New York Giants 2014 Free Agency & Draft Preview

This is a make-or-break off-season for general manager Jerry Reese.

linksports latestpixA great deal of ink has been spilled about the unmitigated disaster that was the New York Giants 2013 campaign, which saw the team open the season with six straight losses before righting the ship and posting a 7-3 mark the rest of the way.

The defense acquitted itself very well, finishing 8th overall league-wide.

The offense, however, could not have played much worse. The unit ranked 28th out of 32 teams. The consensus, both within the organization and without, is that a lack of roster depth caused by recent successive years of poor drafts and a constant shortage of free agency money finally caught up with the Giants. Nowhere was this more evident than on the offensive line, where injuries to all three interior positions exposed a tissue-thin backup crew.

Unsurprisingly, the offense has received the most attention as the team, press, and fans sift through the wreckage. Owner John Mara infamously called the unit “broken” in a post-season press conference. Shortly afterwards offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride “retired” and the team brought in Green Bay quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, just 37 years old, to replace him. Also replaced was long-time tight ends coach Mike Pope.

As free agency looms on March 11th all eyes turn to General Manager Jerry Reese and the front office under his command to see how they plan to fix the franchise. This is almost certainly a make-or-break year for Reese, who has been rightly criticized for the roster issues that caused the 2013 malaise.

Here’s a handy chart to snapshot the team’s biggest areas of need:

Giants

Positions marked in yellow represent areas where the Giants obviously must add talent. One of those (RB) is more of a depth move than anything else, but the others (G, C, TE, WR, and CB) are all critical places where the team must look outside its current roster to find capable starters.

The grey highlights are major contributors who are themselves free agents that the Giants can ill-afford to lose. It’s interesting that they are all on defense, and worth noting that re-signing them could account for all of Big Blue’s available remaining salary cap, currently estimated to be about $18.2M. The team will almost certainly find some extra room by handing pay cuts to some declining players (Chris Snee, David Baas), but even then the team can count on signing only one premiere free agent. That’s one more than they’re usually able to get, true, but it does put pressure on Reese to bring in somebody that can deliver.

OFFENSE

The Giants offensive line was, well, offensive. A thin unit saw most of its starters go down to injury, and the backups — mainly middle-to-late round draft picks from the last few years — proved wholly unable to compete at the NFL level. When Eli Manning wasn’t getting sacked he could not move the ball, as his unit ranked 30th in 3rd-down conversions.

The tackle positions are set, with veteran Will Beatty and the four remaining years on his $37.5M contract shoring up the blind side, and rookie 1st-round pick Justin Pugh returning on the right.

It’s the interior of the line where things get dicey. The chart shows both Guard spots as well as the Center position as areas of need. Alarmingly, the Giants may not agree with this assessment. Early reports indicate that the team feels like Center and one of the Guard positions will likely be filled internally. Chris Snee, who was widely expected to retire after a second hip surgery, will evidently get a long look to shore up one of the guard spots. David Baas, who was sidelined by neck and knee injuries in 2013, has apparently been penciled in as the starting center.

If the 2014 plan involves hoping and praying that Snee and Baas can both return and deliver renaissance seasons it will be one of the most bizarre gambles a Giants GM has ever made.

The good news is that those same early reports indicate that the Giants plan to aggressively pursue a multi-year contract with a young premiere guard. And then of course there’s the draft, more on which later.

In the passing game, Hakeem Nicks is all but gone. Technically, the Giants could stand pat with Victor Cruz, Reuben Randle, and Jerrel Jernigan headlining their receiver corps, but the installation of new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo makes the addition of a new passing weapon plausible, if not probable.

If the Giants do decide to stand pat at wideout it could be because they find a difference-making tight end. The position was a disaster last year and absolutely nobody projects the disappointing Brandon Myers to return. A new tight ends coach suggests that the team might be willing to invest in a position that it historically seeks to fill on the cheap with undervalued, overlooked players.

As for the running game, the team is almost certainly drawing up their playbook primarily around three talented but problematic familiar faces: David Wilson, with his surgically-repaired neck and tendency to fumble; Andre Brown, with his own injury concerns; and largely untested 7th round pick Michael Cox. The team will definitely look to add at least one more back, but as this will largely be a depth move the likely outcome is that the front office won’t commit anything beyond a veteran minimum contract in free agency and/or a late-round draft pick to the cause.

DEFENSE

As previously noted, the defense held up pretty well in 2013. The Giants would be wise to try to keep this unit intact and add depth via the draft.

This is far easier said than done. The three critical unrestricted free agents on defense are Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, and Jon Beason, and all three can — and will — make strong arguments that they deserve contracts at or near the very top of their positions. Retaining all three may be impossible.

Sorting out who to keep and how to keep them will be Jerry Reese’s first daunting challenge of the off-season. If the roster struggles to adequately fill the shoes of a departed hero the blame will fall squarely on the front office. Neither will the front office look good if can’t bring in any offensive hired guns because it used up all of its cap money re-signing the defense.

What it will come down to is either contract negotiating savvy or, if that fails, a significant change in the organization’s luck in developing recently drafted talent into young NFL stars. Rookies Damontre Moore and/or Jonathan Hankins will be expected to step up and contribute at a high level if either Justin Tuck or Linval Joseph depart. And depth isn’t even an option with Jon Beason — there’s nobody behind him that could even potentially provide a similar level of linebacker play.

Beyond retaining key playmakers, the Giants will also be in the market for a high-level cornerback to pair up with Prince Amukamara. The chart shows the second cornerback spot as the sole position of need on the defense that can’t be filled with someone already on the roster.

TOP RESOURCES

If you’ve been keeping track, and working with the no-guarantees assumption that the Giants are able to re-sign their three key defensive free agent playmakers, the team faces three huge areas of need that will require an immediate quality starter from outside the organization: guard or center, tight end or wide receiver, and cornerback.

The bad news is that they will only have enough available money to obtain one premiere free agent, and all signs point to that being a guard.

After that, there’s this thing called:

THE DRAFT

The 2014 class is touted as being one of the deepest in recent memory, with starting-caliber talent believed to be available in at least the first three rounds.

The free agency litmus test that Reese and his staff faces pales in comparison to how badly they need the incoming rookie class to make an immediate impact.

As much of a crucible as free agency will be, with so much riding on what happens with Messrs. Tuck, Joseph and Beason and the hired gun the organization is (hopefully) able to bring in from the outside, it all pales in comparison to how much the Giants have riding on their incoming rookie class.

Historically the Giants operate from a draft philosophy that seeks to marry a “best available” strategy with the organization’s internal valuation of certain positions. Early-round picks tend to go to pass-rushers, receivers, and cornerbacks, while other positions (linebacker and tight end, famously) are relegated to the lower rounds. Most notably, however, the Giants tend to not expect their drafts to pay on-field dividends right away.

This year the team has little choice but to throw that idea out the window. Big Blue — and Jerry Reese — have to hope that not only will the first two or three picks be able to make an immediate impact, but that some of the later picks will be able to contribute in 2014 as well. It’s the lightning-in-the-bottle that graced Reese’s magical first season with a Super Bowl victory thanks in part to short-term successes like Kevin Boss (5th round) and Ahmad Bradshaw (7th round). And it’s not a stretch to argue that Reese’s job security depends on finding it again.

Draft prognostication is a dangerous game, but given the organization’s consistency and obvious needs it’s possible to consider some likely scenarios and what they might signify for 2014 and beyond. Note: all of the following are made with the assumption that the Giants do indeed bring in a young premiere guard via free agency.

A number of experts have mocked Michigan’s Taylor Lewan (OT) to Big Blue with the 12th overall pick. Should this happen it will turn the team’s biggest weakness into one of its biggest strengths. Justin Pugh could move inside, and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo could have a field day installing a dynamic run game to set up play-action passes and a variety of screens. The downside is that this probably means the team can’t bring in a potent new pass-catching weapon.

Other mocks see the Giants taking Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans or North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron with that 1st round pick. Should the team go this route it will signal confidence that the O-line will hold with its free agency acquisitions and whatever depth can be found in the later rounds. It might also provide a clue about how McAdoo intends to deploy the team’s greatest offensive weapon: the arm of Eli Manning.

From a strictly needs perspective a defensive pick in the 1st round would be lunacy, but given how highly the team values pass rushers and defensive backs it can never be ruled out. Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard (CB) could be available at 12 and if he is the Giants might not be able to resist the possibility of a shut-down secondary led by former first-round pick Prince Amukamara. It’s a move that would put additional pressure on Jerry Reese to find the right guys in the later rounds to help shore up the offensive line and contribute in the passing game. It’s also a great way to go if all the best offensive linemen and receivers are off the board — as would trading down.

The Bottom Line

It’s no exaggeration to claim that what the Giants do in the next two months will define the fate of the team for not just the next few years, but possibly the remainder of the Tom Coughlin / Eli Manning era.

If the front office can deliver even an above-average free agency and draft class, and either retain or replace its defensive free agent stars, Big Blue will will revive its identity as an NFC East stalwart and a post-season menace, as it was from 2008-2012 (with two Lombardi trophies to prove it).

But another weak off-season could doom this team for years to come. Reese would likely be gone and possibly Coughlin with him. Whoever enters the picture to clean up the mess would have to deal with a weak roster built around an aging and expensive quarterback on a team that’s sitting at the bottom of the league’s most competitive conference.

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the ancient Chinese proverb.

For Jerry Reese and his staff, it doesn’t get any more interesting than March 11 – May 10th, 2014 — and the season beyond.