Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Giants: read the tea leaves

Giants GM Jerry Reese has made some very interesting off season moves, even though most people would tend to think that they are boring, under-the-radar kind of stuff. Ah.... but that's exactly what Reese and the Giants like to do. They strongly believe that the best way to build a team is with the core of your team, your best players coming through the draft. You use free agency to fill in the holes as needed. That is not to say that the Giants won't sign a high priced FA from time to time. Giants have done it in recent years with Antrel Rolle, Chris Canty and Michael Boley. They did it in past years as well with signing Burress, O'Hara, MacKenzie and a few others. But even though these were more expensive FAs, they are still filling gaps in the roster that were not built from the draft. This strategy of building through the draft is even more beneficial now under the new CBA where there is a rookie salary cap, meaning the drafted players can stay under the team's control at a more moderate salary for those first 4 or 5 years of their career.

The other part of the Reese mantra is never to draft for specific need, especially in the first few rounds. As he likes to say it: "never bring your depth chart into the draft room". With this philosophy, it is easy to see why Reese signed TE Bennet, Thomas at CB, a few other CBs and S's. He let go Ross and Deon Grant at S and needed to fill those holes so he would be completely unencumbered in the draft and could draft the best players regardless of position even in the middle rounds. There are virtually no crying needs on this team, demanding attention in the draft. Giants need to backfill for the losses of Manningham and Jacobs, to be sure, but there is always lots of good talent in the draft at those positions and the Giants can fill those needs without reaching for a player at an inappropriate draft slot.

It's very interesting to see what Reese did in the defensive front 7 to get a clue as to what might happen there. Last year the Giants drafted several young LBs, all of whom made the team, got playing time and are well thought of by the team. Herzlich, Williams, Paysinger and Jones should fight for playing time along with returning vet Boley at the LB position. Giants also re-signed last year's MLB emergency fill-in hero, Chase Blackburn and have Clint Sintim returning from injury. Giants did not lose any LBs who got playing time last year, but did lose DE Dave Tollefson, who was a capable backup and was in the regular DE rotation, even when Osi came back from injury. Yet, instead of signing a DE to replace Tollefson, Giants instead signed Keith Rivers to compete yet more for playing time at what appears to be a very crowded LB group. The obvious question from a personnel perspective is: where is Matthias Kiwanuka, one of the most talented pure athletes on the team, going to get his snaps, his playing time from. What if Herzlich and Williams emerge as true starters or even stars? Kiwanuka's minutes will be diminished and that is a poor use of personnel. The obvious answer is to move Kiwanuka up to the DE rotation and get him away from the crowded, talented LB corps. That would then mean that the Giants are 4-deep at DE and, while they like to have lots of DEs, it might be a waste of resource to have quite so much invested at that position. It might make sense to trade Osi for a high draft pick, or to use him to move up higher in the draft if there is a player that the Giants particularly like. Giants don't like to waste draft picks and move up in the draft, although I seem to recall them doing it with some success back in 2004. Nevertheless, moving up for better draft position by trading a player instead of trading draft picks might be less distasteful to Reese.

I am not saying they should do it; keeping Osi around for another year is somewhat appealing. Further, this might not be the year to try and move up, because the draft is kind of flat: there is not a great deal of difference in the talent past the top 10-15 or so players, through maybe the bottom of the 2nd round. But with the Giants having depth on their roster, finding that one great player instead of filling the roster with volume seems like an intelligent approach.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Giants: off season continues

Chase Blackburn had a great late season and post season run, playing solid middle LB and coming up with several huge turnovers. Recall that he was sitting home without a football job, signed with the Giants on a Tuesday, was in the starting lineup the following Sunday and made a big INT of Rodgers of the Packers in his first game back. He also made a big fumble recovery and return in the conference championship game against those same Packers, a play which really iced the game for the Giants. It turned a 2 score lead into an insurmountable 4th quarter 17 point lead. Of course he also made a big INT of Brady in the Super Bowl taking the ball away from Gronkowski in what could have been a TD for the Patriots if Brady had not underthrown the ball badly After that significant contribution, it says a lot about the Giants evaluation of their own players that they did not rush out to sign Blackburn (or Goff)  to play MLB. It indicates that the Giants are calculating and objective (some night say cold) in judging talent. They are not swept away by the emotions of the moment and instead realize that you can't elevate your assessment of the players in the post title euphoria. Blackburn is a solid player and a good special teams player, but is not a dominant player in the middle of the defense. He has not received any offers from other teams, so it looks like the Giants judgment is consistent with the rest of the league. Goff also looked like a decent player in 2010 but missed the entire 2011 season due to an ACL injury. Giants will surely wait to see who they may get in the draft before they make an offer to resign one ro both of these players, but in addition to draft and FA additions, I think it shows how highly the Giants think of last year's rookie daft LB class. They are very high on Herzlich and Williams. They also like Greg Jones and Paysinger, but they think Herzlich and Williams could be star players at the position. If so, there is no need to make a commitment to Blackburn and Goff. Another indicator that the Giants may not be interested in Blackburn is that he is at the very least a good ST player and Giants have been adding under-the-radar FAs as ST players.

Very often, the draft experts do not forecast the Giants picks correct, largely because they don't focus in on the Giants draft strategy. Draft experts tend to focus on needs that each team has and assume that the team will try to fill those needs in the draft. Giants however have several principles for their draft and one of them is: "never bring your depth chart into the draft room". You don't satisfy your needs with 1st or even 2nd round draft choices, you go for the best player you can find. If there are roughly equivalent players at two different positions and one is a player that fills a need, then you can use the need to influence your pick. But you never reach down to a player that is not first or second round talent to plug a hole in the roster. Sometimes you get lucky and find a top player that also fills a need, like the Giants did a few years ago when Hakeem Nicks was available when the Giants drafted in the first round. If the Giants had compromised this important drafting principle, they would not have ended up with JPP or Kiwanuka, two DEs drafted on a DE-rich team. These players are key contributors to making the Giants defense as good as it is.

When you get to later rounds in the draft, position can become a more important influence, because the lower round players tend to bunch together more in talent and there is less to separate one player from the next. Consequently, you may see the Giants draft on the OL or a RB past the 2nd round, this year which are positions of need. But these later round picks tend to be less impactful on the team, since the studs at OL, especially at LT tend to go in the first round.

More on Giants draft strategy in later posts