In the blink of an eye the Giants are suddenly closer to the start of free agency than to the final game of their forgettable 2017 season. And that means critical decisions face new GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Pat Shurmur leading up to the NFL Draft in late April, where the Giants hold the No. 2 overall pick.
A 3-13 record is proof the Giants have plenty of holes on their roster. So Gettleman’s challenge is to turn them back into a winner quickly with a combination of worthy players still in the building, NFL free agents that hit the market on March 14, and college prospects available on April 26.
Here are the top five needs the GM must address in these next few months, then, to get the franchise back on track.
1. FORTIFY THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Gettleman said it best the day he was hired: “We’ve got to fix the O-line, let’s be honest. Let’s not kid each other.” The offensive line has been an unresolved priority for years, and it’s doubly important with an aging and immobile Eli Manning, 37, back as the starting QB. That means reevaluating the entire unit but most importantly left tackle. Incumbent Ereck Flowers, with his $2.3 million fourth-year salary guaranteed, might stay on the roster but can’t protect Manning’s blind side anymore.
Second-year undrafted free agent Chad Wheeler looked promising at the end of his rookie year, but winning now likely means making a major investment here. Seven-year Patriot Nate Solder, 29, a 6-foot-8 tower, is the top pending unrestricted free agent left tackle, or Gettleman might be able to get a promising tackle in the draft’s early second round, or late first via trade, such as Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and Texas’ Connor Williams. Flowers could shift to right tackle — vacated by Hart’s release — or be a backup swing tackle.
Critically also, left guard Justin Pugh, center Weston Richburg and guard D.J. Fluker are unrestricted free agents, and backup center Brett Jones is a restricted free agent coming off a strong year. Pugh is the Giants’ best lineman but will cost a long-term deal, so will the Giants retain him or instead try and sign Gettleman’s former undrafted Panthers signing Andrew Norwell, a first-team All-Pro 2017 guard? Paying big at guard might mean not paying big at center, and vice versa. So opening the vault for Pugh or Norwell may send Richburg elsewhere while Jones re-signs as an RFA and becomes the full-time starter. Guard John Jerry is under contract two more years but could be cut cheaply.
The Giants should bring Fluker back. He’s a positive locker room presence, a hard worker and a punishing run blocker — a true “hog molly,” as Gettleman calls the big men up front. Notre Dame left guard Quenton Nelson also has skyrocketed up teams’ draft boards. Not saying the Giants will take him in round one; just pointing out he looks like a stud and teams are salivating since Notre Dame’s Zack Martin has dominated for the Cowboys after Dallas drafted him 16th overall in 2004.
2. CORRECT THE DEFENSE
Don’t forget the Giants’ defense needs serious work, too. In particular, the linebacker position needs a leader who is also a monstrous playmaker, the secondary needs help, and it never hurts to add more pass rushers.
At backer, B.J. Goodson, 24, looked like he could be that guy in the middle with 18 tackles in Dallas to open last season, but he never could shake a bad ankle and was limited to only seven games. A major task for the Giants’ front office and medical and training staffs is to determine whether the third-year pro can recover and be durable.
Top free agent linebackers include Philly’s Nigel Bradham, 28, and Detroit’s Tahir Whitehead, 27, of Jersey City. Top draft prospects include Georgia’s Roquan Smith, Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch.
Several Giants free agent LBs could be gone, including captain Jonathan Casillas, Keenan Robinson, Devon Kennard and Mark Herzlich. The athletic Robinson could provide value if he stays healthy. Romeo Okwara, a defensive end who played some linebacker too last season, could be an asset under new DC James Bettcher.
Corner must be a priority, too, though. The Giants suspended all of their top-three corners last season: Janoris Jenkins for no-showing at a practice, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for storming out of the facility, and Apple for a season’s-worth of issues. Jenkins is a great player at the top of his game but needs to correct his attitude. Cutting DRC could save the Giants $6 million, per overthecap.com, and there is a strong possibility Gettleman trades or releases the troubled Apple, since the suspension can void remaining guarantees on his rookie deal.
So the Giants will need talent and depth here. They should re-sign Ross Cockrell, 26, who improved throughout last season and turned in a terrific final two weeks (three interceptions and six passes defended). But I’m also convinced they’ll be drafting or signing a corner, too. While New England’s Malcolm Butler, 27, would be attractive if he came affordably, my eye here will be on the draft: versatile Alabama safety/corner Minkah Fitzpatrick at the top of the first round, and at corner specifically, players such as Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson, or even Central Florida’s Mike Hughes, favored specifically by Mike Mayock in his initial top-five draft rankings at NFL.com.
Pass rushers always must be an emphasis, especially with Jason Pierre-Paul’s and Olivier Vernon’s health issues and JPP’s bad 2017 season an obvious concern. The Giants need more depth.
3. IDENTIFY AND GROOM THE QUARTERBACK OF THE (NEAR) FUTURE
Whether the Giants believe Davis Webb is a stud or they draft a quarterback with their No. 2 overall pick, Gettleman has to come out of this offseason with Manning’s successor in the building and on track to start in Week 1 of 2019 at the latest. I can’t tell you at this moment who the best bet at No. 2 would be between UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma Heisman Trophy-winner Baker Mayfield, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, and Louisville former Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson. But the Giants need to figure it out. Because while Manning is back, he’s likely not back for long.
4. ADD PLAYMAKERS, BEGINNING IN THE BACKFIELD
Orleans Darkwa is an unrestricted free agent coming off a breakout year who could get paid elsewhere. Shane Vereen (UFA) is likely gone. Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins are talented, but the Giants still could use an upgrade and a downhill runner specifically at running back to team with an improved offensive line to help Manning. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley could be the most talented player in the draft but the running back class is strong, including the Georgia duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, LSU’s Derrius Guice and USC’s Ronald Jones II. And the 49ers’ Carlos Hyde, 27, would be intriguing if he makes it to unrestricted free agency.
Also keep an eye on the Giants seeking another versatile pass catcher, maybe at tight end to team with Evan Engram and Rhett Ellison. Giants scouts, in fact, were spotted at the East-West Shrine Game (Jan. 20, St. Petersburg, Fla.) chatting up Mississippi State physical specimen Jordan Thomas (6-6, 280 pounds) and Minnesota State University Moorhead TE Damon Gibson (6-4, 236) as potential late-draft picks/UDFA signings. (Also, while Giants long-snapper Zak DeOssie, 33, is due back next season, the scouts also were talking to Kansas State long-snapper Drew Scott).
5. FIX THE CULTURE WITH CHARACTER
The Giants have plenty of high-character people in their locker room even though it fractured last season: Landon Collins, Goodson, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, Pugh and Fluker are some examples. But when Gettleman is making personnel decisions, be it about current Giants players, NFL free agents or draft picks, character has to play major a role in turning this team back into something they can be proud of. Jerry Reese’s three first round picks from 2014-2016 were Odell Beckham Jr., Ereck Flowers and Eli Apple, all talented players whose immaturity issues have created problems on various scales for the team. Gettleman needs to bring new priorities to that process.
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