Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. So far, the series has covered the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, and Tennessee Titans. Today, it's the New York Giants.
The Giants were the stately old Victorian mansion on Main Street from 2007 to 2011. Musty and a little old-fashioned, they still projected a noble air and could still be counted on to host the occasional end-of-season gala. But termites finally ate away at the Giants foundation in 2013: They were too old and jerry-rigged to do anything but collapse in a heap.
It's time to rebuild, but general manager Jerry Reese cannot simply take a wrecking ball to the property. The Giants have too much money invested in Eli Manning and too much emotion and tradition invested in the Tom Coughlin era to simply rip everything down and erect a Walgreens. The Giants have always been careful, methodical builders and this blueprint allows Reese to keep the old-fashioned façade in place while he builds a team that conforms to 21st century code behind it. Think of it as restoration, not renovation: It's a tricky process, the results can be well worth the extra effort.
Problem: Eli Manning eats up $20 million in cap space and is coming off a 27-interception season.
Solution: Extend Manning's contract for the right reasons.
Manning's base salary is just more than $15 million. Factor in about $4.75 million in prorated bonus money from his last contract, add a little loose change and you get a whopper of a cap figure. Through the magic of capanomics, however, Jerry Reese can convert much of that $20 million into a signing bonus, which can then be prorated until the era of flying cars. Presto! Instant cap wiggle room, even if it sounds like the kind of high finance pursued by people who rent their home entertainment systems.
Reese should do the deal: Free up some cap space, lock Eli in and push the cap nightmare past the Coughlin retirement event horizon. But they should not do it because they think Eli will be a franchise quarterback midway through the next presidential administration. And they should not do it so they can lock up Justin Tuck and other heroes of 2011 in the name of one more Super Bowl push.
The Giants should extend Manning so they have money to pursue high-end young veteran free agents now. Their goal should be to build a new franchise foundation quickly, with Eli providing professional-grade quarterback play to keep the Giants competitive while they change direction. If Reese can build an all-new core while Eli is still near the top of his game, more power to him: in the modern NFC East, a surprise 10-6 season is always possible, and we know what the Giants like to do at the end of those. If Manning starts to slip (or if he has already started), the Giants will have a quality infrastructure in place for when they turn the reins over to a younger quarterback.
The Giants could also let Manning play out this season, make a business decision in 2015 and start with a blank salary cap slate in 2016 if Manning proves he is in steep decline. Your family accountant would approve of that strategy, but it would also hinder the Giants ability to get better over the next two seasons, so that "blank slate" could be the stuff of 3-13 records and massive rebuilding projects.
Problem: A roster with that "old champion" smell.
Solution: Parting is such sweet sorrow.
The Giants end-of-2013 free agent list read like a Hudson County phone book and contained a mish-mosh of the stars of the Super Bowl runs (Tuck, Aaron Ross, Terrell Thomas, Corey Webster, Brandon Jacobs, Hakeem Nicks), the desperate spackle players of 2013 (Peyton Hillis, Jon Beason, Mike Patterson), and dudes who have just seemed to hang around the Giants roster forever (Ramses Barden, Henry Hynoski, Spencer Paysinger, Mark Herzlich, Bear Pascoe).
Some of these guys have sorted themselves out already. Barden signed with the Bills in January. Jacobs is retired until someone decides they need a quasi-motivated bowling bowl for a few games. David Diehl also retired after 11 years of bouncing around the Giants offensive line. The Hynocerous is a restricted free agent who can cheaply be retained. But what about health insurance liability buster Andre Brown, perma-prospect Linval Joseph, backup center Jim Cordle, disappointing linebacker Keith Rivers and utility-lineman-turned center Kevin Boothe? What should the Giants do with these guys?
Get rid of all of them.
OK, no, that was hasty. The Giants need to extend some of these guys. Joseph, disappointing but young and massive, could be worth a price-is-right new deal. Beason could have been Comeback Player of the Year had voters decided to choose someone who came back from something; a 29 year old with several body parts under new warranty, Beason could be an affordable keeper. Focused efforts to keep one or two of the other best holdovers could save money and roster-turnover headaches.
But the Giants have to take a serious look at just how many players have been lingering on their roster for an NFL eternity. The Reese/Coughlin "professional bench" mentality helped win a Super Bowl in 2011 and kept the team competitive in 2012. The team's ability to nurture a cost-efficient backup brigade gave them the depth to outlast opponents with top-heavier talent structures. But last year, the Giants roster was choked with low-upside players who were overextended in regular roles. To watch Giants football in 2013 was to continually say things like "geez, Bear Pascoe is still on the team?"
The housecleaning should start with Tuck. His 11-sack "resurgence" boils down to six sacks against a Redskins team in rebellion and five against opponents that did not arrive pre-demoralized. Thomas is now 29 and will never be the player he was before his knees became high-occupancy lanes for orthopedic surgeons. Some other team can hope for a Thomas resurgence, but the Giants cannot afford to be sentimental. Ditto for Brown: he and the Giants did everything they could for one another.
The rest of the Cordle-Pascoe-Rivers crew should hit the open market. If they receive little interest and return to East Rutherford seeking the veteran minimum, Reese and Coughlin should even think long and hard before offering that. Loyalty to old stalwarts saved the team in 2011 (cheap old returnees kept the Giants fundamentally sound when other teams were short-sheeted by the lockout), but it created the talent-poor 2013 roster.
How do Reese and Coughlin fill the roster after this mass Turnpike exodus? A robust draft class, rookie free agents, practice squad pilfers from other organizations and some free-agent spending. With new blood will come fresh competition, the Giants have the chance to find more impact players and reduce organizational complacency.
Problem: Fifty-three guys, one playmaker.
Solution: Gamble for blue chips.
Now that we have cleared some cap space and purged the depth charts, let's get Victor Cruz some help on offense and begin to change the shape of the defense.
Let's start by giving Eli some receivers via the draft and free agency, like tight end Eric Ebron via the draft and James Jones from Green Bay. Jones arrives knowing a little about new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo: He can play the James Jones role in a Packers-style system, with Cruz playing Jordy Nelson. Ebron can be Jermichael Finley. If Jones is too expensive, Robert Meachem of the Saints can do many of the same things for less money.
Let's perform the same trick on defense. Wesley Woodyard (Broncos) is the kind of fast all-purpose linebacker the Giants have tried for years to develop in-house. He is younger than Beason and has a fraction of the injury history (Evel Knievel had a fraction of Beason's injury history). Woodyard-Beason does not even have to be an either-or scenario: free-agent linebackers can be very affordable.
In the middle rounds of the draft, the Giants can pursue raw talent: defensive ends like Jackson Jeffcoat or Chris Smith, versatile cornerbacks like Ross Cockrell and E.J. Gaines. A change-up and carry eater for David Wilson would be welcome: De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon) could be a zippy specialist in the Randall Cobb mode, while Toledo's David Fluellen will be available in late rounds to provide the kind of low-level thump on runs and short passes that once got Hillis onto a video game cover.
The goal in all of these picks is to roll the dice for a greater-than-expected investment return. The Giants maxed out their ability to make ordinary players look good in 2011. They must now acquire some very talented players with the potential to be excellent.
Problem: A stale cracker of an offense.
The Giants already took a major offseason step toward looking less like themselves. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo comes from a world where an offense might line up in a full-house backfield on first down and an empty backfield on second down. McAdoo's Packers would give regular handoffs to the fullback and the slot receiver and would try everything from cutting-edge spread concepts to the T-formation when they were looking for wrinkles. Assuming McAdoo is bringing Mike McCarthy's philosophy to New York, the Giants offense is in for a lively makeover.
Of course, assuming McAdoo has a free reign to channel his inner McCarthy might be inaccurate. Coughlin is still the head coach, and McAdoo would not be the first young assistant in American corporate history to scale back his most creative ideas to appease a conservative boss. Coughlin is more flexible than he is given credit for, and the Giants realize they need a dose of forward thinking, but we will not be certain what a McAdoo offense looks like until September.
The overall message of our day in Jerry Reese's shoes is the Giants must be aggressive about moving forward. Coughlin will retire soon. Eli is likely entering the downside of his career. The 2007 and 2011 triumphs are receding into history. It is time for a new era to begin. That does not necessarily mean that Manning and Coughlin need train fare and a ride to Secaucus Junction. But McAdoo and some new personnel must be given their chance to point the Giants toward the future.