Why Giants' free-agent spending spree is a major gamble
After just one week, the New York Giants have upped the stakes in free agency. Tom Coughlin was sacrificed after the 2015 season, while the personnel structures remained intact, but after the amount of money the front office just threw at the problem, everybody’s head is now firmly on the block in New York.
With four new additions, the Giants doled out $196.4 million to lead spending in free agency so far. If you add in the $10 million they gave to Jason Pierre-Paul to keep him from hitting the open market, they clear the $200 million mark in total contract dollars handed out this past week.
Total dollar figures are often misleading, and often never seen by the player, but even if we restrict ourselves to the guaranteed money, the Giants are the only team to top $100 million over the first week of free agency—and again, that’s without counting the deal they gave to JPP.
Any way you slice it, the Giants have spent huge in free agency, which in and of itself would pile on the pressure for the upcoming season, but it becomes even more interesting when you look at the players they have brought in and the risk attached to each.
The Giants haven’t just gambled with big sums, but they’ve done it on less-than-sure-things.
Olivier Vernon’s contract was the biggest deal they handed out, and one of the marquee names available this free-agency period, but Vernon’s elite play really only spanned eight games. After eight games last season, Vernon was PFF’s 47th-ranked edge defender, 38 places below teammate Cameron Wake. He had 24 total pressures on the season, which ranked 25th among edge rushers.
At that point Vernon’s cumulative career grade at PFF was +16.9, and over the next eight games he posted a grade of +52.5, the best mark in the NFL among all edge rushers, and so far above his career baseline to that point.
Circumstances changed, and Vernon’s play took off in particular when Cameron Wake went down injured, perhaps inspiring him with the responsibility of now being the team’s primary pass-rush threat, but the fact remains that we do not have a big sample size of elite play from Vernon. The Giants are paying him as if he is one of the league’s best pass-rushers, but that Vernon has only really existed for eight games, making this a pretty big roll of the dice.
If you strip out the two players playing the 2016 season on the franchise tag—one-year guaranteed figures to Josh Norman and Trumaine Johnson—Janoris Jenkins is now the fifth-best paid cornerback in football, based on average salary per season. The four players ahead of him are Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Joe Haden.
Since coming into the league, Janoris Jenkins has given up 22 touchdowns. Revis and Sherman combined have allowed just 16 over the same timespan. Only two corners in the league have allowed more touchdowns than Jenkins since he has been in the league, and it’s not as if he’s showing marked improvement and a tightening up of his game. Even now, he remains a player that will make big mistakes and blow plays for touchdowns.
He is obviously not completely useless, though. He has 10 interceptions and 34 passes defensed since entering the league, and both of those marks are top-15 among all cornerbacks, so we are looking at a player that is very much boom-or-bust, often within the same game. In truth, incumbent corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a very similar styled player, and it gives the Giants two corners to live and die by. There will be games the pair will dominate and virtually eliminate the opposing receivers, and there will be games they combine to throw away the contest themselves. Again, this is a big gamble by New York, the outcome of which they cannot possibly be confident in.
Damon Harrison is the next big signing the Giants made, bringing in arguably the league’s best run-defender and winner of PFF’s inaugural Ted Washington award for exactly that. On the surface, that would seem a smart move, except I’m not sure Harrison really fits in this defense.
Harrison has been so good against the run that the Jets have tried to get him more involved on passing downs—simply increasing the amount of time he is on the field in total. The percentage of team snaps he has been on the field for has increased in each of the past three seasons, but it has still only topped out at 53.7 percent, and he has never played more than 600 snaps in a season.
He has also never had a positive pass-rushing grade over a season, and though this season represented his best work, as well as the most he was on the field and the greatest number of passing downs, he registered just one sack and 14 total pressures from 226 snaps rushing the passer. Harrison looks, in essence, to be a completely one-dimensional, two-down player, and the Giants are paying him $9.25 million a year, just a little less than the Cincinnati Bengals are Geno Atkins, one of the best interior players in football.
In order to get anything like commensurate value out of Harrison, he needs to improve as a pass-rushing force, and they need to hope that moving Johnathan Hankins (presumably) from his spot as the nose tackle on their four-man line does not negatively impact his play. This is once more a pretty big gamble, and no sure-thing.
Signing JPP to a one-year, $10 million deal was actually pretty good business, and a move I like, but what his level of play will be, given the relative unknown impact of his hand, is again a question mark. This at least is a contract structured to reflect the gamble it is for both sides, so it’s tough to dislike it, but when you combine it with the other three moves we have mentioned already, the Giants are looking at the 2016 season like they are on a riverboat casino—they’re either winning big, or they’re going home in disgrace.
With Tom Coughlin already offered up as a scapegoat for the 2015 campaign, the personnel side of things has decided that free spending gives them the best chance to repair the damage. Maybe they’re right, but there is a lot of pressure on everybody within the Giants organization to put together this team and form a coherent and productive defense with the pieces just added and retained.
The Giants signed a lot of talent, and if it does all come together, this could be a special unit, but each component is a big gamble, making the overall project the mother of all parlays. If it works out, the Giants are likely winning big, but if they don’t, people will lose their jobs.