Making the Call on New York Giants' Top Free Agents

Patricia Traina@Patricia_TrainaFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 8, 2017

Making the Call on New York Giants' Top Free Agents

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    William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

    Before the NFL draft kicks into full swing, the first step in the New York Giants’ offseason rebuilding plan is free agency, a process that has two parts.

    The first part is identifying which of the team’s own free agents (the full which of which is included on the next slides) they want back.

    The second part, in case the Giants and the player in question can’t reach an agreement, is to have a plan B regarding a replacement.

    Using a $168 million projected salary cap, Over the Cap projects the Giants will have $23,689,686 in cap space.

    That figure, however, does not include the $1,895,546 million the Giants, per the NFLPA are planning to roll over from the 2016 cap nor does it take into consideration potential contract terminations and/or restructures.

    Linebacker J.T. Thomas ($3 million saved), running backs Shane Vereen ($3.75 million saved) and Rashad Jennings ($2.5 million saved) are potential cuts. Receiver Victor Cruz ($9.4 million) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ($9 million) are potential candidates for restructuring.   

    When the accounting is all completed, the Giants could potentially have at least $15 million in additional cap space.

    Let’s look at how they might approach some of their own key free agents, a full list of which Spotrac has provided, and what the alternatives might be if a deal isn’t in the cards.

DE Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    After devoting a combined $131.25 million in contracts to 2015 free-agent defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, the other half of the Giants' starting defensive line (Jason Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins) is now up for renewal.

    Playing on a one-year “prove it” deal in 2016, Pierre-Paul put an end to any questions concerning his permanently damaged right hand. Pierre-Paul finished second on the team in sacks (7.0) behind team leader Vernon (8.5). 

    Pierre-Paul also recorded a team-leading three forced fumbles and was the only one of the Giants starting defensive linemen to record a pass defensed—his total of eight tying him with linebacker Jonathan Casillas for the team lead among the defense’s front seven.

    Pierre-Paul also had a strong year against the run. Per Pro Football Focus, he finished seventh (out of 12 eligible 4-3 defensive ends who took at least 75 percent of their team’s defensive snaps) with a 7.1 run-stop percentage and tied for the lowest number of missed tackles (two) against the run (with the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson) from among that same 12-man group.

    Thanks to his strong production, Pierre-Paul is, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY, seeking a deal to match or top Vernon’s 5-year, $85 million pact.

    He’s unlikely to get it for multiple reasons.

    First, Pierre-Paul has played one full season in the last four years, coming in 2014 when he posted his best career numbers (77 total tackles and 12.5 sacks) since 2011, his breakout season.

    Add to that the fact that at 28 years old, Pierre-Paul is three years older than Vernon when he signed his contract last winter, and it would be hard to see the Giants justifying paying Pierre-Paul an average of $17 million per season, which per Spotrac, is what Vernon is averaging and which is more than what Robert Quinn (Rams, $14.253 million/year) and J.J. Watt (Houston, $16.67 million/year) average.

    As noted on the first slide, the Giants are not expected to have anywhere near the salary cap space they had in 2016. With other pressing needs—offensive tackle comes to mind—if Pierre-Paul does indeed want Vernon money, he’s probably not going to get it from the Giants.

    If Pierre-Paul walks, the Giants will have an interesting dilemma: Do they stick with Romeo Okwara, who filled in for Pierre-Paul when he ended up missing the rest of the season due to an abdominal injury, or do they seek free-agent help?

    Premier pass-rushers aren’t going to come cheap, so for the same reason (glaring holes elsewhere) the Giants are unlikely to sink money into Pierre-Paul, they will probably look for a lower-cost veteran addition (maybe someone who is still currently on a roster but who might shake free once teams start making their cuts).

    They’ll also likely continue to develop Okwara and 2015 third-round pick Owa Odighizuwa, both of whom have shown pass-rush potential but also need to fine-tune their run defense. It would also be surprising if they fail to add a defensive end in the draft within the first three picks.

DT Johnathan Hankins

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The Giants have followed a rather curious pattern when it comes to the defensive tackle position these past several years.

    When a starter at this position who was initially a draft pick finished out his rookie contract, he’s been allowed to walk out the door while the team replaces him with another draft pick whom the coaches deem ready to replace the former starter.

    Barry Cofield (2006 draft pick) was replaced by Linval Joseph (2010 draft pick). More recently, Joseph was replaced by Johnathan Hankins (2013 draft pick).

    That “practice” has a good chance of ending if Hankins doesn’t lock into some outrageous salary demand, such as a similar deal to what fellow defensive tackle Damon Harrison (5 years, $46.25 million) signed last year.

    Based on his stats, Hankins probably won’t get anything close to Harrison money. After a pectoral injury in 2015 limited him to just nine games, Hankins returned in 2016, with his final stats tailing off from the impressive numbers he posted in 2014.

    Hankins, who played in a career-high 764 snaps (83 more than he logged in 2014, per Spotrac), finished with just 43 total tackles in 2016 (versus 51 in 2014) and saw his sack total drop from 7.0 to 3.0.

    Hankins, who has always had fine mobility, just couldn’t seem to get the type of pressure this year as he did two seasons ago.

    Hankins' 22 total pressures (in 398 pass rush snaps) ranked 15th out of 16 eligible defensive tackles whom played 60 percent or more of their team’s pass rushing snaps (Harrison was ranked 16th, but he also had the fewest pass-rushing snaps of the 16 interior defensive linemen evaluated).

    At just 24 years old, Hankins is still on the upswing as far as his career is concerned, but he’s not quite there in terms of being a top-shelf defensive tackle.

    With that said, a two or three-year contract might give him enough of a chance to finally step into that next tier while also putting him in a position to get the big payday that he no doubt is hoping to land.

LB Keenan Robinson

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    Green Bay Press Gazette-USA TODAY Sports

    After being in desperate need of some new talent at linebacker after the 2015 season, the Giants devoted some free-agency resources to signing Kelvin Sheppard and Keenan Robinson, re-signing Jasper Brinkley and drafting B.J. Goodson.

    Goodson is the future at the middle linebacker spot, while Brinkley was cut before the start of the season. Of Sheppard and Robinson, the latter will likely be a higher priority.

    Robinson, formerly of Washington, managed to work his way through a shoulder issue that really started to flare up late in the year. He finally recorded his first 16-game season after maxing out at 13 games in 2014.

    Robinson, who finished fourth on the team in total tackles (79), turned out to be the Giants best linebacker in coverage.

    Of the 389 passing yards against him, just 196 were after the catch. And out of the linebacker group alone, Robinson allowed a team-low 62 percent of the pass targets against him to be completed.

    Signed to a one-year prove-it deal last winter that, per Spotrac, included a $21,875 bonus for each game he was on the active 46-man roster, Robinson has earned a second contract with the Giants.

    When it comes to veteran linebackers who are in the long-term picture, the Giants usually offer three-year deals to their free-agent linebacker acquisitions, as was the case with Jon Beason, who was 29 when he signed his deal in 2014, and Jonathan Casillas, who was 27 when he signed his contract in 2015.

    A fair deal for Robinson will likely span three years with an average payout that falls somewhere in the middle of the average-per-year salaries the contracts of Casillas ($2.66 million) and Beason ($5.66 million) delivered.

K Robbie Gould

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Whatever else you might think of Robbie Gould and the season he had for the Giants that included two early-year struggles involving missed extra points, it needs to be remembered that he came in off the street to steady a kicking situation that was blown apart by the Josh Brown domestic violence allegations.

    With that said, there was good and bad to Gould’s first year in East Rutherford.

    The good—actually outstanding—is that Gould made every single one of his field-goal attempts, including four of 40 yards or more. Per Pro Football Focus, that’s the best conversion percentage in the league among kickers who played in at least 10 games.

    The not-so good was more present on kickoffs, where Gould’s leg wasn’t quite as strong. His kickoffs averaged 65.8 yards, 25th out of 34 eligible kickers who played in at least 10 games, with 51.2 percent of his kickoffs returned (sixth most among the sample group). Lastly, his 19 touchbacks put him 31st out of 34 kickers.

    The Giants' decision boils down to whether, with uninterrupted training and practice, Gould can improve on kickoffs, a vital area of the game since it dictates starting field position. While it’s nice to have Mr. Automatic when it comes to scoring field goals and PATs, kickoffs might be a deal breaker in Gould’s case.

    The Giants, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, have already signed free agent Aldrick Rosas, who was briefly with Tennessee. An intriguing, younger veteran option is 31-year-old Steven Hauschka (Seattle), the Seahawks’ career leader in field goals (175) who, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, is not necessarily a lock to return.  

    Hauschka is coming off a three-year, $8.55 million contract ($2.85 million avg./year), so he might be a bit too expensive for the Giants’ taste, especially considering that Brown’s highest earning as a Giant was supposed to be $1.506 million in 2016 following his Pro Bowl season in 2015.  

    However, if starting field position is important to the Giants—and it would be hard to imagine that not being the case—then getting a kicker with a strong leg to limit opponents from returning kickoffs, as Hauschka has shown himself capable of doing, might just be worth spending a little more money.

OL John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    One thing on which everyone can agree is the Giants offensive line needs help.

    Where the opinions split is in how to resolve the issues that led to an ineffective run-blocking unit and a spotty pass-protecting unit that, per Pro Football Focus, finished seventh in total pressures allowed (209).

    It just so happens that two of the members of that offensive line, right guard John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse, who mostly played right tackle for the team this year, are both set to be unrestricted free agents.

    If the Giants let both walk, which is a possibility, they would be left with zero experienced players at offensive tackle (Will Beatty, also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, is unlikely to be re-signed).

    The biggest question isn’t so much which, if either Jerry or Newhouse, the Giants should resign—there are pros and cons to each player. Rather, the direction they pursue boils down to what they do with Ereck Flowers, last year’s left tackle.

    Early projections have the Giants pursuing Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth, ranked as Pro Football Focus’ top free-agent prospect. If the Giants can land the 35-year-old Whitworth and draft a young replacement to groom for one or two years down the line, such a sequence would likely open the door for Flowers to move to right tackle, the position where he was supposed to begin his NFL career two years ago until an injury to Beatty ruined that plan.

    If Whitworth does sign and Flowers moves to right tackle, that would presumably eliminate the need to re-sign Newhouse.

    Meanwhile at right guard, the Giants would have options, among them Bobby Hart, last year’s right tackle, and, if he re-signs, Jerry.

    Why even contemplate re-signing Jerry? If it’s a depth signing, which it should be, then the Giants gain experience at guard and tackle.

    Jerry tied (with Andy Levitre of Atlanta) for ninth out of 35 guards who played in 75 percent or more of their team’s offensive snaps with a 97.3 pass-blocking efficiency after allowing a combination of 22 sacks, hits and pressures. 

    Where Jerry has struggled is in run blocking, where according to NFL GSIS, the Giants ran 73 plays behind the right guard spot (4th most in the NFL), yet their 3.42 average ranked 23rd

    Rather than hand the reigns to Hart, a guy who might provide some good competition is eight-year veteran T.J. Lang of Green Bay.

    Lang, voted to his first Pro Bowl this past season, is coming off successful hip surgery from last month. Despite playing through assorted injuries, Lang, who has started 94 of 119 games played, toughed out 13 games in 2016.

    Want a couple more reasons why Lang might be someone the Giants kick the tire on? Besides Giants head coach Ben McAdoo being familiar with Lang—that’s a good thing as Lang would obviously be able to hit the ground running in McAdoo’s scheme—because Lang is coming off an injury, he’s likely to be less expensive than Ronald Leary of the Cowboys.

    The Jets, remember, set the market for guards last month when they signed Brian Winters to a 4-year, $29 million contract ($7.25 million/year) with $15 million guaranteed. Lang, meanwhile, is coming off a 4-year, $20.8 million contract ($5.2 million/year).

    Lang’s demeanor as a player could be exactly what the Giants offensive line needs, particularly in the run game where they don’t often impose their will on the opponent. Jason Hirschhorn of SB Nation’s Acme Packing Co. notes of Lang that “no one plays nastier.”

    Given his hip surgery and that he re-injured his left foot in the NFC Championship game against the Falcons might make Lang, whom ESPN's Rob Demovsky reported is interested in re-signing with the Packers, an affordable option for the Giants if the Packers decide to go in another direction.  

                                                                                

    Unless otherwise noted, contract and salary data is from Spotrac and advanced analytics from Pro Football Focus.

    Patricia Traina covers the New York Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.