There are various ways to build a team in the NFL and right now the Giants plan certainly isn’t working. In 2016 the Giants made a number of changes to the team, in particular on defense. GM Jerry Reese identified a big area of weakness and went all out to repair it. Last year watching the Giants it was pretty clear that their offensive line was a problem, specifically the tackles, yet Reese did little, if anything, to fix it.
When it comes to defense the Giants spared no expense. In 2016 they were incredibly aggressive on three players in free agency when they signed Olivier Vernon for $17 million, Janoris Jenkins for $12.5 million, and Damon Harrison for $9.5 million. I think you could make a very strong argument that he overpaid for all three players, but for one season they certainly justified the contracts. This year he also signed Jason Pierre-Paul to a pretty lucrative, but market value, contract. Normally I would see something like this and say that the Giants were going to remain equally aggressive moving forward to fix other hole yet they ended up being pretty passive.
Despite what was said on WFAN radio by Mike Francesa the other day about free agency being very weak this year for offensive linemen, that was not the case. At tackle you had Russell Okung, Andrew Whitworth, Riley Reiff, Matt Kalil, Ricky Wagner, and Kelvin Beachum. At guard was Kevin Zeitler, TJ Lang, Ronald Leary and Larry Warford. You can argue the ceiling of some of those tackles but I don’t think you can argue that they would each be better than what the Giants had this year.
I do think for some teams, Giants included, that part of the issue when it comes to offensive line right now is the cost of the players. The NFL has a handful of elite NFL tackles and those players make in the ballpark of $12-$13 million a year. The players signed this year, with the exception of Beachum, basically made between $11 and $13 million and none of those players are elite. Guard is probably the biggest growth position of the last three years partially in response to better defensive tackles being in the NFL and not everyone is on board with that just yet.
The teams signing these players understand that right now there is a shortage, specifically at tackle, of players coming in from college capable of playing in the NFL. Basically the position is becoming like quarterback where everyone, regardless of how good or how average, has a salary in a pretty tight range. Either you have one or you don’t and if you can get one pay them whatever they want. Still this is surprising that this would be a barrier for the Giants, given their very optimistic evaluations of the players signed in free agency last season.
Could there be some argument made that the Giants spent so much last year that they didn’t have the money to spend this year? I guess it’s possible that you could make that argument, and many teams do make such arguments and they are legit arguments, but it’s not as if the Giants didn’t spend this year.
They Giants more or less “Titaned” the offseason. When I say that I am making reference to the Tennessee Titans, one of the cheapest teams in the NFL. Titaning is when you go out and sign a bunch of lower cost players to moderate level contracts and pat yourself on the back for not spending much for some starters and name talent. In most cases the players don’t make a difference because you don’t win in the NFL unless you have some top level talent at a few key positions.
This year the Giants spent $5.5 million on wide receiver Brandon Marshall, $4.5 million on fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison, $3 million apiece on journeyman guard John Jerry and reclamation project guard DJ Fluker, and $3 million on linebacker Keenan Robinson. That’s $19 million. Of those players, Marshall was more of a luxury signing, Jerry is a starter, Ellison plays under 40% of the snaps, Fluker hasn’t played a snap, and Robinson has been nursing an injury.
You could have scrapped the two cheap guards and Robinson, a six game starter last year, and signed one of the top available guards. All you lose there is Robinson. You could have scrapped Marshall, Fluker, and Ellison and signed the top tackle. Sure it’s a tradeoff of one versus three, but when that one plays a premier position and is a top level talent at a position of need it’s far better use of money than getting the three lesser needed guys. They can be replaced by minimum salaried talent.
The way I look at the NFL these days you have to have a set group of talent, either through the draft or free agency to win. You can simply look at salaries around the NFL to see what those positions are- quarterback, edge rusher, cornerback, left tackle, and wide receiver. Creeping into that group are guard and defensive tackle. No longer in the mix are running back, linebacker, center, right tackle, tight end, safety, and fullback. Those are more luxuries to have than necessities.
The Giants had the QB, bought a 2nd edge rusher and cornerback, and drafted a wide receiver. They bought the defensive tackle and went out and likely felt that Justin Pugh was strong enough, if healthy, at guard. The problem really lies with the bias that so many general managers show towards their draft picks.
The Giants drafted their offensive tackle, Ereck Flowers, with the 9th overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Flowers at best has been ok and his best was probably the earliest days of his career. Last year with more focus on him he struggled and at one point shoved a reporter from ESPN as frustrations boiled over. This year his confidence looks shot and he’s arguably the worst tackle in the NFL.
But general managers have such a hard time abandoning draft picks. The new CBA was supposed to fix this by making the financial commitment at the top of the draft so much smaller that you are not forced to trot a player out there who clearly doesn’t belong on the field as a starter. But GMs continue to shoot themselves in the foot by using these players for 3 or 4 years in critical roles that impact the team. My feeling is that this is a bigger issue than anything in the Giants decision to not upgrade the position in free agency. It’s one of the biggest traps in professional football.
Maybe the GM just had extraordinary faith in head coach Ben McAdoo after his rookie campaign. I always think that’s a bad idea. The NFL is such a creature of habit that if you give a new head coach some talent, more often than not they can surprise in their first year. As teams break down what those teams did and did not do well in the offseason you need to come back with some new wrinkles to repeat your success. The sophomore jinx takes down a lot of coaches and most of the time those teams had little improvements in personnel from year 1 to year 2.
I do think a stronger justification for the lack of spending is that the Giants do have to re-sign Pugh and center Weston Richburg after this year and that could be expensive. These contracts the Giants did sign are all short term deals and signing a guard in free agency was likely going to just lead to Pugh leaving in 2018 unless the Giants were going to have two guards making close to $9 million a season. Odell Beckham is also looking for a new contract and he will be incredibly expensive.
That said you have to understand your roster when you are making the decisions. When you look at the construction of the Giants roster this is a team that has to win now. This isn’t a team with Derek Carr and Khalil Mack in their early 20s with years to go. This is one of the older teams in the NFL, especially at key positions.
They have a 36 year old QB that is in the later stages of his career. They have a center and guard in the final year of their contracts. Free agents generally give a team, at most a three year window, and Harrison, Vernon, and Jenkins are already in the 2nd year of that window. You could argue that Pierre-Paul is also there. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is probably near the end of his Giants career and Shane Vereen is a free agent after the year.
This is your season to win. It’s not 2018, at least not with this group. The Giants needed to improve in key areas not remain status quo, but that’s what they did. Even when it comes to the draft, the team essentially drafted another receiver. Beckham and Sterling Shepard were already capable enough. Roger Lewis showed flashes. You signed Marshall. I’m sure Evan Engram was the best available guy and may be a truly great player, but with weaknesses on the offensive line, running back, and linebacker that are far more glaring needs than a tertiary receiver I am not sure how you go there with a team like this one that needs to improve today, not tomorrow. There are times when you have to sacrifice the future and this was one of those times, but they didn’t do it.
Going for broke of course isn’t a magic cure. I’ve watched my Jets do that on more than a few occasions. It worked for two years and more or less failed every other time they did it. Their biggest deficiency was at quarterback, which is impossible to fix in free agency, and maybe it will turn out that Eli Manning is as big of a problem as anyone else, but the Giants should have given themselves a better chance. By relying so heavily on a poor draft pick and deciding to go cheap they didn’t give themselves the best chance to win this year and now have to hope that they can keep that window open with this group one more season and fix it next year.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.