Giants Free Agency: Five Areas of Potential Need
By now, Giants fans know all about the tough decisions New York will have to make regarding their soon-to-be free agents like WR Steve Smith, TE Kevin Boss, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, and DT Barry Cofield.
So let’s get the obvious free agent moves out of the way first.
I think Smith, Boss, Kiwanuka, and Bradshaw will all re-sign with New York. I think Cofield will move on as the drafting of Marvin Austin this year to go along with Linval Joseph last year (both second rounders) is a very telling sign.
That’s the easy part of free agency (though I’m sure GM Jerry Reese will disagree with my categorizing any contract negotiation as “easy.”)
What isn’t as easy, I think, are personnel decisions that lie in other, less publicized areas that the team will likely address once the lockout is over.
Here is my take on what other, less publicized positions the Giants are likely to address:
Linebacker. Keith Bulluck, is set to be an unrestricted free agent. At the end of the season, Bulluck indicted that he didn’t want to be back in a part time role that was brought about by the success of the Giants’ three-safety package.
More recently, he reportedly said that he would be open to returning to the Giants.
The Giants, however, would like to see former second-round draft pick Clint Sintim step up and take that role. Sintim had a spotty rookie season after being drafted in 2009 as he had some struggles adjusting from the 3-4 he played in college to the Giants’ 4-3.
Last year, he went into his second season as an uncontested favorite to win the starting strong side job. However, Sintim struggled and his inconsistencies, coupled with the fine play of MLB Jonathan Goff, forced the coaches to move Bulluck from the middle, where they initially envisioned him playing, to the strong side.
Capping Sintim’s forgettable year, he went on to suffer a season-ending knee injury just as it looked as though he had finally grasped what it took to be successful in the NFL.
This year, Sintim will get another opportunity to show that he is worthy of a starting spot. Will the third-year player step up? If he wants to continue receiving an NFL paycheck, it’s imperative that he fully get his hands around the challenges he faces.
What I think will happen…
I am not ready to give up on Sintim as some others are, as I think if he puts it all together, he can be something special. However, I also think that the Giants will look to add a veteran to this group, especially if they don’t re-sign Bulluck, Chase Blackburn, and Gerris Wilkinson, all of who will be unrestricted under the reported terms of the new CBA.
If those three aren’t back, the Giants would be left with very little in terms of backup experience. They’d have Phillip Dillard and Adrian Tracy, both entering their second seasons.
Dillard was slowed by a hamstring injury last year, though he did begin to contribute as the season wore on. Tracy, who was in the process of converting from a college defensive end to an outside linebacker, missed his rookie campaign with an elbow injury.
The Giants also have a pair of rookie linebackers in Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams. However, with the lockout wiping out valuable OTAs and classroom time, it’s not immediately known how much, if any, the rookies are going to be able to contribute right away on what’s said to be a complex defense.
The Giants will likely look for a versatile utility man who can play all three positions (assuming they don’t re-sign Blackburn, who last year was very banged up.)
Some intriguing names who are under 30 and who are predominantly outside linebackers (the position I think the Giants would target if they couldn’t get an all-purpose utility man) include Cleveland’s Matt Roth, a former second rounder, and Carolina’s Thomas Davis, a former first rounder.
Roth, who is not likely to be retained by Cleveland, is reportedly interested in going to a team that deploys a 3-4 defensive scheme (the Browns are said to be planning to switch to a 4-3).
Davis, who had his best season for the Panthers in 2008 when he amassed 113 tackles and 3.5 sacks, will probably re-sign with Carolina, but not before he likely tests the market. He is also coming back from a knee injury.
Fullback. Last season, starter Madison Hedgecock looked to be a shell of his former self, and understandably so. Hedgecock, who in 2008 should have been a Pro Bowler, tried to play through the 2009 season with a severe shoulder injury that ultimately required corrective surgery.
Although he worked hard in rehab, something seemed to be missing from his blocking as he looked to be a shell of his 2008 form.
Another negative in Hedgecock’s game is his lack of versatility, particularly his ineffectiveness as the occasional receiver out of the backfield. Because of that, usually when he’s in the game, opponents can often times guess what’s coming and be prepared for it.
Consider the numbers. In the four games last season in which Hedgecock was active, he took part in 88 of the 271 offensive snaps. His contributions included just two receptions for eight yards, and his blocking, as mentioned before, lacked impact.
Further breaking down his usage, Hedgecock served as a run blocker 62 times, as a pass blocker 10 times — the rest of the time he was sent out as a receiver.
When a hamstring injury ultimately ended his season, Bear Pascoe, the young tight end who despite having a fine summer camp started the year on the practice squad before being called up to the 53-man roster iafter Week 1, took over the role.
Pascoe held up well in his assignments and of course brought a little more to the position as he proved to have better pass receiving abilities than Hedgecock. While Pascoe did well, his 6-5 height sometimes kept him from gaining the leverage the coaches look for in the blocking game.
While the Giants could look to Pascoe the full-time fullback if they determine that Hedgecock is finished – keep in mind that Hedgecock still has two years remaining on his contract with a $1M base salary scheduled for 2011 — it might make sense to begin planning for the future at this position with a younger player.
One intriguing prospect is undrafted Pittsburgh FB Henry Hynoski, who in addition to showing good blocking ability, can catch the ball out of the backfield. At 6-2, 260 lbs., Hynoski possess size similar to Hedgecock (6-3, 266 lbs.) but seemingly offers a little more versatility in terms of blocking, receiving, and running the ball.
The Giants could also explore the veteran free agent route, as Houston’s Vonta Leach, Cleveland’s Lawrence Vickers, and Baltimore’s Le’Ron McClain are all scheduled to be free agents.
Leach will be 30 in November and reportedly is seeking a deal that is richer than the three-year, $11.2M contact Philadelphia’s Leonard Weaver received, a contract that wouldn’t be favorable for the Giants given that they have other needs.
Vickers would appear to make the most sense for the Giants from a veteran free agent perspective . The Browns drafted Owen Marecic this past April, a player that is believed to be a better fit for the West Coast Offense that the new coaching staff is said to be planning to install.
Vickers, 6-0, 250 lbs., meanwhile, is only 28 years old and appears to be a better fit for the power rushing style that the Giants employ.
McClain, a Pro Bowler who is also expected to command a sizeable contract on the open market, is said to want to go to an offense where he can receive more touches rather than strictly doing the dirty work as a blocking fullback. That’s something he probably wouldn’t get with the Giants if they retain Brandon Jacobs (which they are likely to do) and re-sign Bradshaw.
What I think will happen…
I believe that the Giants will look to add an undrafted free agent (Hynoski, hopefully). If rosters are expanded for training camp, as has been reported, they will conduct a competition between that player and Hedgecock, who after all this time off should be close if not 100% healthy. The pressure will be on the soon-to-be 30-year-old Hedgecock to reclaim his job and to justify his scheduled $1M base salary.
If Hynoski is snapped up by another team, I think Vickers is a very realistic possibility. Further if he’s brought on board, that could mean the end of Hedgecock, who last year in a curious yet perhaps telling move, completely cleaned out his locker (which was the assigned to WR Devin Thomas), after he was placed on injured reserve.
Tight End. Depending on what happens with the fullback spot, the Giants could find themselves in the market for a blocking tight end. If New York keeps Pascoe at fullback, they will almost certainly need to look at picking up a second tight end who can ideally share more of the pass blocking duties with Kevin Boss (assuming he re-signs).
Travis Beckum remains a bit of a mystery as he’s yet to find his niche in the Giants’ offense. It also hasn’t helped his case that he was injured last summer and ended up missing a large part of training camp.
Beckum has talent and could be a nice fit for the Giants, especially on third down, but until he shows consistency, his on-field appearances are likely going to be limited to special teams.
The team also has Jake Ballard, who spent last year on the practice squad who will compete for a spot.
If the Giants opt to explore the external free agent market one intriguing player is Philadelphia’s Brent Celek, who was used more as a max protect blocker last year, a reason why his receptions dropped from 76 catches in 2009 to 42 in 2010.
Celek, who also struggled though injuries last season, will more than likely be back in Philadelphia as he’s always been a key cog in that offense. However, if he receives a really good offer, as in starting dollars (which I doubt the Giants would put before him), perhaps he could be enticed to move up the Turnpike.
Denver’s Dan Gronkowski, who the Broncos acquired last year via trade from Detroit, is another player who should become unrestricted if the reported new CBA terms granting players with four years of accrued experience for unrestricted free agency go into effect.
Gronkowski spent most of last season on injured reserve with an ankle injury, but his experience at fullback as well as tight end coupled with the fact that he should come relatively cheap coming off injury could make him worth a look if he’s no longer in Denver’s plans.
What I think will happen…
I think the Giants will move Pascoe back to tight end and address the fullback spot as outlined above. If they are successful with re-signing Boss, which I think they will be, they’ll be set at this position.
Offensive Tackle. The salary cap is said to be coming back in the next CBA, and that could create some issues for the Giants at this position.
Shawn Andrews, who last year showed flashes of his old self when he wasn’t dealing with a sore back, will carry a projected $6.5M cap figure ($3M in base salary and a $3.5M roster bonus due on the 30th day of the 2011 league year.)
However, Reese has already indicted a desire to see William Beatty, a former second-round draft pick who the team envisions as their future left tackle, step up this year.
A key to whether Andrews is back with the Giants in 2011 is how well they think his back will hold up. Before the players scattered last off-season, Andrews vowed to continue to work on strengthening his core muscles.
Even if he does that, a big question will be whether he’s ready to take 60+ snaps per game as a starter week after week – a significant jump in reps considering he’s been away from football all this time.
What I think will happen…
New York apparently would like to see the freakishly athletic Beatty take that next step, and they’ll also look to begin grooming rookie James Brewer as a potential heir to Kareem McKenzie’s right tackle spot (McKenzie is entering the final year of his contract this season.)
Given David Diehl’s versatility, I don’t think the Giants will have to acquire a veteran tackle for depth. Let’s say, for example, that Rich Seubert (knee) isn’t ready to go at the start of the season. Diehl could theoretically step in at guard assuming Beatty proves that he can handle the left tackle spot.
If Beatty stumbles again, the Giants could leave Diehl at left tackle and plug in second-year man Mitch Petrus at left guard should Seubert not be ready. The backup depth at tackle would then be Beatty, Brewer, and, either Kevin Boothe or Jamon Meredith, both of whom are free agents, but one of whom I would think would be re-signed.
Defensive End. I predicted last year that I didn’t see how the Giants would be able to keep Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka beyond 2010 – and that was before details of Umenyiora’s planned affidavit were leaked to the press last month.
I’m sticking with that prediction.
Let’s start with Umenyiora. Although he’s under contract for two more years and should, in my opinion, forget about counting the 2008 season (when he was on injured reserve) in his requested two-year evaluation period), there is a good chance that he won’t and that he might hold out in an attempt to force a trade if Reese doesn’t renegotiate his contact.
Meanwhile Kiwanuka has been cleared to return from a neck injury that wiped out most of last year. Chances are that the Giants wont invest too heavily in a contract for a player coming back from that type of injury, but there could be other teams (St. Louis perhaps?) that might take a chance with a multi-year contract on the versatile Kiwanuka, who is said to prefer lining up as a defensive end.
Rounding out the equation is Dave Tollefson, the scrappy utility man who is also set to be unrestricted. I think, however, that he has the best chance of re-signing with the Giants if they want him back.
To round out the veteran depth at defensive end, the Giants have Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Alex Hall. Assuming Tollefson is back, that gives New York four defensive ends, though if they retain either Kiwanuka or Umenyiora, they’d be set at this position.
What I think will happen…
Actually, it’s what I think Umenyiora will do. I think, if the Giants don’t renegotiate his contract, he’s going to hold out, even though he seemed to back away from the biting content that was contained in his affidavit.
I don’t think his situation would turn into another Jeremy Shockey situation. However, if Umenyiora isn’t happy, there is a potential that he could disrupt the locker room chemistry at which point it might behoove the Giants to move him.
If that happens, then the Giants could have an inside track with Kiwanuka. I could see them offering him a two-year contract, with the first year incentive heavy, just to allow him to re-establish his value. If he is truly over his neck problems and he plays well in 2011, then perhaps a contract extension in 2012 could be in the cards.
Premier pass rushing free agents are not going to come cheap, and I just don’t think the Giants would splurge on a top-tier pass rushing free agent at this position.
Rather, if Umenyiora and Kiwanuka depart, figure Pierre-Paul will move into the starting lineup and the Giants will look to add a fourth guy to the rotation.
Post Script. You’re probably wondering why I haven’t included center in this analysis. That’s because I believe that both Shaun O’Hara and Adam Koets are going to be ready to go once the season begins.
The Giants have also trained Mitch Petrus to play center as well as Kevin Boothe (hence why I believe Boothe is re-signed).
So while the situation looks bleak right now at the center position, I think the team might be counting on O’Hara and Koets being ready to go by opening day.