Free Agency or Draft: How the New York Giants Should Address Each Top Need
At his introductory press conference, New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said the goal isn’t to rebuild—it's to reload.
That statement would appear to be rather optimistic considering the vast holes that exist on a talent-depleted roster that is yet again about to undergo a massive overhaul. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a new head coach being optimistic.
Getting back to the holes on this team, ask anyone who follows or covers it whether the way to plug the holes is to use some of the projected $60 million in cap space the team has or to address them via the draft.
So let’s break each need down (in no specific order of priority), determine which of the two options is the way to go and, as part of the process, throw out a name or two who might just fit the bill.
Wide Receiver: Free Agency
With the odds of Rueben Randle moving on in free agency after four inconsistent years with this team short, and with Victor Cruz perhaps an even bigger question mark to return to form, the Giants need someone at the receiver position who can help take some of the onus off Odell Beckham Jr.
Last year, the Giants drafted Geremy Davis in the sixth round, perhaps envisioning he would one day be an outside receiver.
As a rookie, Davis struggled so much so he became a weekly healthy scratch toward the end of the season, a time when he should have been seeing an increase in reps.
Dwayne Harris tried to fill in, but the whole reason he was brought to New York was for his special teams skills, an area which ended up suffering a bit toward the end given the coaches had to lessen his load because of his increased role on the offense.
The Giants also have a couple of young and intriguing prospects in Ben Edwards and Anthony Dable, the latter of whom the team signed on Thursday.
With the jury out on the young players—you can add Myles White to that mix, by the way—and with Hakeem Nicks not guaranteed to be back, look for the Giants to address the receiver spot via free agency.
Sanu, who played his college ball at Rutgers, appears to be the one who's picking up the most steam, at least according to a report by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.
However, his teammate Jones is the more consistent of the two, according to Pro Football Focus, which graded Jones higher than Sanu last season.
With good reason. Jones produced four touchdown catches to Sanu’s zero, even though Sanu saw an increase in his game reps when he stepped in for A.J. Green. Jones also created two missed tackles to Sanu’s four and was the only one of the three Bengals receivers with 25 percent or more of the snaps not to turn the ball over.
Jones told NFL Media’s Scott Hanson he plans to test the free-agency waters (h/t NFL Media's Chris Wesseling), noting he’s not planning to offer the Bengals a hometown discount.
If the Giants want a tried and tested No. 2 receiver from the free-agent ranks, Jones would appear to be a top candidate regardless of what happens with Cruz.
In a perfect scenario, the Denver Broncos would decline to re-sign linebacker studs Von Miller and Danny Trevathan, giving the Giants and their massive cap space a crack at one of them.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post reported that Miller is likely to get the franchise tag if a long-term deal is not reached before the start of free agency.
Trevathan would appear to be the more likely of the two to move on. However, Renck opined that the Chicago Bears, who are coached by former Broncos head coach John Fox and have more projected money than the Giants, could be the linebacker’s next career stop.
So where does that leave the Giants, who have made a career of using free agency to staff this critical position but who have yet to really hit a home run during Jerry Reese’s tenure as GM?
The first thing the Giants are likely to do is re-sign Jasper Brinkley, who was a steady, solid performer last year at middle linebacker, to a short-term deal. Per Pro Football Focus, Brinkley finished as the eighth-highest-graded inside linebacker last year among the 60 defenders who took at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps. That’s not bad considering he came into the Giants program after training camp ended.
However, this is the NFL, and with the exception of quarterback, kicker and punter, it’s generally not wise to build a position or a unit around a player on the wrong side of 30.
This is why the Giants must consider spending at least a second- or third-round draft pick on a young linebacker who could potentially be a part of that foundation.
The general consensus among fans is they’d like to see the Giants draft an inside linebacker such as Alabama’s Reggie Ragland (6’1”, 259 pounds).
If the Giants are looking for a young inside linebacker to learn the pro game behind Brinkley and the rest of the veteran crew, other prospects of note with have higher grades than Ragland include Steven Daniels (6’0”, 257 lbs) of Boston College and Calvin Munson (6’1”, 235 lbs) of San Diego State.
Both of those players, like Ragland, have glowing grades in both run defense and in coverage but, unlike Ragland, didn’t draw a high grade in the penalty department.
The more likely scenario for the Giants if they address linebacker in the draft is they go for an outside linebacker to shore up the depth given the injury-prone tendencies Devon Kennard, the strong-side linebacker, has shown to date.
Then at some point on Day 2, it would make sense for the Giants to add a young player via the draft. Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack are two names fans seem to covet. However, Ohio State’s Darron Lee could prove to be solid Day 2 value if he slides down to the top of the second round.
A two-year starter on the strong side in OSU’s 4-3 defense, Lee is a converted safety who, per Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout, played the "walkout" linebacker role, which necessitated covering, blitzing and playing in space.
As for the rest of New York's linebacker unit, Over the Cap has J.T. Thomas as due guaranteed money in the second year of his three-year deal with the Giants, while Jonathan Casillas, who like Thomas was signed last year, has received all of his guaranteed money.
It’s unlikely the Giants would send both Thomas and Casillas packing at this point, though it remains to be seen whether the same can be said of Mark Herzlich and Uani 'Unga, both players who have proved their strengths are on special teams rather than on defense.
Offensive Line: Free Agency
Assuming the offensive line stays healthy—a big assumption given this team’s string of bad luck the last several years—New York already has four-fifths of its starting unit on the roster.
Those four are projected to be left tackle Ereck Flowers, left guard Justin Pugh, center Weston Richburg and right guard Bobby Hart, the latter being a second-year player who is projected to take over the role previously held by Geoff Schwartz.
The lone missing piece for the Giants is a starting right tackle, a position that—although they have both Marshall Newhouse and John Jerry under contract and both can play that spot—needs to be improved.
Ideally, the criteria for such a player, besides skill, is someone who is entering his prime and who could provide that young Giants offensive line with a chance to establish continuity for the first time since the period between 2006 and 2010, when the Giants almost always fielded the same starting five offensive linemen (David Diehl, Kareem McKenzie, Rich Seubert, Chris Snee and Shaun O’Hara).
After reviewing an analysis by Pro Football Focus, the top free-agent offensive tackle class is somewhat underwhelming.
Cleveland’s Mitchell Schwartz, Geoff Schwartz’s younger brother, appears to be the best fit if the Giants are looking for an experienced right tackle.
If Schwartz isn't feasible, a short-term solution, who while not fitting the criteria of being “younger” but who might make sense if the Giants were to consider moving Flowers to right tackle for a year to buy a season—unlikely, but not something that can be ruled out—is the Oakland Raiders’ Donald Penn.
The 32-year-old Penn has consistently ranked among the best left tackles in the NFL when it comes to run blocking, matching that showing in pass blocking the last two seasons.
Another option, albeit a long shot who would most definitely solve the Giants’ right tackle dilemma, is restricted free agent Ryan Schraeder of the Atlanta Falcons. Schraeder, who went undrafted in 2013, is arguably one of the top right tackles in the league, a durable sort who grabbed onto the starting job and didn’t let it go.
Because of his strong performance, it’s unlikely the Falcons will tender Schraeder for anything less than a Level 2 tender, which would require a second-round pick from the team that signs him to an offer sheet.
The final possibility, would be to move Pugh from left guard to right tackle and replace him with a veteran left guard.
Though Foster doesn’t fit the “youth” criteria outlined here—the 30-year-old entered the league in 2009 as an undrafted free agent—his performance has been steady.
Jason Garcia of Fox Sports reports Foster could hit the open market given the Steelers have 20 players set to hit free agency, including left tackle Kelvin Beachum. Garcia also noted Foster is looking to “cash in” on what could be his final NFL contract.
Safety: Free Agency
Last year, Reese and the Giants were all set to roll the dice with the young safeties already on the roster: Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson and Landon Collins, the latter pair 2015 draft picks.
Of those four, only Collins escaped season-ending injured reserve. Meanwhile, the Giants were left to scramble to fill the position, adding veterans such as Brandon Meriweather and Craig Dahl, both of whom were at the very back end of their respective careers.
It will be interesting to see what the Giants do this year at safety. If they’re smart, they’ll add a young veteran via free agency to this still relatively inexperienced group that appears to have lacked a solid mentor.
The San Diego Chargers' Eric Weddle seems to be a popular choice among Giants fans, especially since, per NBC San Diego, he’s acknowledged he’s going to be moving on.
Weddle was the highest-graded safety last season (out of 40 players who took at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps).
However, the 2015 season was the first of Weddle’s career (which began in 2007) in which he didn’t have an interception.
In that interview with NBC San Diego, Weddle also expressed a desire to sign with a team that has a good chance of being in the Super Bowl next year, which could rule the Giants out if he doesn't think New York is on the cusp of being the next world champions.
A more realistic possibility might be Denver’s David Bruton, who prior to landing on injured reserve in Week 15 with a broken leg, from which he’s fully expected to recover in time for 2016, posted a 69.6 rating in coverage, allowing one touchdown and picking off two passes while breaking up three balls in 40 pass targets against him.
The other thing to like about Bruton, also a solid special teams contributor, is he can play both free and strong safety, which is good news for the Giants, who tend to flip the responsibilities of their safeties in coverage.
Would that be enough for the Giants to consider investing the three-year, $15 million deal Cameron Wolfe of the Denver Post said Bruton is seeking?
At an average of $5 million per season, that would put Bruton in the middle of the pack among safeties, which would make him a solid value given all he brings to the table.
Defensive End: Free Agency and Draft
How important is getting a defensive end this offseason to the Giants?
So important it’s arguably the only position of need covered in this slideshow in which it will take both the draft and free agency to fill the gaping hole that exists on the roster.
The Giants have Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers Jr. both slated to hit the market with the likelihood of both being re-signed slim. George Selvie is also due to hit free agency, but he’s not much of a pass-rusher and doesn’t figure to be back.
If one of the Ayers-Pierre-Paul duo leaves, the Giants would be left with the remaining player and young Owa Odighizuwa, a pass-rusher who lost his rookie season to injury, and Kerry Wynn, who isn't much of a pass-rusher.
With most successful defenses having at least three pass-rushers capable of getting to the quarterback, the Giants, without a shadow of a doubt, need to replenish this spot.
So which of Pierre-Paul and Ayers has the best chance of returning? According to Kristian Dyer of USA Today, the Giants are unlikely to bring Pierre-Paul back.
Of course, in free agency, most situations remain fluid—there is a chance Pierre-Paul could hit the market and find suitors are not as willing to shell out premier money for his services, which have so far been compromised thanks to the July 4 fireworks accident that permanently damaged his right hand.
Even if that were so, as was noted in a previous analysis, other than 2011, Pierre-Paul’s production hasn’t really been eye-popping, specifically what he turned in during the 2014 season, when he was presumably fully recovered from back and shoulder issues and had a fully functioning right hand.
Ayers, meanwhile, led the Giants in sacks last season, with 9.5. He has had some injury issues in his two seasons with the Giants, but he has also been solid, both as a pass-rusher and run defender.
Thomas Maney of Pro Football Focus argued that it makes more sense to re-sign Ayers over Pierre-Paul because Ayers “finished 2015 with one of the top-10 pass-rush grades among edge defenders, and has been above average against the run in five of his seven career seasons.” Pierre-Paul, as Maney also highlighted, has seen his run-defense production slip.
Beside re-signing Ayers, the Giants might also want to look at Olivier Vernon of the Miami Dolphins if he is not franchised.
Maney noted that Vernon racked up 81 combined pressures in his contract season, adding that if Vernon could keep up this kind of production, he’d be a significant upgrade over both Ayers and Pierre-Paul.
Assuming Ayers is added back into the fold to go along with a veteran free agent from the outside, the Giants would probably want a solid young player to add to the mix.
Ohio State’s Joey Bosa is the top-ranked defensive end and overall college prospect pre-combine and pre-pro day, according to NFL Draft Scout. However, the chances he falls to the Giants at 10 appear slim.
If he’s not there, then DeForest Buckner, the Pac-12 sack leader in 2014, might also be worth a look, even though he's coming from a 3-4 system. Buckner’s long arms—he’s 6’7” tall—allow him to disengage from blockers, which should help him shed blocks to make plays.
Defensive Tackle: Free Agency
The cream of the defensive tackle free-agency crop this year is Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets, a player who appears headed for the franchise tag, according to Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post.
If that plan does come to fruition, the only way the Giants would remotely have a chance at landing Wilkerson, who was primarily a defensive end in the Jets’ 3-4 scheme, is to give up two first-round draft picks or make a blockbuster deal, a topic that Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media explored.
While you never want to say never, the chances of the Giants making such a bold move seem about as likely as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
If the Giants were a player or two away from making a run, the move might make more sense. However, with so many holes on defense, they are not in a position to trade away draft picks this year or next year.
If they are set on landing a veteran, Denver’s Malik Jackson might be worth a look.
Just 26 years old, Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ seventh-best 3-4 interior lineman (out of 10 who played in 75 percent or more of their team’s snaps), finishing second behind Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles for most quarterback hurries.
While the Broncos could get a $19 million cap rebate if they move on from quarterback Peyton Manning, according to Over the Cap’s figures, that would give Denver, at best, $27.161 million with which to re-sign some key pieces of their Super Bowl championship team.
If OLB Von Miller receives the franchise tag, which, per Steelers Depot, is projected to be $14.131 million, the Broncos might still have a problem re-signing one or two of the players they’d like back.
Jackson, for his part, is interested in testing the market, according to the Denver Post (h/t Dan Schneier of Fox Sports).
With the Giants swimming in cap space, if the could land Jackson and re-sign veteran Barry Cofield to go along with Johnathan Hankins and Jay Bromley, that interior D-line unit would be significantly improved.
Cornerback: Free Agency
Cornerbacks Prince Amukamara, Trumaine McBride and Jayron Hosley are all set to be unrestricted free agents on March 9.
The chances of any of those three being in a Giants uniform next season are extremely slim, and that goes for Amukamara.
The Giants' first-round draft pick in 2011 recently revealed in a radio interview with SiriusXM (h/t Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News) that the Giants encouraged him to test the market first rather than attempting to work out a deal for him to stay on with the team.
If the Giants truly wanted Amukamara back, it’s probably safe to say they wouldn’t be so generous in encouraging him to test the market, where it’s possible another team comes swooping in with a bigger offer.
While it would be surprising if the Giants don’t at least grab one cornerback in the draft to replenish the depth they’d lose once Hosley and McBride move on, if Amukamara does walk, there are some solid options in free agency the Giants could pursue.
The top dog is the Carolina Panthers’ Josh Norman, though it’s highly unlikely Norman will get a whiff of free agency.
Since joining the Chiefs in 2013, Smith has earned positive coverage and overall grades in each of his three seasons. His 2014 campaign was his most impressive, as he earned the second-highest coverage grade among cornerbacks while he also avoided being penalized a single time all season—a remarkable feat these days, given how often flags are thrown for coverage penalties. Smith is not an elite corner, but he has proven over the last two seasons that he is a solid No. 1 cornerback.
The 29-year-old Smith was suspended by the league to start the season, a suspension resulting from a DUI arrest in 2014.
At 6’3” and 218 pounds, Smith’s size and physicality in run defense is appealing. So too is his ability to match up size-wise with some of the league’s bigger receivers.
He’s coming off a three-year, $16.5 million contract, an average of $5.5 million per year, so it might not be a complete reach to be able to land his services on a multiyear deal paying between $7 and $8 million per year on average—which might be less than what Amukamara could draw in the open market.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.