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March 30, 2021

NFC East 2021 free agency grades: New York Giants edition

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The 2020 New York Giants put themselves in position to win the NFC East, after a Week 17 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately for them, on Sunday Night Football, in the NFL's last game of the regular season, they needed a Philadelphia Eagles team with a lot of incentive to lose to beat the Washington Football Team.

In that Philadelphia-Washington game, the Eagles replaced Jalen Hurts with Nate Sudfeld, and yada yada yada, the the Giants' season was over. In the aftermath, all Joe Judge could do was cry (while pretending not to cry) about the Eagles' disrespect for the game.

Under normal circumstances, a team that has been downright bad for a half decade that nearly won the division would be justified in approaching the next offseason with aggressive "win now" moves. As in, "We're close! Let's step on the gas." Except, the Giants only nearly won the NFC East because it was arguably the worst division ever. They went 6-10 with a -77 point differential, with Daniel Jones finishing 30th in quarterback rating.

I mean, the team that won the division had to start four different quarterbacks during the season. Nevertheless, the Giants' offseason so far is one that shows either that (a) they think they're close, or that (b) Dave Gettleman fears for his job, and as long as ownership is letting him spend money to improve the team in the short term, then that's what he is going to do.

Here's what the Giants did.

Players they retained

DE Leonard Williams: The Giants had previously franchise tagged Williams, but on the second day of free agency they got a long term deal done with him. Three years, $63 million ($21 million AAV), including $45 million fully guaranteed. That contract is now the fourth-highest edge rusher deal in the NFL (in terms of AAV), tied with the Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence. 😬

Lawrence is actually a decent comparison for Williams. After three initial disappointing seasons in the NFL, Lawrence broke out in his fourth season, collecting 14.5 sacks, and the Cowboys tagged him. The following season, Lawrence had 10.5 sacks, got tagged again, and eventually worked out a deal worth $21 million/year. Lawrence has since proceeded to turn in a pair of mediocre seasons, at least in the stat sheet.

Similarly, Williams' career got off to a slow start. He got tagged last offseason, and then again this offseason after having a breakout season in 2020, when he collected 11.5 sacks (he only has 29 career sacks over a seven-year career).

If Williams fails to produce elite-level number like Lawrence has in Dallas, this will obviously be a bad contract. If he continues to play well, he'll be in line for another very lucrative deal in two or three years.

But in the short-term, Williams' cap number in 2021 went from over $19 million to $11 million, freeing up money for a free agency splurge.

Players they gained

Signed WR Kenny Golladay: The Giants signed Golladay to a four-year deal worth $72 million, and $40 million guaranteed. That now ties him with the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill and the Browns' Odell Beckham Jr. as the sixth-highest paid wide receiver (based on AAV) in the NFL. Golladay is certainly a good starting receiver, but that is elite receiver type of money.

Golladay's career numbers: 

Kenny Golladay Rec Yards YPC TD 
2017 (11 games)28 477 17.0 
2018 (15 games)70 1,063 15.2 
2019 (16 games)65 1,190 18.3 11 
2020 (5 games)20 338 16.9 
TOTAL 183 3,068 16.8 21 

As you can see, Golladay is a consistent down the field playmaker, based on his career yards per catch average of 16.8. He also led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2019, with 11. He missed 11 games in 2020 with hamstring and hip injuries, but should be fine going forward.

Golladay is a bigger receiver, at 6-foot-4, 214 pounds, and while he doesn't get a ton of separation, he is a contested catch machine. Some of the grabs in the following highlight reel display Golladay's impressive hands and body control.

There's no question that that Golladay will improve the Giants' offense. However, the above video isn't just a Kenny Golladay highlight reel. It's also a Matthew Stafford highlight reel. Most of those throws are not only outstanding, but they also require the willingness to "throw open" a covered receiver. Stafford could do that. Can Daniel Jones? 

The Giants are set at the skill positions. When the Giants are in 11 personnel, it will be Golladay, Darius Slayton, and Sterling Shepard, with Evan Engram at TE and, of course, Saquon Barkley at RB. When they run two tight end sets, Kyle Rudolph will come in off the bench. It's a formidable group. The big question offensively with the Giants, however, as always, is whether their lack of a quality offensive line will ultimately doom them.

Signed CB Adoree' Jackson: Jackson was scheduled to meet with the Eagles after his visit with the Giants, but that got canceled because the Giants paid him... holy crap... what?!?

Good Lord, that is a ridiculous overpay. Prior to the start of the new league year, the Tennessee Titans cut Jackson because they didn't want to pay him $10.2 million for one year on his fifth year option. The Giants will instead pay Jackson significantly more, and for a longer period of time. Had they simply thrown the Titans a seventh round pick before Tennessee cut him, the Giants could have had him on a less expensive deal with a shorter commitment. But also, expensive cornerback deals in free agency are extremely risky:

But it's also the long-term commitment that would scare me as much as the AAV of the contract if I were a Giants fan. After three good years to start his career in Tennessee, Jackson had a weird 2020 season, in which he missed the first 13 games with something of a mysterious knee injury. There were hints that the Titans were expecting him to return sooner.

When he did return for the final three regular season games, plus a playoff game against the Ravens, Jackson did not play as well as he had his first three seasons in the NFL. The Giants were evidently satisfied with Jackson's explanation for his 2020 season, and his medicals, because again, holy crap that is a big contract for a player with some potential red flags.

If there are no worries about Jackson's desire to play football, he is a talented athlete and a legitimate starting-quality cornerback. In his first three seasons, while he only picked off two passes, he got his hands on a lot of footballs, as he had 33 pass breakups in 43 games. Also, though not a big hitter by any stretch, he was thought of as a solid run defender, as he racked up 167 tackles during that same span. As an added bonus, Jackson is a good punt returner who has averaged 8.8 yards per punt return in 53 career attempts.

Like with Golladay above, Jackson makes the Giants a more talented team, but that is a far bigger contract than anyone could have reasonably expected him to get.

TE Kyle Rudolph: Rudolph is now 31 years old, and clearly on the downside of his career. Over the last four years, he has averaged 47 catches for 467 yards (9.9 YPC) and five TDs. In 2020, in 12 games, he had just 28 catches for 334 yards and one TD. Somehow, he got a two-year deal worth $12 million. There were better TE bargains out there.

WR John Ross: Here's a flier I liked. One-year deal worth $2.5 million, including $1 million guaranteed.

Ross was the ninth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, and he has been a bust. For his career, Ross has 51 career receptions for 733 yards and 10 TDs. Of course, Ross went top 10 because he ran the fastest 40 time in NFL Combine history:

If you'll notice, Ross injured himself running that record-breaking 40, and injuries continued to follow him throughout his four-year tenure in Cincinnati. He missed 13 games as a rookie in 2017 (though some of those were as healthy scratches), three games in 2018, eight games in 2019, and 13 games in 2020. All told, Ross only played in 27 of a possible 64 games (42 percent). He also requested to be traded during the 2020 season, but the Bengals didn't appear to have any takers.

So why is this a flier worth taking? To begin, he's cheap. But there was also at least of glimpse of what Ross could be during the 2019 season, when he had 28 catches for 506 yards (18.1 YPC) and three TDs in eight games, putting him on pace for over 1,000 yards. Here's what some of that looked like:

If Ross' speed does little more than keep opposing safeties from creeping up closer to the line of scrimmage, it's a win because guys like Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram will see less traffic in the box.

I'm actually a little surprised Ross only cost $2.5 million. Absolutely worth taking a shot on him. 

OG Zach Fulton: I'd be lying if I said I've watched a lot of Zach Fulton tape, but if we're to believe PFF's grades on him, he's a decent pass protector, but not so effective in the run game. At 29 years old, he has some experience at all three iOL spots, but has mostly played RG. If he's starting, he's a Band-Aid for the departed Kevin Zeitler. I do like him in a versatile reserve role, if that's what he ends up being.

RB Devontae Booker: Two-year deal worth $6 million. Booker has low-mileage for a RB heading into his sixth season. However, I'm not sure why you'd pay a backup running back with a career 4.0 yards per carry average this kind of money on the first day of free agency.

QB Mike Glennon: Mike Glennon isn't good, but I'd sure as hell rather pay him $1,350,000 than pay Joe Flacco $3.5 million guaranteed.

EDGE Ryan Anderson: Disappointing player for the Football Team over the last four years, after they selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. He has 86 tackles and four sacks in 52 career games.

EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo: Odenigbo bounced around the league a bit after being selected in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, before having a good 2019 season as a rotational edge rusher with the Vikings, collecting seven sacks. In a bigger role as a starter in Minnesota in 2020, playing a total of 726 snaps, Odenigbo had just 35 tackles (three for loss), 3.5 sacks, and 15 QB hits.

With the Giants, Odenigbo will likely once again become a rotational rusher, a role that better suits him. He signed on a bargain one year deal worth 2.5 million. Nice cheap signing. 

LB Reggie Ragland: Occasional starter both for the Chiefs and Lions. Dave Gettleman loves himself some run-stopping linebackers that can't cover.

DT Danny Shelton: Wide body (6'2, 345) who in theory clogs up running lanes, but actually doesn't.

Players they lost

DT Dalvin Tomlinson: The loss of Tomlinson will sting, as he was a legitimately good starting DT for the Giants. He got a two-year deal worth $22 million from the Vikings. Tomlinson was a second-round pick of the Giants in 2017. You don't want good, home-grown players to get away, and the cost the Vikings paid to poach him doesn't seem like a ton of money.

OG Kevin Zeitler: Zeitler was a rare good offensive lineman for the Giants over the last two seasons. However, he is 31 years old, he has played in 135 games, and while still effective enough, he is a little over the hill. The Giants cleared almost $10 million in cap space with his release, but they also didn't replace him with equal or better talent. The Giants' OL continues to need a lot of work.

OLB Kyler Fackrell: He had four sacks, 10 QB hits, and a pick six in 12 games. Fackrell signed with the Chargers on a cheap deal.

The tale of the tape

Players staying Players added Players lost 
DE Leonard Williams WR Kenny Golladay DT Dalvin Tomlinson 
  CB Adoree' JacksonOG Kevin Zeitler 
  TE Kyle Rudolph 
 WR John Ross  
  RB Devontae Booker 
  QB Mike Glennon 
 EDGE Ryan Anderson  
  EDGE Ifeadi Odenigbo  
  LB Reggie Ragland 
 DT Danny Shelton  


The Giants attracted good free agency grades from some national folks, mainly for their gains signing players on the open market. Did they get better this offseason? Unquestionably, but they also won't realistically compete for anything beyond a hollow NFC East title in 2021. 

The three players they paid handsomely won't count for much on the 2021 cap (again, when the team won't be serious contenders anyway), but they sure as hell will count for a lot in 2022 and beyond.

Player 2022 cap number 
Leonard Williams $26,500,000 
 Kenny Golladay$21,150,000 
 Adoree' Jackson$14,375,000 

We don't know what the 2022 salary cap will be, but projects it for now at $203,000,000. $62 million combined for Williams, Golladay, and Jackson would represent over 30 percent of the team's cap space. That's the kind of money you spend on players you hope to build around, and there are certainly questions about each of those three players' abilities to be foundational centerpieces.

Those three major deals aside, the Giants were hit and miss. The Rudolph and Booker deals make little sense to me, but I did like the cheap lottery ticket signings of Ross, Anderson, and Odenigbo.

On the one hand, I believe this splurge came at least one year too early, when the team still has major concerns at quarterback and along their offensive line. On the other hand, the Giants are tied for the worst record in the NFL over the last four years, at 18-46 (0.281), with four straight double-digit loss season. Maybe just putting something watchable on the field is worth overpaying for some players? B-.

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