Thursday, March 22, 2012

As the off season continues and the first wave of free agents have landed, we can start anticipating some of the more subtle moves that might be made leading up to the draft. Aaron Ross signed with the Jaguars and Mario Manningham signed with the 49ers. Mario's deal was for two years and terms were not announced, which surely means that it was not a block buster. Giants may have Mario's replacement already on the roster, in Jernigan, Barden or Hixon, but I would expect the Giants to draft a WR this year, though likely not in the first round. Brandon Jacobs has not found a team and I have not heard of any teams contacting him to set up a visit, which probably means that the Giants judged his value accurately by releasing him. If they haven't found an able back up and really want him later in the off season, my guess is he would be available after the draft for a much lower price than what he was negotiating earlier. Jacobs claimed that the Giants and him were only 500K apart in their negotiations. If that's true, Jacobs should have swallowed his pride and taken the offer, because it's probably the best offer he will get.

Simmering on the back burner and not getting much attention is an issue that was very hot and potentially disruptive last off season - the Osi Umenyiora contract situation. Osi claimed he was promised a new contract that would pay him like the best DEs in the league, held out for a day, then conducted his own personal work slowdown by not practicing, then opting for surgery. In the end he buried his anger and though he missed about half the season due to various injuries and recovery from the surgery, played very well down the stretch and in the playoffs, showing that he still has the ability to affect the game. We are one year further down the road and the question remains about what to do with Osi. There is now only one year remaining on Osi's contract and he does not have a lot of leverage. Furthermore, with only one year left there is a little less flexibility about how to extend or rework the contract. Giants have a few alternatives: they can let him play under terms of his current deal and release him at the end of his contract, allowing him to seek his own FA deal. Pass rushing DEs are always a hot commodity, but it's hard to tell how much interest he will draw as  31 years old speed guy with several knee surgeries on his medical history. Giants could renegotiate a deal with him now, or could do so instead after his contract is up this year, waiting to see how a player of his age holds up. Finally, they could trade Osi now and get a draft choice for him rather than risk losing for nothing in return.

Osi is a very talented player, though not as complete and versatile as you might like and as he himslef might think. He did have a good year but is mostly a one dimensional player, speed pass rusher, and does not play the run particularly well. It just so happens that on the Giants, with Tuck and JPP as starters at DE, both with excellent run stopping (and pass rushing) skills, keeping Osi as a 3rd down pass rush specialist, as well as in the DE rotation might be a perfect fir for his skills. We saw how he performed this year with JPP doing most of the heavy lifting against the running game and Osi saving most of his energy for the the thing he does best. In a perfect world, with no salary cap, Giants would keep Osi and use him in this role. However, in this salary cap governed NFL, what do you do with Osi at the end of 2012? Giants have JPP under contract for another 3 years, but Tuck is coming up in 2 and - here's the real stumbling block - Kiwanuka is in his contract year in 2012 also. If Osi showed his talents this year, Kiwanuka showed off his own even more. He developed himself into an above average LB, even on passing downs. He got enough snaps at DL to show he is a very effective run stopper and pass rusher from both the DL and LB positions. Kiwanuka is younger than Osi, and while Osi may be a better pure speed pass rusher, Kiwanuka is an excellent pass rusher also and is a far more complete player than Osi.

Add on top of that the roster and position maneuvering - Giants are very high on their young LBs - Greg Jones, Herzlich and Jacquain Williams. They like Paysinger also and they still have Boley under contract. They are so enamored with the future of these players that they did not sign Blackburn or Goff, one of whom would surely be the presumptive starters at MLB. Given those fact, there will be fewer snaps fro Kiwanuka at LB and since it makes a great deal of sense to get your best athletes on the field, the logical move is to slide Kiwanuka back to DE, redo his deal and trade Osi.

Further arguing for the trade of Osi is his expected salary demands. If hwe wants to be paid like the top DEs in football, he will surely use Mario Williams contract as a measuring stick. If Giants contend that Williams is a LB and not DE, then Osi will use the Trent Cole extension as a baseline and Giants will walk away with nothing. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Giants: NFL on the edge

If you need any more proof that the game has shifted away from one that is focused on the running game featuring RBs, interior OL-men, and MLBs, you need only look at the FA signing waves this off season. Rather than focusing on the inside power, the league is all about passing and speed on offense and speedy pass rushers and CBs on defense. The game has shifted to the edge - outside WRs, edge pass rushers, CBs and speedy outside LBs. Nothing new here, everyone knows this and I have been posting about this here for several years. For example, the desirable WRs all signed big deals and edge rushers and CBs also got rich. Conversely, Peyton Hillis, who is perhaps the prototypical RB of a previous generation, and whom everyone thought was going to be a much sought after RB, signed as a backup RB on the Chiefs. Meanwhile Megatron, DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson and a variety of other top WRs also signed for big money. Giants saw this coming and are ahead of the curve here - it's why all of the LBs they signed last year were speed guys, not Dick Butkus / Sam Huff types.

But - what about the second layer of WRs, Giants Super Bowl hero Manningham - why hasn't he signed a big contract and why hasn't he even attracted a little bit of interest. There could be a few reasons to explain this phenomenon. First, and most obvious is that there are a lot of players available, a lot of talented WRs and Mario is maybe 8th or 10th on the list. Capitalism at work: with a glut of supply,  prices / salaries weaken. Teams may feel that if they sit tight, they can get Mario at a bargain price and while he's very good, he's not great and not in the same league as the elite WRs in the game today.

Nice simple explanation, but I think there's more than that at work here. It is obvious from these signings that WR is the new glamor position in the NFL. A few years ago it was RB, now it is WR. From a financial perspective, it may be even more desirable than the QB, since there are only 32 QBs in the league, while at WR, every team is looking for 3 starter type WRs, meaning that there are 96 such desirable position to be competed for. Therefore - if you were a father who had a son with big athletic talent and you wanted to groove him and train him for a professional football career - your best shot is to give him some Nike catching gloves, a Juggs machine for the backyard to throw passes to him and sing him the famous western ballad: "mama don't let your babies grow up to be running backs" (with apologies to Willie Nelson). WR is the position of the next decade of NFL football. There are more opportunities, fewer injuries, therefore a longer career and more earnings potential. Nice theory if you buy into it and here's what it means. A good percentage of the best athletes really are going to become WRs, which means that every year there are going to be more and more speedy, dangerous, game breaking WRs coming out of college. If you have a stud like Calvin Megatron Johnson on your team - pay him, lock him up and be happy. However, if you have a very-good-but-not-great WR like Manningham available, don't empty the cash drawer or mortgage the farm to pay him. Instead, be confident that there's going to be some speedy, big, talented WR coming out of college every year that can fill in very capably and give the offense juice. On the Giants, I love Nicks and would make a commitment to him. Cruz is in second place and I would pay him some money, but not go crazy with him. Jernigan will get a shot this year and maybe he will turn out to be a good slot player also to replace Cruz if he busts the salary cap. And Manningham - he has good speed and is a good compliment to Nicks / Cruz, but there will be somebody coming out of college that can fill his role for 1/2 or maybe even less of what he probably wants in salary.

Giants resigned Hixon, they have Barden on the team as well as Jernigan. If I read between the lines correctly, the coaches like the progress they have seen from Jernigan in practices during the year. He got into a few games during the playoffs, though he didn't do anything at all. Further, Coughlin several times mentioned him as a player to watch next year, someone who might get a chance. They need some speed at that 3rd WR position, although maybe Bennet at TE provides that other threat that can't be covered with LB.

So I think all teams are looking at wave after wave of good WRs coming out of college and are only signing the premium veteran WRs to FA contracts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Giants: Free Agency Continues

As individual moves by the Giants are made, their broader, more strategic plans begin to unfold. In addition to cutting Jacobs and restructuring Eli Manning's contract to gain some more cap space, the Giants made a few other moves showing their hand. The first move they made was to resign Terrell Thomas to a 4 year contract. A player with a second ACL injury on the same knee (his first one happened in college at USC), especially a CB who relies so much on speed, is probably not going to be the most chased after commodity on the FA market. But since he was on IR this year and therefore still part of the team, Giants supervised or at least were aware of his recovery and could make a reasonable judgment on his ability to return. Furthermore, the injury happened in the 2011 preseason, meaning he had the maximum amount of time to rehab and recover. Giants showed their confidence in Thomas and also showed their indifference towards bringing Aaron Ross back. Thomas contract is a great one for both team and player. It has a low first year salary with only $1M guaranteed and a big roster bonus and salary upgrade in the second  with some easily reached incentives if Thomas returns to form. From Thomas' perspective, he gets to return to a team that knows him where he doesn't have to learn a new defense and the coaches understand his ability. While he did not get huge upfront money, the contract is generous if he returns to the near-pro-bowl level that he was at when he got injured. From the Giants perspective, if he returns to top form, Giants have a superior CB at slightly under market value. Conversely, if his knee does not respond, the Giants can release him after that first year and do not have the hit of carrying a damaged player at a high price.

Giants also resigned some good back up CBs: Coe, Johnson among them. It appears that they will go into the season with Webster, Thomas and Amukamara as the top 3 CBs with solid backups behind them. It is why they don't need to bring back Aaron Ross. The DB-field was an area requiring improvement and depth. Having 3 very good CBs allows Fewell to return Antrel Rolle to his natural S position. BTW - I would like to see a little more depth at S. Chad Jones may return this camp and Tyler Sash made some strides in his rookie year, but I like more speed at that position.

The other clear area of needed improvement is the OL. Eli was among the most pressured QBs in the league and the Giants running game was the worst in the NFL, pointing an incriminating finger at the OL. MacKenzie is gone and I was hopeful that the Giants would cut Diehl and go after Carl Nicks as the LG of the present and future. Nicks signed with Tampa Bay, so that plan is out the window. BTW - Nicks got a huge contract from Tampa, with 12.5M guaranteed in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The average value of the contract for the full 5 years is around $9M, which is something the Giants might have reached, but the upfront guaranteed money was in the Bucs favor and something that made him accepting their offer a no-brainer. Obviously, the Giants were not interested in going in that direction and it appears now that they are going to keep David Diehl around for a few years. Giants reworked Diehl's contract in similar manner to Eli's - they converted the salary for this year to bonus, which spreads the money out over the remaining years of the contract. This lowers his salary cap number for this year, but it also means that they will not cut him this year as his money is guaranteed. It further indicates that he will stay next year, because if they cut him then, there is still some "ghost" salary cap money on the books and no team likes to be charged for a player that isn't there. So, figure Diehl will move out to RT and Boothe/Petrus will fight it out for the starting LG position. There are some veteran OTs that were cut by their team that may be available cheap; I would not be surprised if the Giants get a veteran for one year for OL depth and talent. Of course, drafting some OL talent is also a possibility.

At TE, Giants did not swoop in and make a play for the released Kevin Boss. Instead, they are talking to Martellus Bennet, FA from the Cowboys. This is a good addition if he can be had at a reasonable price. He is athletic, can run and is a good blocker. Having a real down field threat at that position will make the Giants offense much more dynamic. Bennet's numbers were not impressive for the last several years, but he was sitting behind Witten on the depth chart. Even when he got on the field, Witten was the preferred target at TE and his talent may exceed his stats.

Chase Blackburn may be resigned by the Giants, but it is an unlikely event. He played well last year, but he is somewhat limited physically; neither the strongest nor the fastest player. He plays intelligently and with a lot of heart, so he's a good guy to have on the team, but he is not a 3-down LB, even though he did come up with two key INTs for the Giants down the stretch, one of them in the Super Bowl. Coming off his playoff performance it's probable that some team out there will see him as a starter or important substitute at MLB and offer him a big contract. If that does not happen, Giants may bring him back as a good backup and ST player. I am very high on the young LB crew - Jones, Herzlich, Paysinger and especially Jacquian Williams have enormous athletic talent. As soon as they learn the game, they will be valuable contributors. Williams will be a star.

A big question looming over the Giants is Osi's contract and future..... more about that in the next post. Check back later this week.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Giants: Personnel post Super Bowl

Embarrassed that I have not posted since the Super Bowl win on topics other than the game itself and there's so much to talk about now with free agency and draft coming up soon. It's always difficult to evaluate personnel after a championship win. The team you were so invested in all year, the players you analyzed to the nth degree, came through. You cheered for them, hoped they would cover up their weaknesses, improve on their play and  and be in position to take advantage of their strengths. And they did !! After all the gut wrenching losses, the comeback wins, the tense close of the season and the superb playoff run, you want to just give the whole team a group hug and bring them all back for one more run. Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately) business decisions have to be made and you have to be somewhat detached and completely objective, if not entirely cold and calculating about personnel decisions.

The job of figuring out the standing of the Giants with respect to the salary cap is a somewhat difficult and mysterious task. The rumor has it that the Giants were around $8M over the cap a week or so ago. Since then, the Giants restructured the contract of Eli Manning and cut Brandon Jacobs which saved around 11 or 12M off the cap. The really interesting cap news, however came this afternoon when it was announced that the Cowboys and Redskins are being punished by the league for egregiously manipulating the salary cap rules in 2010, and dumping salary artificially into that year which was an uncapped year under the old agreement. Cowboys will have $10M less to work with and the Redskins will have a whopping $36M knocked off their cap.

The question remains - where do the Giants spend their cap space and what free agent moves do they make, if any. Giants made the right move by cutting Jacobs. He has been on the team since 2005 and it is somewhat sad to see him go. Eli Manning is clearly the leader of this team and especially of the offense. It is well documented here and in the mainstream media that Eli is a perfect leader for this Giants team, in this crazy overactive New York media market. He never lets the craziness and the exposure get to him; his calm and composure imbue the team with that same attitude when the situation is most tense. However, there are times when a gung-ho emotional leader to give a fiery speech or to hoist the coach on his shoulders after an emotional win helps the team also. Jacobs was just such an emotional leader and this locker room component that he contributed will be missed. Notwithstanding, this was the right move from a football perspective. Jacobs is no longer the lead dog in the offensive backfield and you can't pay a backup starter's money in the salary capped NFL. Jacobs was not only getting paid starter money, he was getting top starter's money. He was due to make around $5M and he gained only 521 yards rushing last year. It's clear from the performance of the entire running game that the problem was more with the OL and the run blocking of the TE/FB position, so I am not saying that Jacobs career is over. I am just saying that he can easily be replaced with a player at a much more affordable salary. I am not even sure that the players to replace him are not already on the roster - Andre Brown and Da'Rel Scott have showed some athletic ability, though of course they have little game experience. Giants may want to get a RB with some bulk and some experience, but this is achievable at a manageable salary.

At WR, it's sad to see Manningham go, but I am sure that it is the right move and that he is a goner. Manningham had a good postseason run and some meaningful catches, not the least of which was the 38 yard catch that set up the winning TD drive in the Super Bowl. He also made an unbelievable catch, or perhaps better said he was on the receiving end of an unbelievable throw resulting in a TD that iced the Falcons game. But let's not forget that Manningham lost his starting position and was supplanted by Cruz and Nicks as the leading receiver on the Giants. Manningham got enough publicity and has enough talent that he will probably get a big offer from some team in free agency and the Giants will not be able to - and should not - match it. Remember also that Manning developed a wonderful rapport with all his WRs. They seem to know exactly where to be and they read the defenses exactly as Eli does. However, there is still the occasional pass thrown to an open area because the QB and WR are "not on the same page". It seems to me that whenever that happens on the Giants, more often than not it is Manningham who is the one that zigged when he should have zagged. It is Mannignham that runs the go route too close to the sideline and doesn't give Eli enough room to fit the ball in a narrow spot. He is replaceable. But don't sell Mannignham short - he is a talented WR and he does complement Nicks and Cruz very well. When Nicks and Cruz get doubled, which they did in the Super Bowl  game and occasionally in the conference championship game, the other WR who is singled needs to burn the defense. You can't do that with a  run-of-the-mill, reliable possession type receiver. You need speed at that spot. I have heard talk that the Giants may try to resign Steve Smith and I think that is absolutely the wrong move. Jernigan is on the team, perhaps he should get a chance. Barden is on the team and Hixon has been resigned. These WRs may have enough speed to fill in Manningham's spot, but if they are not good enough, Giants should look for speed, not possession.

The biggest need on the Giants offense is to upgrade the OL. MacKenzie is done; he nearly got Eli killed this year. He was awful in the Super Bowl and not good against the 49ers in the NFC championship game either. It was clearly the right move to let him go.  However, Diehl also had a really poor year at LG and was a major reason the running game did not get going. To really upgrade the OL, Giants need to do something at that position as well. The fact that Diehl saved the Giants season by moving back out to LT and playing decent football replacing Beatty is a nice statement about Diehl's versatility but does not say anything about his quality. He was only mediocre there, not great. Various football statistics sites rate the Giants OL as among the worst pass protectors in the NFL and an upgrade is clearly required. Giants could take the safe conservative route by moving Diehl out to RT and filling the hole at LT with Petrus, Boothe or another nondescript choice.

However, I think the Giants should/could try something a little more daring that could set them up for the next several years. I would cut Diehl, thereby saving his approximately $6M cap charge and use the money to sign all-world LG Carl Nicks of the Saints. He might be available for a decent price, even though he expects to be the highest paid G in the NFL. The Saints are in a world of hurt, with fallout from their bounty program, with salary cap troubles and with tons of their own high impact FAs to try to resign. They had to use their franchise tag on Brees, so they will not be able to use it on Nicks. There were rumors that the Cowboys were interested in signing Nicks, but now that they have been whacked on the knuckles to the tune of $10M reduction in their salary cap, they may not be able to do so. I don't know what the market is for an interior OL-man, even a great one like Nicks, but it may not be that great and of the Giants can fit him in under their cap, they should go for it. They would have a young, excellent left side of the OL. They would have pro bowl RG Snee and would have to find a RT to replace MacKenzie on that side of the line for a manageable price. It would make their OL young, athletic and talented, set to be a contender for the next several years. The Eagles also have a talented G Mathis that is a FA, but he said that he wants to return to Philly and I prefer Nicks who is a much better player.

Another important need is at TE, with Ballard and Beckum both injured in the Super Bowl and not expected to be ready for the start of the season. It is interesting that the Raiders cut Kevin Boss and I would not be surprised to see the Giants offer him a cap friendly deal, since interest in him is likely to be moderate at best and (of course) he might be a good fit for this offense. 
More on other personnel issues in a post tomorrow.