One of the dangers for the first movers in free agency is the danger of overspending. Those first 48 hours or so of free agency is when everything is at its peak. Deals move fast and all the planning done in the months leading up the start of the new league year can quickly evaporate when you find yourself in a bidding war over a talented player. Sometimes the emotions of “winning” and getting what you want overcomes logic. The Giants were arguably the most aggressive team in free agency signing the three biggest contracts at the defensive end, defensive tackle, and cornerback positions. They also re-signed their own defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul to a one year contract that ranked third in annual value among all defensive ends signed this year. Now as the smoke clears and free agency comes to an end I wonder if the Giants misread the market and might regret going as far as they did on their contracts.
The first big signing for the Giants was Vernon, who had played the first four seasons of his career with the Dolphins. Vernon went into free agency hot after having a torrid second half of the season following an injury to Cameron Wake. But Vernon has only once had double digit sacks and while Vernon was tremendous at pressuring the quarterback, his production this year was basically double his career norms. The year before the Giants argued about the merits of signing Jason Pierre-Paul, who similarly put up career numbers in a walk year and had a higher upside, to a contract worth more than $12 million a year (this was before his accident). To turn around one year later and offer Vernon $17 million is nothing short of stunning.
Vernon’s contract came in nearly $3 million more than Malik Jackson’s who was signed one day earlier by the Jaguars. The rest of the market failed to keep pace with either contract. Mario Williams signed for $8.5 million, Robert Ayers for $6.5 million and William Hayes for $5.8 million. Nobody else signed for over $5 million a season. Vernon is younger and more productive than those other players but is he $10 million more productive? Probably not.
Pierre-Paul at $10 million seemed high as well. It was hard to picture a market for JPP off last season in which his hand really hampered his play. The closest comparison, though for very different reasons, is Greg Hardy and he has yet to get a sniff this season. The Giants should have seen the way the veteran market was shaping up when the Panthers signed Charles Johnson for $3 million and the Dolphins signed Williams for $8.5. Maybe the large contract the Eagles did with Vinny Curry put the fear in the Giants about money being spent on players at the position, but it really never grew beyond that.
The Jenkins contract is more of a reach than Vernon’s. Vernon had at least made himself into the top pass rusher available by the end of the season. Jenkins was never considered the top cornerback and in fact his former team chose to use the franchise tag on a different corner rather than Jenkins. Jenkins is a gambler who probably ends up on the wrong side of the highlight reel as often as he is on the right side of it.
Like defensive ends, cornerbacks are generally in high demand. Last years run for Byron Maxwell likely distorted the Giants view of what the market would be for Jenkins. Maxwell signed for a ridiculous $10.5 million a year. The Giants blew past that by $2 million for Jenkins. Whereas you could argue a disparity gap for Vernon and others, there were more talents available that were clearly in Jenkins range. None pushed the market, likely because of the way that Maxwell deal blew up on the Eagles.
Sean Smith, generally regarded as the top available corner, though older, did not reach $10 million. Prince Amukamara had to take a one year contract for under $6 million while Casey Hayward barely broke $5 million.
With the exception of the true elites like Richard Sherman, the big money corners have been risky and enough of those players causes changes in thinking. Joe Haden, Maxwell, Brandon Carr, Lardarius Webb, Brent Grimes, Sam Shields, and so on have struggled to really justify the pay. I would have to think the Giants though that teams would be optimistic on the prospects of this years free agents, but it was much more of a pessimistic view leaguewide.
Damon Harrison, known affectionately as “Snacks” to his teammates, coaches, and fans, made the transition from a run stuffing 34 defensive tackle to being paid as a pass rushing $9.25 million a year 43 defensive tackle. It’s a big contract for a player who generally played 50% of the snaps for his former team.
Again it ended up being a position where the market never really grew outside of this one contract. Jaye Howard, who was a lesser known player but a better rusher, came back to Kansas City for just $5 million a season. A large number of veterans who play between 35 and 45% of their teams snaps, such as Ahtyba Rubin, Steve McLendon, Al Woods, and Brandon Mebane all took contracts between $3.5 and $4.5 million. Is Harrison worth double just about everyone else who signed? Probably not.
I don’t get the sense that the Giants were trying to be the Dolphins of last year who were looking as much to grab headlines with their signing of Ndamukong Suh as they were making a football only decision. The Giants had cap space to use and clearly targeted players that they thought would fix the team. It may have been as simple as the team believing that this group of players were the only ones who really were bet fits for the defensive schemes they will run. But it would be fascinating to see if the Giants really believed that there would have been this gap in contract numbers between their top ranked player and the next few available free agents.
Many teams in the NFL can be risk averse as a measure of self preservation. Teams that play it safe, keep expectations moderate, and flirt with the playoffs often have less chance of turnover in the front office than those who go for a home run and whiff. That’s probably a factor in the big disparity we see in salaries these days between the player considered a superstar and the other players I mentioned here. Nobody is getting fired for signing a Rubin for $4 million a year, but they might for Vernon at $17.
But the Giants were in a different category. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011 and moved on from a Hal of Fame coach in part because of those failures. They are in a position where they have to deliver now, not play it safe and hope they play a meaningful game in week 16 or 17 of the regular season. By week 17 they need to be locked into the playoffs.
Playing it safe wouldn’t work for the front office because they were likely to finish with another 6 win type season if they came back with the same team unless the head coach was really the only problem. The position the Giants front office is in now is the one where you need to take on the financial risks to try to improve. Haggling over a few million, being fiscally conservative and missing out on a player may have been more risky for their own future than doing what they did. But it would definitely be interesting to see if that was the case or if they think they could have gotten more favorable terms by not being so ambitious out of the gate.
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.