Why Giants’ free-agent spending spree is a major gamble

Sam Monson explains why the Giants' all-in spending method put serious pressure on the 2016 season.

| 9 months ago
(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Phil

    I think the only objective for a winning franchise is to win big so I don’t understand your logic. I mean teams don’t sign or draft players to get them to ultimately get to say we accomplished our end game with that signing by finishing 8-8 “great job guys we are an average team.” No it’s win big or go home and I really don’t think they are hoping to go home early

  • JudoPrince

    History speaks for itself. Teams that go HAM like this in free agency typically unravel prior to competing for championships. The Giants are essentially paying top tier dollar for players who are clearly not top tier. You have to build via the draft; not by scraping through the free agent pool.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I guess your version of history doesn’t include Al Davis. He was the master at taking castoffs from other teams and making it work.

      • Tim fugger

        He’s the exception not the rule dumbass

      • eYeDEF

        Not in the free agent era he wasn’t.

    • Sam Sirin

      The total dollar amount of the contracts isn’t as important as the structure. If these guys massively underwhelm, they can be cut in two years without the Giants taking much damage. They’re also betting on younger guys who’ve had very healthy careers (for the most part), so it’s not like they’re paying for past production or grabbing big-name retreads to save face; these guys have the potential to improve… Vernon may be already on the precipice of stardom.

      Of course it could blow up in their face, but nearly any signing can. They upgraded their defense big time, bet on younger players and gave themselves a safety net if it doesn’t work out. People just look at the dollar amount and make snap judgements, but there really isn’t a whole lot to dislike about their offseason so far.

  • Stephen Bowman

    Congrats, you have become the old Redskins, champs of the off season. Let me know how that works out for you.

    • August West

      Just in case you needed a refresher.

      Skins – 8 playoff appearances since 1990, one SB in 1991 (yes, 1991) to show for it. Again, 1991 was what you read. Plus a really shitty owner that everyone hates.

      Giants – 10 appearances since 1990. Four SB wins. yes, four. Ownership very stable and well-respected

      How is that working out for YOU??? We are doing just fine. Thanks.

      • eYeDEF

        Which is exactly why this free agent spree is so uncharacteristic of the Giants. They’re not typically so reckless and these moves reek of desperation.

        • August West

          They don’t spend they get criticized they spend they get criticized. No win situation. I agree that they are very much on the spot and needed to stretch but reckless is not what this was.

          • eYeDEF

            Rewarding a corner as susceptible to the big play as Jenkins a Maxwell-esque contract while fully guaranteeing 40 mil to a DE who only brought it for half a season is what makes it reckless. JPP and Harrison were quality signs.

          • August West

            Thanks. I take it you have experience as an NFL GM?

          • eYeDEF

            Hey man, I’m just stating the obvious. When a GM grossly overpays on a contract not at all reflective of what the player has shown capable of producing, that’s worthy of being called irresponsible. The Giants did it twice. That’s reckless. It is what it is.

          • Sam Sirin

            The new guys are also guaranteed almost all of their money in years one and two (none of them would even be 30 by the end of year two) making it about as painless to cut them as can be. Sure the money might be a little outrageous but look at the actual contract before throwing around terms like “reckless.”

          • eYeDEF

            I guess we have a difference in opinion then because I hardly consider the dead money charge of 12 mil and 8 mil for Vernon in years 3 and 4 or Jenkins 6 mil in year 3 to be ‘painless’. If you’d call the Byron Maxwell contract handed out by Chip a year ago as ‘reckless’ (as I did since I won’t hesitate to call a spade a spade) then it’d be hypocritical not to say that awarding Jenkins like he’s the 5th best corner with a contract that exceeds Maxwell’s isn’t reckless.

          • fuster

            how did PFF rate Vernon for the entirety of last season?

            3 Olivier Vernon

            Miami Dolphins 92.2

            third best edge defender in the league

            —————-

            perhaps given that and his age ( he’ll still be 25 when next season starts)…it’s not such a gamble.

          • eYeDEF

            Yeah like Sam makes clear in the article above, strictly because of his outsized play in 8 games. Regardless of how well he played in those 8 games, it’s still a gamble to guarantee 40 mil for a half season of superstar production. It’s not like he had ever played that well at any point in his 3 previous uneven years, nor will have the benefit anymore of lining up next to Suh. Obviously Reese is paying him for his potential than on past production, but it’s still a roll of the dice.

          • fuster

            the best indicator of the ability to succeed is a demonstration of success in the recent past.

          • eYeDEF

            8 games is too small a sample size to make such a judgement. He regressed in 2014 from his previous year, and 2015 on the whole was inconsistent. His average over that time span including the ups and downs would be a more accurate snapshot of what you can expect a regression to mean towards next season.

  • Mike Diffin

    I think Jerry Reese needed the draft of a lifetime this year, but maybe they don’t see that type of talent in this year’s prospects. Even at 10 there are a lot of risks in the potential guys that will be available, and there are a couple reports from scouts and execs that only have 19 first round grades. I even read a Seattle scout has a 2nd round grade on Ramsey who a lot think is a top 3 pick. I don’t like free agency spending like this, it rarely works and 9 out of the top 10 FA spenders from last year missed the playoffs. The Chiefs were the only team, and even they started off 1-5. Could also be ownership’s lack of trust in Reese’s ability to draft, so why not try to fill holes with guys still in their 20’s and still take best available.

  • Maks Roman

    It’s all dandy but there’s one thing – NYG needed this. They were the worst defence last season and an embarrassment to watch sometimes, they had to do something about it. Their only option was targeting the best players available. Considering the fact that there were other teams with loads of cap space that wanted to sign them, there was no other choice but to overpay. The reality is that players’ contracts get bigger and bigger so that sort of money will be encountered more and more often. Honestly to me it seems Jenkins’ was the only contract I dislike.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I’m with you on this one Maks. There is no free lunch so upgrading means having to pony up. In all walks of life the winners are those who don’t shy away from taking risks. The NFC East has never been more wide open so logically this is the time to take those risks.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Of course if it had been the Steelers who made these FA moves, the staff would trip over each other saying how great the acquisitions were.

    • eYeDEF

      lol. The Steelers don’t go on free agent super binges like this paying out the nose for unproven players. They develop their own in house and aren’t afraid to let guys who aren’t worth it walk. Can you remember the last time this sort of strategy worked for any team in the free agent era? I can’t. Yet there are too many examples to count of teams overspending on a mad spree in a desperate bid to buy success. It always ends badly.

      • fuster

        Can you remember the last time this sort of strategy worked for any team in the free agent era?

        in 2005 the Giants signed

        Antonio Pierce
        Kareem McKenzie
        Jay Feely
        and
        Plaxico Burress

        and some other guys

        it worked out quite well.

        • eYeDEF

          And all those guys were established and proven players, and thus were quality signs and worth the money. Antonio Pierce had just come off a great season with the Redskins, McKenzie was a stud run blocker and an instrumental piece for Tiki to run behind, and Plax had proven himself in Pittsburgh even though he was still kind of a bonehead, he did enough to help the Giants win the SB before shooting himself and getting carted off to prison. Those guys were key missing pieces to a team with the talent and potential to make a serious run. Those Giants went about it the right way to spend in free agency, adding the final pieces to the puzzle.

          This is a completely different situation where they handed out contracts to players who have never demonstrated they can play at a level commensurate to those salaries. This looks far more like the reckless spending we expect to see out of Snyder or Jerry Jones, or Grigson’s ill conceived free agent spree a few years ago that netted him a whole lot of nothing. But I guess Reese is desperate. Mara must have given him an ultimatum that he’s next in line after Coughlin if things don’t improve.

          • fuster

            Vernon, JPP, Snacks and even the CB are the best available free agents and all recognized as such

          • eYeDEF

            Like I mentioned elsewhere, JPP is a quality re-sign because they got bang for their buck. He’s more than capable of delivering based on what they’re paying him. Vernon and Jenkins have never come to close to being worth the money they signed for.

          • fuster

            the question isn’t whether they are worth the money, it’s whether they play well and are solid contributors to the team and aid the team in winning more games.

            the money is of little import, the owners of the team have all the money they’ll ever need and can easily spare the salaries…and saving cap space matters very little when there aren’t players available who are a good as the ones that the team signed,

          • eYeDEF

            Sorry but your logic is astoundingly poor. Of course it’s about the money. Maxwell was the best corner available in free agency last year, does that mean Chip should have guaranteed a #2 corner who excelled in zone 25 mil to be a #1 corner in man? Absolutely not. He wasn’t worth that much even if utilized at #2 in zone. There are similar questions about Jenkins as a schematic fit when you’ve already got a similar styled corner in DRC. Guaranteeing a guy who got smoked as much as Jenkins 28 mil to be a #2 corner opposite DRC is lunacy. Doesn’t matter if he was the “best” corner in free agency by default because all the shutdown corners were re-signed or protected by their teams. That doesn’t justify paying a garbage collector the 5th highest corner salary in the league. Janoris is what he is, he’s not getting better. Reese can’t claim he’s still got upside. He’s a touchdown machine for the other side.

            The reason why money matters is because there’s this thing called the ‘salary cap’, so it doesn’t matter if the team has all the money it needs. They are limited by how much they can spend, and if good players aren’t available in free agency now, the money can be saved and rolled over to subsequent seasons when they are available. Signing players to contracts they have no shot of living up to is shooting yourself in the foot. Because you end up limiting what you can spend to get better in future seasons by having a bunch of contracts you’re paying for players that are no longer on the team.

  • fuster

    not all that much of a gamble….they had to get two DEs a DT and a corner…..and got the best ones on the market.

    they had the money to spend….and there was no better way to spend it.

    they still have money left to spend and they still need an OT and a safety.

  • Brian

    Just bc u have cap room & needs doesn’t make throwing $ at the problem the answer. It rarely ever works out & I doubt it will for the giants. Granted, they have a better shot bc they’re a well run franchise with a franchise qb.

  • BITW44

    To be honest as a Giants fan, i am ok with paying Harrison 9 mill a year even if he stays a two down player. The run defense has been so bad, that seems like money well spent.