Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Giants FA signings

It's hard not to love the signings that GM Reese has done, loading up the defensive front and giving a shot of energy to the team. Just to review, the Giants resigned their own FA, Brandon Jacobs to a 4 year deal worth $24M. But that is old news, happening before the FA agent signing period of 27th February. The big news is how the Giants have loaded up their front 7 with the signings of Rocky Bernard from Seattle at DT, Michael Boley from Atlanta at OLB and the big signing of Chris Canty from Dallas. By my count, the Giants now have 8 DL-men in the fold ready to play next year: Ueminyora, Tuck, Cofield, Robbins, Kiwanuka, Canty, Bernard and Tollefson. The significant thing to notice is that all of these DL-men were starters or were significant players in the rotation. Tollefson probably played the least of all these players, but even he played often and fairly productively as a pass rush specialist on 3rd downs. I didn't even mention Jay Alford on the above list, becasue he was mostly a back up, but I am very high on Alford and think he will be a very good player and has made several significant impact plays in his time here. (The sack of Brady on 2nd down with less than 30 seconds left in Superbowl comes to mind as one of those "impact plays".) Of course, Ueminyora was out for the year, but my point is that the Giants have outstanding talent and depth at the DL and with Osi coming back after his injury, they will feature two pro-bowl DEs, lots of talent in between and could really control the line of scrimmage with that front.

Canty is a beast. He is a monster of a man, very tall and because of his bulk, is very difficult to move off the line of scrimmage. He played DE in the 3-4 Dallas defense, which means that, depending where the OLB lines up, he played either inside or outside at Dallas. He is big enough to play DT and quick enough to play DE. He always played very well against the Giants and bothered Eli at the line of scrimmage because of his size, reach and athleticism. (Nostalgia moment: Canty was the beast that batted down Eli's pass intended for Steve Smith on 2nd down in the NFC divisional round playoff game right before the completion to Boss in the :47 TD drive right before halftime. Giants scored anyway, as you may recall... I'm just saying - Canty's good.) Other things to note about Canty - he played for Parcells in Dallas who raved about him; and played for Al Groh in college at Virginia who also praised him to the skies. Groh and Coughlin both come from the Parcells coaching tree, so Canty won't get any surprises at Camp Coughlin.

Rocky Bernard has been starting at Seattle and playing very well for some time. He is one of the best pass rushing DTs in the league and with the depth and quality that the Giants now have at DL, they will be more protected from injuries and will be able to rotate their players to keep them fresh throughout an individual game, and in fact throughout the season. Everyone noticed that the Giants pass rush wore down as the season went along. An injury to Tuck slowed him down and Kiwanuka, playing his first full professional season as starter and every down player, was also not as strong at the end of the year as he was at the beginning. Parcells, in the same interview he gave talking about his former player, Canty, praised Bernard strongly, completely unprompted. He was not asked about Bernard and noted to the reporter that he was a real good player also.

Fred Robbins has 1 year left on his contract and had an injury filled season. His hands were broken, he had shoulder injuries and he had a knee injury that required an arthroscopy since the season ended. My guess is that they will not re-sign Robbins in 2010 and will rely on Canty as the starter at DT. The beauty of this signing is that it sets the Giants up both now and for the future.

The other interesting signing is OLB Michael Boley. He has lots of talent, but had lost his starting job last year at Atlanta and you could question whether it was a wise signing. IMHO, this was a perfect match to the signing of the big bruising DL-men that the Giants brought in. Surely, the Giants have to find out why he lost his job and both coach and motivate him to recapture the form he had when he was a 4-year starter for Atlanta. But the reason I like the signing is that in many respects, LBs on the defense are the parallels of RBs on the offensive side of the ball. Look at it this way: take the best RB in football and stick him behind a terrible OL and he does not get a chance to show his skill. Conversely, put a decent RB behind a great OL and he is elevated, becoming a very good player. You can't make a star out of someone that has no talent, but as a generalization, the OL makes the RB. Just as an example, consider the case of Thomas Jones, the RB for the Jets. In 2007, the Jets OL played poorly - D'Brickshaw was still learning his position, they had very poor play at both G positions and Mangold at C declined a little bit because he didn't have Kendall at G playing next to him. Jones averaged about 3.5 yds per carry in 2007 and looked done. Then in 2008 the Jets invested heavily in free agency and upgraded their OL, bringing in all-everything G Alan Faneca and Damiane Woody at T. Suddenly, almost miraculously, Thomas Jones runs for 1,300 yds in 2008. Same back, better OL, from one year to the next, vastly different results.

My contention is that in some ways and for some defenses, the LBs are in similar situations with their DL as the RB with his OL. The RB relies on his OL to cut holes for him through the DL and the LB relies on the DL to keep the OL at bay so they can be freed up to make plays. If the DL is weak, cannot occupy and tie up the opposing OL sufficiently, blockers can fire out to the next level and handle the LBs. A great DL can give an average LB group the chance to make lots of plays and converesely, a weak DL that cannot break down the blockers, can make even a talented group of LBs play below their capability. Of course there are exceptions to this rule - a great LB can overcome weak DL play and in fact make the DL look better, but the general rule still holds. For this reason, the signing of Boley is a good match to the signing of the big beefy DL-men that the Giants nabbed. Boley is a small-ish OLB who is extremely quick and a good tackler. The Giants need speed at the LB position to do a better job covering TEs and playing in space. When it comes to stopping the running game, with the size and quality of the DL, a slightly undersized, active LB will do well because of the size of the DL in front of him. The Giants are not signing players simply to fill up the roster, they are not filling in players at positions just because they are FAs that play that position. They have a definite plan in designing the team and finding players to match their specific needs and the style that they want to play.

I will give another example of finding a style of player from the Giants of two years ago. When Tiki Barber retired, Brandon Jacobs was elevated to the top of the depth chart at RB. Tiki was very successful, but his style of running was different than Jacobs'. Tiki would like to run out in space, sliding to one side of the line, have the OL and the lead FB sliding out in front of him. The blockers would typically not be hammering or knocking back the defenders in front of them. Rather they would just put a body on a body, engage the defenders and push them, taking them whichever way they wanted to go. Tiki would get right on their hips, set up the blocker, wait for the defender to commit, and then cut to the open lane. Tiki was so good at setting up the blocker and so quick at changing direction that this style was very effective. Jacobs does not run this style; he is a bruiser. The OL and FB that block for Jacobs have to employ a different style than they do for Tiki. They have to not just engage the blocker and let the RB set up the block; they have to put a hat on a hat, get the defender moving backwards and let Jacobs use his force to run over, through, past the defender. With Barber, you needed a smart, finesse OL/FB and with Jacobs you needed a power blocking scheme. Reese realized that Jim Finn was a finesse FB, perfect for Tiki but he would not be as effective in front of Jacobs. Consequently, one of his first moves as GM was to sign Vonta Leach, RFA FB from the Texans who was a big bruising hitter, to an offer sheet. The Texans matched the offer and the Giants did not get their prize, but Reese's intentions were set. When Madison Hedgecock became available, Reese pounced and quickly signed him to an extension when he saw how good he really was. This analysis is a bit of a digression, but it shows Reese's and the Giant's thinking - they don't just look for players to fill positions, but have a fixed idea of what type of player fits their style. The style of the OL/FB has to match the style of the RB.

By contrast, take a look at what the Cowboys did: they needed a backup qb because Romo's injury exposed Brad Johnson as over-the-hill. They traded Anthony Henry, their starting CB to the Lions for QB John Kitna. This is a bad move for several reason:
  • Kittna is not that good. Furthemore the Lions are clearly in the market for a new QB and when they find one, were likely to cut Kitna. So even if the Cowboys are infatuated with Kitna for some reason, they probably could have gotten him without a trade.
  • Backup QBs are important, but not as important as starting CBs.
  • There are several other backup QBs available on the FA market that are at least as good as Kitna. Specifically: Leftwitch and Garcia are both unsigned. Even Chris Simms is available.
This was a signing to fill a roster spot having nothing to do with bulding a team. It's as if they scouted him by looking at his stats on nfl.com

As the Cowboys get further away from the Parcells era, his influence in personnel decisions will be more and more missed. As Jerry Jones becomes the only decision maker with no input from a weak coach, the Cowboys will decline.

Looking forward, the Giants now have lots of flexibility in the upcoming draft. I believe they will still draft a LB, but now, it does not have to be in the first round. More important, they still have to find themselves a WR threat and have some flexibility there too. Finding a proven pro WR would be better than relying on a draft pick from college. Rookie WRs are not usually impact players their first year because of the complexity of the position. But, I implicitly trust the Giants college scouting and talent evaluation departments. The draft is very deep in three positions this year: WR, LB and OT. There are at least 4 or 5 WRs that may go in the first round: Crabtree from Texas Tech; Maclin from Missouri; Nicks from UNC; Harvin from Florida and Kenny Britt from Rutgers. The WR pool in FA was very weak, the only capable WR was Houshmandzadeh, who was really a # 2 WR without big time speed. He is off the market, having signed with Seattle. The only way to get a pro WR is to manufacture a trade and this is hard to do. Anquan Boldin expressed interest in leaving Arizona but will probably end up staying. With Kurt Warner shopping for another team, the door may be ever so slightly ajar for the Giants to swoop and make a trade for him. Boldin may be more disillusioned with the Cardinals if they fail to sign Warner, but it still has to be cosnidered very unlikely. With all the talent the Giants now have, they could take some of their considerable assets and bundle it into a very attractive trading package. They could take some of the talent they have on the DL, some of the additional draft picks they have and either trade for a pro WR or move up in the draft to be in position to take one of the top 5 college WRs.

They could stay where they are in the draft, choose the best player available and find another star somewhere on the team. If one of the stud OT's falls to the Giants, I would not be surprised if they snatch him.


Ari said...

(Nostalgia moment: Canty was the beast that batted down Eli's pass intended for Steve Smith on 2nd down in the NFC championship game right before the completion to Boss"

That is a direct quote from your most recent post. Correct me if I'm wrong but the Giants played GB in the championship game? Dallas was the week before. That is very UN-HERSHEL like.

First time comment poster long time reader.

Ari M. Freundlich

wolfman said...

OMG.... I am so embarrassed and I stand corrected. Of course you are correct.

Thanks for catching this egregious error. The beauty of electronic communication is that by the time you read this comment, the original posting will have been corrected and nobody will be the wiser.