Grading the New York Giants' Free-Agent Moves Made so Far
With close to $60 million in cap space and some glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball, the New York Giants were poised to make a major splash in free agency.
So far they’ve done just that, shelling out over $100 million in new contracts for headliners such as Olivier Vernon, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and others.
Let’s run down the moves made so far and see how they stack up to what the Giants had previously on the league’s worst-ranked defense.
DE Olivier Vernon
Based on history, the Giants’ objective has always been to get “younger and cheaper.” Well, in defensive end Olivier Vernon, they met the first criteria even though it came at the expense of the second part.
Olivier Vernon (25) is five years younger than Robert Ayers (30), the later of whom who signed with Tampa Bay. While age doesn’t necessarily mean a player is on the decline, if you’re looking to build for the long-term, it’s usually better to go with youth.
Ayers, as Pro Football Focus noted, was one of the league’s most productive pass-rushers during his two seasons with the Giants (15 sacks, 25 hits and 54 hurries in 630 pass rushes). However, he also had some injury issues which saw him play 10 fewer snaps in both the 2014 and 2015 season than Vernon did in 2015 alone.
However, over the second half of the 2015 season, it was no contest as Vernon was the Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked 4-3 pass-rusher out of 18 defensive ends that played in 75 percent or more of their team’s pass-rushing snaps.
Over that period, Vernon recorded 57 total pressures, the most among that sample size, while Ayers, ranked sixth over that same period in pass-rush productivity, recorded just 32 total pressures, 11 less than Jason Pierre-Paul, his more disruptive teammate in the second half of the season.
Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus in an article written for ESPN noted Vernon’s total pressures were more than any member of the Giants managed to record in the entire season.
DT Damon "Snacks" Harrison
For as decent as Cullen Jenkins played last year, it was clear the 34-year-old NFL veteran wasn’t the long-term answer.
It was also clear Markus Kuhn, the Giants’ seventh-round pick in 2012, wasn’t the long-term answer while Jay Bromley, the team’s third-round pick two years ago, disappointed in that he couldn’t beat out Kuhn for the starting job when Jenkins had to move to defensive end.
With all that said, the Giants, who per Pro Football Focus had no defensive tackles earn a positive run defense grade last year, invested in a young and promising player who in his short NFL career has shown he can get the job done against the run.
That would be Damon “Snacks” Harrison, formerly with the Jets. An undrafted free agent, Harrison, as PFF pointed out, has posted 117 stops against the run in the last four seasons, the fourth-most for any interior defender over that time period.
With Harrison teaming up with Johnathan Hankins, the Giants are hoping to stop those successful runs up the A-gaps by opponents.
If they can do that—remember, stopping the run was key to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s success with the Giants defense in 2007 and 2008—the new pass-rushing tandem of Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, with a sprinkling of Owa Odighizuwa on third downs could be a key step in restoring a pass rush that was in hibernation last season.
CB Janoris Jenkins
Perhaps fed up with now former cornerback Prince Amukamara’s inability to stay on the field, the Giants have turned to former Los Angeles Rams starter Janoris Jenkins, a player who has missed four games over his four-year NFL career.
A bit of a gambler who admitted on a conference call with Giants beat writers last week that sometimes he can get lazy toward the end of games, Jenkins’ positives outweigh his negatives.
One of the traits that no doubt attracted the Giants to Jenkins is his ability to create turnovers. Per NFL Director of NFC Communication Randall Liu, the 27-year-old Jenkins has six defensive touchdowns (five interceptions and one fumble recovery) since 2012, the most in the NFL during that span.
As a cover corner, Jenkins has delivered the goods, despite his tendency to take gambles that sometimes leave him looking foolish. He’s broken up 49 passes over his career, with a career-high 16 passes defensed last season.
As a side bonus, Jenkins can also serve as a backup punt returner to Dwayne Harris. Jenkins has 10 career punt returns for 51 yards since entering the NFL, his last punt return coming in 2015 when on his lone attempt, he returned the punt five yards.
The potential and promise is there, but the admission to being lazy toward the end of games, while refreshingly honest, didn’t sit too well given the number of times the whole team seemed to come up short toward the end of games last season.
LB Keenan Robinson
With Jon Beason retired and Jasper Brinkley unsigned, the Giants needed to do something at middle linebacker where the only players under contract that could fill the position full time include Mark Herzlich and Uani 'Unga.
Their answer, at least for the time being, was to bring in Keenan Robinson, who had been a two-year starter for Washington when he was able to stay on the field.
Robinson, who took over one of the two inside starting linebacker positions in Washington’s 3-4 defense following the retirement of London Fletcher, seems to fit the Giants’ bandage approach to this position of late.
Robinson is a former Day 3 draft pick, chosen in the fourth round of the 2012 draft; he has the injury history that has thus far kept him from playing a full season (he missed the entire 2013 campaign after suffering a torn pectoral muscle).
Regardless, the 26-year-old Robinson signed to a modest one-year “prove it” contract that, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, includes active game day roster bonuses and does bring some intrigue to the table.
Per Pro Football Focus, he was second in the NFC East among inside linebackers with 25 percent or more of their team’s snaps against the run. Robinson logged a 9.0 run-stop percentage, and third among that same group with 18 stops for zero or negative yards.
While not really used much as a pass rusher—PFF has him down for just 27 pass-rushing snaps—Robinson topped both Brinkley and ‘Unga in this stat.
The most glaring negative? Again, using the same sample group, Robinson came up dead last (out of 12 eligible players) in tacking with a 4.7 overall tackling efficiency.
Given the details of his contract that Wilson reported, specifically his per-game roster bonus that he’ll receive for each game he’s on the active 46-man game day roster, it sure looks as though New York is planning to perhaps draft a longer-term solution at that position next month.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul
The final significant signing since the start of the free-agency period is actually the re-signing of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to a one-year “prove it” deal Over the Cap reports is worth up to $9.4 million.
The question surrounding Pierre-Paul, of course, circled around whether additional surgery he had earlier this year would help improve the range of motion in his permanently damaged right hand so he could shed the big club he wore last season.
Apparently there is enough confidence by both sides that Pierre-Paul, who posted a video on his Instagram showing him gripping a barbell, just might be able to get back on track and be the kind of force he was in 2011, his breakout season in which he posted 16.5 sacks.
Of course to get there, the goal for Pierre-Paul is to be able to shed his protective club worn on his right hand last year and get back to being able to wear a glove.
The other question that will need to be resolved for Pierre-Paul is whether he’ll stay on the right side, which was also Olivier Vernon’s spot, or move to the left side.
What Pierre-Paul will have in his favor this year is that it will be his second one in the same system and he will finally be able to go through an entire spring and summer gaining the necessary insight into playing his position even better—all advantages he didn’t have last year.
In short, Pierre-Paul’s one-year “prove it” deal is a no-risk proposition for both sides. If he has a strong season, the Giants can always franchise him next year while they work out a long-term deal. If he doesn’t, then the two sides will no doubt part amicably.
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.