in 2014.
There's also wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, whose saga has grown stale. Not one of Big Blue's soon-to-be free agents is more certain to land with another team than Nicks, as Raanan of The Star-Ledger recently reported that the large-handed pass-catcher's chance of return is "close to zero."
After the Giants tie up their own odds and ends, they can pursue the rest of the available players on the open market. Offensive linemen will be under close scrutiny, as will tight ends, running backs and receivers. The Giants offense was so awful in all aspects last season, it can afford to improve at nearly every position.
Defensively, cornerback will be the main target in free agency, although a linebacker could also be on the Giants' radar.
Riding the Waves
To succeed in free agency, a team mustn't blow its load all at once. Instead, it must be patient and follow the natural ebb and flow of unrestricted free agency.
The market will open up on March 11, and within a week, the league's top talents will all have relocated to new cities or agreed to terms offered by their current clubs. Left unclaimed will be the second- and third-tier targets; their signings will come in waves following the initial surge.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese recently explained his philosophy on tackling free agency, via Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News:
I had talks with all those guys, and free agency being free agency, that means you go out and try to get as much money as you can. I’m always in favor for guys getting as much money as you can. ... If you can hold your water (in free agency), we think there’ll probably be some guys available in those second and third waves.
By sticking to the methodology, Reese and the Giants will be successful in free agency and beyond. Everything is intertwined, meaning no single personnel move is made in a vacuum. One player's pay cut will lead to another's signing on as a free agent, which ultimately affects the way New York drafts in May. The results will play themselves out on the field in 2014.
Until then, quite simply, the Giants must ride the wave.