On Rebuilding in the NFL and the Giants

We read so many things about rebuilding in the NFL these days and I think my definition and expectation of a rebuild is different than others. The other day when Odell Beckham gave a controversial interview focusing on the Giants lack of performance I mentioned that this was ultimately the Giants fault for not embracing a rebuilding opportunity. That was met with many comments about how stupid it was for me to suggest they not keep Beckham, which was not something I ever said. So I figured why not have a small discussion as to the way I look at a rebuilding effort in the NFL and how it maybe should have pertained to the Giants.

For whatever reason whenever we mention that a team needs to rebuild that is somehow code word for tanking. I’m not sure when the two started to go hand in hand. Maybe it stems from basketball where teams sometimes will not exactly put the best product on the court in hopes of landing a dominant 18 or 19 year old for the future. Maybe it’s from baseball where teams with limited income streams sell off high priced assets to try to cut payroll and add players to a farm system. Whatever it is I just know it didn’t start in the NFL.

While there have always been rumblings in the NFL of this strategy (the “Suck for Luck” kind of campaign from some fanbases) it wasn’t until the last few years with the Browns where it seemed to take on its place as a strategic decision.  Hoard salary cap dollars for the future because you couldn’t win now. Add a billion draft picks for the future because you couldn’t win now.  The essence is there is no point in trying to win if you don’t have a team to win a championship.

This should never be the definition of rebuilding.  The NFL isn’t like the NBA where one player completely changes a team the way LeBron James or Kevin Durant does. It’s not like baseball where you can develop and scout talent over years in a minor league system.  In the NFL you have this short window of time to make the most of a roster and to just build up from scratch is pretty difficult.

When we talk about rebuilding what should be talking about is identifying a significant deficiency or deficiencies on a team that are not going to be improved by adding new parts to the team and can’t be fixed in free agency. These deficiencies are large enough that the ability to compete for the playoffs short and long term is severely compromised. Quarterback is the one position that by itself should trigger a rebuilding strategy. There are other combinations, such as a poor left tackle and guard or lack of a pass rush and poor cornerbacks, that may also trigger it.

I think this is where things get murky with the definitions of a rebuild. Just because the deficiency exists does not mean that you sell the entire roster. Maybe in the past that has happened because often a bad salary cap situation goes along with a rebuilding effort which causes teams to release players, but that should only be a consideration for a handful of teams in todays NFL which sees far superior cap management than in the past.

Once you have identified that you do need a decent overhaul the next step should be to evaluate the roster and the parts that can and can’t be part of a rebuilt roster. For all the talk of how teams that rebuild are facing a long road ahead that simply isn’t the case. The Eagles and Rams both drafted QBs in 2016 and both were among the best teams in the NFL just one year later. The Jets drafted a QB in 2009 and made the AFC Championship that season. Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger all had early playoff runs and levels of success. If you are doing things right the longest it should take to rework the team is two seasons and really most of the time you should only be somewhat sacrificing a season. Draft in 2018 you should be competitive by 2019.  If you are still struggling after that point in time it means you are not doing something right.

So when you look at your roster you should be looking at the skill level of players, age of the player and the position they play. From there you should be able to identify if they are going to more likely than not still be a good player one year from now to contribute. This is the big difference between a 26 year old Beckham, who should be part of a future with the Giants, and a 31 year old Demaryius Thomas, who should not be part of a future with the Broncos.

Completely tearing up a team just because you don’t expect to win makes little sense (assuming of course there are talented pieces on the team). The NFL roster is 53 players. Id guess if you look at most successful teams they have close to 40 decent players who have a role and then 13 somewhat more interchangeable parts.  Of those 40 a handful are legit stars. If you blow things up completely where are you finding those 40 players and stars? You can find a few in the draft and a few in free agency but all you are doing is moving out players who could contribute and creating a void that you will likely at best fill with similar players later on. It’s a lateral move.

Embracing a rebuild should set certain expectations for players on the team. For example it seems clear Beckham is unhappy with the offense in NY. Sterling Shepard certainly seemed frustrated during the game. If the Giants were going out there with Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, of Josh Allen the reaction would be different. Yes this year is important and the team is trying to win but the end game is 2019 and 2020. I think many would accept that and if someone is assuming a leadership role with the team work with that QB through the ups and downs.

The problem for many teams facing a QB focused rebuilding situation is that they are not necessarily in a position to find one. They may have traded assets away a season or two before that wound up costing them a top draft pick. Many teams linger in purgatory between 6 and 9 wins a year which doesn’t put them in a position to draft a QB.  The Cardinals and Texans are teams that were in that zone and required trades to get a QB. That’s also the right play to avoid a disaster that can go on for years as they search for a Case Keenum type to get hot for one season.

In the case of the Giants it should have been clear that this was a rebuilding scenario. The deficiency at QB was clear as were the deficiencies on the offensive line and in the secondary. Three key areas that needed improvement, one of which is almost impossible to address in free agency. But for the Giants there was a silver lining in all of this- they had the 2nd overall pick in a QB heavy draft. The Giants crashed in 2017 and were going to get a chance to make the move. It would be the lone benefit of the 2017 disaster that saw their head coach and general manager fired.

Things should not have been that bleak for the Giants. They had three good skill position players in Beckham, Evan Engram, and Shepard each of whom was young enough to be useful for the Giants in 2018, 2019, and 2020. They have a good safety in Landon Collins and some other potential on defense. There is no reason to think that if they drafted the right player they would be able to compete by 2019 for a division.

When you look at the Giants the play should have been to move on from the veterans that likely would not be factors in 2019 and 2020. They made one of those moves when they traded Jason Pierre-Paul to the Bucs. Could they have found a taker for Janoris Jenkins or Olivier Vernon? It’s a possibility that should have been explored, not because they were expensive just because they may have gotten the team value. If the price wasn’t right then by all means keep them for this year. The goal isn’t to just rip the roster down its to only make a move if the player doesn’t fit or has value. The moves that had no business being made were trading for Alec Ogletree and signing Jonathan Stewart.

Beckham should have been re-signed or at least an attempt made to do so. If he wasn’t on board with drafting a QB then at least you let him tell you that and then go from there. Players like Beckham are too valuable to just trade off. Its why the Raiders decision with Khalil Mack made little sense. Its an impact position and a player that should contribute for 3 to 4 years. They are part of the solution not the problem.  The odds of replacing those players in the draft or free agency are slim since they are top NFL talents. The two first round pick return really isn’t enough. The only exception to this should be if there is a complete clash with the organization (think bad like TO and the Eagles) or a real issue with the salary cap  (I cant think of any reasonable contract struggle where that should be an issue). None of these applied to the Giants or Raiders.

For whatever reason the Giants passed on the QB, doubled down and instead drafted RB Saquan Barkley. Barkley has been terrific and has been as advertised but its not a key position and the Giants are sitting at 1-4 and look very limited on offense because of the QB.  It is a situation that could have been avoided. If anything they added a year onto the process just for the sake of taking a running back.

The best case scenarios for the organization at this point is to either hope that the NFC East is so weak that they can get back in the race or that things go so far south they  land the top pick in the draft and hope a QB is around. That is the only scenario where they get their dynamic RB along with a QB, but in the process they sacrificed a year. The worst case for the team would be that they turn it around enough to make a late run before falling off leaving them 7-9 or 6-10 on the year. Now 2019 becomes the return of Eli or the incoming of Sam Bradford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown or Nick Foles. Best hope there is that they can convince Teddy Bridgewater to sign.

Its unfortunate because the odds are they will have had a bad 2017, bad 2018, and will have a developmental year in 2019.  Players will be a year older which just shortens whatever immediate window that could have existed with a young QB. Instead of prime Beckham with 3 years of a cheap rookie you likely get prime Beckham with 2 years of a cheap rookie.  That’s wasted offensive potential.

Realistically the only justification for the Giants passing on a QB is that they considered every QB in that draft to be a bust. Not that they weren’t a star but that they were a complete bust. None of us know that answer but if the organization decided Darnold, Rosen, and Allen were nothing more than replacement level players than that is a calculated risk on their part and not just blind faith in Eli Manning.

The bottom line is the Giants should have been rebuilding and doing what they could to be competitive while they did that. Had the Giants done that the feelings about the team certainly would be much more positive and they would be building for something. Instead they are only going to make news for whatever breakdown happens each week and hope that they can turn things around next year.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc