Giants had a very strong running game this year and it powered their offense. Giants accomplished a rarity this season with their top two RB's, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, both having over 1,000 yards rushing. This has happened 3 times before in NFL history, but it hasn't happened since 1985 and with the greatly increased emphasis on passing in the offenses of the current NFL game, it is quite an accomplishment. The other interesting aspect of this accomplishment of course, is that not only did the Giants have two 1K rushers in 2008, but both are UFAs. Giants have 2 other RBs on the roster that they are fairly high on. Ahmad Bradshaw is a 3rd year player, drafted in the 7th round in 2007 and Danny Ware, who is a reclamation project of sorts, signed off the Jets practice squad. Ware has not seen much game action to speak of, but the coaches are apparently very high on him.
The big question of course is: which of the two RBs, Jacobs or Ward, should the Giants try to re-sign. The assumption is that because of salary cap considerations and Giants personnel needs at other positions, it would be unwise of the Giants to re-sign both players and invest so much coin in one position. This is probably a good assumption and it would be wise for the Giants to spread the salary cap wealth around a bit more. Everyone is leaning towards Brandon Jacobs being the primary RB to sign and letting Ward go via FA to another team. I want to be a little provocative with this statement: I am not so sure this is the best move to make.
Jacobs is a unique RB in the league. There are no other RBs with his combination of size, speed and nimble feet. He is an outstanding blocker and excels at blitz pickup. He has a great motor, never gives up and is a real emotional leader for the team. But he has some weaknesses that you need to consider as well. He is not a good pass receiver out of the backfield and he does not really have breakaway speed. His speed is great for a man his size, but that is a relative assessment. Measuring his speed in the absolute, compared to others who play his position, he is only a little above average. There's nothing more fun than watching Jacobs run over a DB or through the arm tackle of a S or an LB, but when he breaks into the open he is often caught from behind. Jacobs, being so big is an easy target for tacklers who try to get him low, at the knees or ankles. He has learned to get his pad level lower in the last 2 years, and so he can take on tacklers that try to get him low with a lowered shoulder more often than he used to. But, he is 6'4" and no matter how low he gets, a DB at 6'0" is going to be able to get lower. With all the frequent hits he takes on his ankles and knees and with his tendency to seek out contact, he has a history of getting nicked up and injured and this is likely to continue into the future. I don't think he looks for contact, but it somehow finds him. He is simply not as elusive as other smaller RBs, and he gets into more big collisions than others do. This injury factor is a particular concern when you are resigning a player to a contract, presumably for several years.
Derrick Ward clearly is not as big as Jacobs nor is he as powerful a runner. He doesn't have the cachet that Jacobs has - he's not going to run over a DB or break as many tackles as Jacobs. He's not going to fake a Lambeau leap after scoring a TD in the conference championship game, or break a light bulb on the clock by throwing a ball at it after scoring a TD. But, IMHO Ward is a more polished, more complete RB than Jacobs. He is more nimble than Jacobs and is more deft at making the subtle cuts in the hole to find open space. He is faster than Jacobs and more likely to break away for a long run. Ward is a far better pass receiver than Jacobs and the offense, therefore, is much more diversified when he is in the game. The Giants offense suffered when Plaxico Burress went out because the Giants missed his big play capability. I am not suggesting that Ward can replace Burress as a threat - the Giants need a weapon in the passing game, but Ward gives more big play capability than Jacobs, and it might be better to keep him. Jacobs is also going to demand much more money than Ward and the Giants might save salary cap space by keeping Ward, thereby allowing them to be more aggressive in building the team at other positions.
I think the Giants are not far off in this thinking, and it is not a slam dunk that Jacobs will be the RB that is chosen for next year. There are several subtle signs in the way the Giants have acted, that might show that they are somewhat ambivalent about a long term, big money commitment to Jacobs. Giants drafted 3 players in the 2005 draft, the draft that I call the best draft for any team in the history of the NFL. That year, they drafted: Corey Webster, Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs. Justin Tuck had his big breakout year in 2007, when he advanced from being a solid role player in the DL rotation in previous years and having one of his seasons cut short by injury, to becoming one of the elite DL-men in the game. The Giants recognized his emergence in 2007 and locked him up to a long term contract towards the end of the season, a full year before he could become a FA. Corey Webster started to burst on the scene during the 2007 playoffs. He had a very up-and-down first few years, disrupted by injuries, slowed by the bad coaching of DC Tim Lewis and his own poor play. Everyone remembers the INT/TD he made in the playoff clinching game in Buffalo and his outstanding play in the playoffs. He continued his superior play from that 2007 playoff run and had an excellent 2008 regular season. The Giants recognized his ascension into one of the top CBs in the league and locked Webster up to a long term contract as well, removing him from the list of possible FAs. If the Giants are so sure that Jacobs is a stud RB and a core player to form the foundation of their team, why didn't they do the same with Jacobs and extend him before he became a FA like they did with Tuck and Webster. He similarly had a breakout year in 2007, filled the void left by Tiki Barber, gained over 1,000 yards despite missing some games because of injury, averaging more than 5 yards per carry. You would think the Giants would have locked up Jacobs to a long term contract, just as they did his contemporaries from the same draft class, Webster and Tuck. In fact, not only did the Giants neglect to lock up Jacobs to a long term contract after 2007, they re-signed Derrick Ward to a 1 year contract for the 2008 season. No doubt, they signed Ward, who was a FA himself after the 2007 campaign, for several reasons: insurance in case Jacobs wanted too much money when he became a FA after 2008; insurance in case Jacobs would get injured during the 2008 season; and maybe the biggest reason of all - perhaps they thought that Ward might show himself to be a better player than Jacobs.
I am going to suggest something provocative: I think the Giants should re-sign Ward and let Jacobs walk for the following reasons, summarizing what I outlined above:
- Ward is a more complete player, a more polished runner and has better breakaway speed
- Ward is a better pass receiver out of the backfield and Giants can have a more diverse offense with him in the game
- Ward is less likely to get hurt because of his avoiding contact and may have a longer career than Jacobs
- Ward can probably be signed for less money and the Giants could use the reduced salary cap space on other needs
But the biggest reason for re-signing Ward over Jacobs has less to do with the relative ability of the two RBs. The main reason to sign a less expensive Ward is that RBs are just not as important as they used to be, since the modern NFL game is so geared towards passing. RBs are almost a commodity - there are good ones everywhere. So, even if you think that Jacobs is a little better than Ward, as long as you have a good RB and have depth at the position, the quality and productivity of your offense is going to be determined less by the RB than by other factors. First: you need a good qb; then you need a good OL; then you need weapons at the WR position; last you need a good running game. Ward can be a very productive RB in this league and the Giants have good depth behind him. They should spend their money on a weapon at WR and not at RB.
While we are discussing RBs, I want to put in a word or two about Ahmad Bradshaw. He had such a spectacular close to the 2007 season, with that big 88 yard TD run against the Bills and outstanding contributions in the playoffs. He had a huge game against Tampa Bay, was very productive in the conference championship game and in the Super Bowl as well. I think everyone was expecting him to continue his rise this year and have a huge 2008. In fact, some were surprised that the Giants re-signed Ward for the 2008 season, since it seemed that Bradshaw would fill the role as the change of pace RB behind Jacobs. Bradshaw got much less playing time than we thought he would during 2008 and, although he made some good plays, he looked to me like he may have lost some of his explosiveness and speed. I am thinking back to two plays this season as examples. In the 4th quarter of the regular season game against the Ravens, Bradshaw made a few people miss at the line of scrimmage, made a nice cut in the hole and broke into the open. It looked like a sure TD, but he was caught from behind by Ravens CB Fabian Washington at about the 5 yard line. Washington is fast, but Bradshaw had a big lead in the race and Washington caught him from behind. That's not supposed to happen to speed based RBs. The other play that might show that Bradshaw has lost some of his explosive speed is the playoff game against the Eagles when he broke into the open on the opening KO return and could not run by or through the kicker, who made the stop. I am not giving up on Bradshaw, but it might be useful to have more speed at the RB position along side him.