NFC East: Eli Manning

Free-agency review: Giants

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17

Most significant signing: Of the five new players the Giants signed early in the free-agency period, it's possible none will be a starter in 2015. But running back Shane Vereen has the opportunity to affect the offense as a third-down back and a short-range pass-catching option out of the backfield for quarterback Eli Manning. With uncertainty lingering about wide receiver Victor Cruz as he works to recover from a serious knee injury, and with Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams slated for the early-down work, Vereen is the Giants' fresh hope for an added dimension to the Ben McAdoo offense that showed flashes of real promise in 2014.

Most significant loss: The Giants rarely get burned by letting free agents walk -- especially free agents in their 30s. So it's hard to make the case they should have matched the contract the Bears gave safety Antrel Rolle. But talking to Giants players in the wake of the news that Rolle was really gone, you got the definite impression that he'll be the loss they feel the most. Rolle isn't the player he used to be, but a year after they let defensive captain Justin Tuck leave without a fight, doing the same with Rolle means the Giants will be looking for new leaders on that side of the ball.

Biggest surprise: The relative inactivity, really. Letting Rolle walk was one thing, but the Giants have watched free-agent safety after free-agent safety fly off the board without signing one. They made a big early play for Devin McCourty, who stayed in New England, and they continue to discuss a return with Stevie Brown. But there was a lot of middle ground between McCourty and Brown on the safety market, and it's surprising the Giants haven't yet added a player at that position. Likewise, it's doubtful Marshall Newhouse is the answer they're looking for on the offensive line, and it's a bit surprising they haven't signed a starter-caliber guard or tackle.

What's next: The Giants got busy during the second week of free agency last year, and they got busier than any team in the league, so there's still hope for some activity. They don't have as many roster holes to fill as they did last year, though, so don't expect that kind of shopping spree. I wouldn't be surprised to see them bring back Brown or a safety or two at that level and then shop the bargain bin for offensive line solutions. Blocking tight end Daniel Fells is still a possibility to return, though he's also talking to other teams.

Look, I don't get it, either. Let's get that out of the way up front. Either New York Giants GM Jerry Reese is very stubborn, or he liked his 2014 team better than anyone else did, or both. We can't do much besides speculate, because Reese does not make himself available to answer questions when he signs free agents. The next time we hear Reese's voice will be April 23, when he gives a news conference that's ostensibly about the upcoming draft and not free agency. By that point, maybe Reese will have signed some free agents who aren't backups and special-teamers, and the mid-March questions about his relative inactivity on the market will be outdated.

But even if that's the case, it's still not going to have answered the question of why Reese has signed the specific players he's signed for the amount of money he's paying them. And the two signings the Giants announced Monday only add to the confusion.

The Giants announced Monday that they have re-signed guard John Jerry and cornerback Chykie Brown, two people who played for the team in 2014 and did nothing that demanded an encore. Each got a two-year deal, and Jerry got $3.3 million with $1 million guaranteed, and I just continue to not understand why the Giants are paying above-market prices for replaceable players.

Jerry started 16 games at right guard for the 2014 Giants, who went into the offseason convinced they had to get better on the offensive line. They will tell you that Jerry held up OK in pass protection, and that may well be true. But if you can't hold up in pass protection in front of quick-slinging Eli Manning and an offense designed to get him to unload the ball even more quickly than his heritage dictates, then you don't belong in the league. Where the Giants really had issues in 2014 was in run blocking, and Jerry's Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade was minus-16.4, which ranked him No. 76 on the list of 78 guards who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. That's No. 76 in a league that features 64 starting guards on a full-schedule week. That is not good. There are literally at least a dozen lower-cost options on the market who played better last year.

Brown graded out as PFF's No. 85 cornerback in 2014 -- No. 86 in terms of coverage. He began last year with the Baltimore Ravens, where new Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive backs coach, but he was cut midseason for poor performance. The Giants signed him prior to Week 10, after they'd lost three cornerbacks to season-ending injured reserve, and he played quite poorly for them. His three worst single-game PFF grades of the year were all with the Giants -- Week 13 in Jacksonville, Week 6 in St. Louis and Week 17 against the Eagles. Brown signed for two years and $2 million.

Now, you'll say these guys were signed to be backups, but I don't think it's that simple. As of now (and yes, they still have time), they haven't upgraded Jerry's spot on the offensive line. Geoff Schwartz's anticipated return from injury will fill one guard spot, but Weston Richburg is vacating the other one to move inside to center. At this point, either Jerry or newly signed backup Marshall Newhouse looks like a good bet to start. And Brown is one of a couple of candidates (along with Mike Harris and Trumaine McBride) to play that nickel corner spot, which is pretty close to a starting job.

And the larger problem continues to be that you're not supposed to be spending money on backups in free agency. The Giants are in this sub-.500 lull because they haven't found enough NFL-quality players in the draft to fill the backup and special-teams roles on their roster. So they're having to pay premium prices for backups on the market, and that's not a recipe for quality roster building.

Some of you out there continue to trust Reese in spite of his fundamentally weak record as a drafter and roster builder. Super Bowl titles buy a GM that clout, and Reese continues to get the benefit of the doubt for that reason. But as much as this is a Giants team that's won two Super Bowls in the past eight years, it's also one that has missed the playoffs in five of those years. And when you look at them through that prism, these offseason moves get a lot tougher to believe in.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has one year left on his contract and makes a ton of money. His $17 million salary is the second highest in the league in 2015, and his $19.75 million salary-cap number is the sixth highest. The Giants are paying a premium for their durable, reliable, two-time-Super-Bowl-champion quarterback, and we have discussed at some length in this space the pros and cons of extending Manning's contract this offseason to provide some short-term financial relief.

A major development on this front struck late last week, when the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to a five-year, $99 million contract extension with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Manning, Roethlisberger and San Diego's Philip Rivers all were drafted in 2004, and each entered this offseason with one year left on his contract. Roethlisberger is the first of the three to sign an extension, and as such he provides some guideposts for Manning, Rivers, the Giants and the Chargers when it comes time to do those extensions.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsWaiting a year to give Eli Manning a contract extension comes with very little risk for the Giants.

Now, this isn't about which of these players is better than the other, because the point is that Manning and Roethlisberger are quite similar. Each has won two Super Bowls, though Roethlisberger has played in three. Manning was MVP of both of his. Wide receivers won the MVP awards in Roethlisberger's title-game wins. Roethlisberger has a better career completion percentage (63.7 to 59.0), passer rating (93.9 to 82.4) and average yards per pass (7.88 to 7.09). Manning has 698 more passing yards and eight more touchdowns than Roethlisberger has, but of course he has also thrown 54 more interceptions. Manning has never missed a game. Roethlisberger has missed 15 due to injury or suspension. Manning is 14 months older.

Regardless of fan loyalty or personal preference, it's clear that Roethlisberger and Manning belong in the same contractual bucket. So the question the Giants have to ask, as they consider whether to extend Manning now or wait another year before doing so, is whether they're ready to give him this Roethlisberger deal or something that approximates it.

Manning isn't about to cut the Giants a deal. He has no reason to do so. Roethlisberger just got $20 million a year without hitting the open market. If Manning were to make it to free agency next year, given the current state of the quarterback position league-wide, he'd get a deal that would make Ndamukong Suh feel like a pauper. That's his hammer, he knows it and he'd be a fool not to use it. So if the Giants are going to extend Manning, it's going to be for something in the $20 million-per-year range and likely for at least four years. Roethlisberger's guaranteed money is being reported at a little more than $60 million, and Manning and his agents are well aware of this, too.

The only thing the Giants have to gain by doing Manning's deal now -- as opposed to a year from now -- is cap space. But they have something like $8 million left in cap space for 2015, and the sluggish way they've approached free agency so far indicates they're in no rush to exhaust it. Short-term cap relief is not a sound reason upon which to base a major, long-term franchise decision, so if the Giants can get through this offseason without needing the $11 million or so that a Manning extension could provide, then they'd be wise to do so, and I think that's the realization to which they have come.

Waiting a year to do the Manning extension comes with very little risk on the team's end. His best-case scenario is a monster year and a third Super Bowl title, which would put him in line to land a record-breaking quarterback deal. But they'd have to give him something awfully close to that to lock him up now, and they could always franchise him next year for premium money anyway if they wanted to keep him off the market, so what's the harm in waiting? Another year gives them a chance to answer some lingering questions. What if Manning is in decline? What if this new offense of theirs doesn't really require a $20 million-a-year quarterback? What if they bottom out, get a super-high draft pick and have an opportunity to completely reshape the franchise around a new quarterback, as they did with Manning in 2004?

Roethlisberger's deal with the Steelers did nothing to help the Giants' bargaining position with Manning. If he comes to them this offseason with terms they find agreeable, then yes, it's entirely possible they could get something done now. If some surprise free agent or trade target becomes available in the coming weeks or months that requires a big cap spend, it's possible they could get something done then. But it's also possible -- and in many ways, sensible -- to wait another year. As long as the price is as high as the Roethlisberger deal says it is, the Giants have no reason to rush into a new Manning deal, and I don't think they will.

Normally, these #nygmail questions wait until Saturday mornings and our weekly New York Giants Twitter mailbag. But this is one I've been getting a lot, and it's worth its own post:

This isn't a terrible question. In my reporting on free agency during the past week, I have heard this expressed as a concern of three players, each of whom signed elsewhere. The sense that Tom Coughlin might only be the Giants' head coach for one more year is a factor in players' decision-making with regard to the Giants, and you really can't blame them. If you're going to sign for three, four or five years, it's completely fair to ask whether you can count on the current head coach being there for more than one of them.

Let me be completely clear on this: I do not believe, based on what I have heard, that Coughlin's job status is the reason the Giants haven't been able to sign a bunch of big-name free agents so far. I do believe it's one of many factors in players' decision-making process. This is a list-the-pros-and-cons process for these guys, and one of the cons on the Giants' side right now is uncertainty about the long-term future of the coaching staff.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesThere's a sense among free agents that they can't count on Tom Coughlin and his staff being around the Giants beyond 2015.
Personally, I don't think it's fair if players are holding that against the Giants. There are very few, if any, teams that can promise a prospective free agent anything about the long-term future of their coaches. And if anything, the Giants should be thought of as one of them. The only coaches in the league who have held their current jobs longer than Coughlin are New England's Bill Belichick and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis. If a prospective signee asks the Giants about stability, their track record gives them the right to laugh as though he's messing with them.

However, there is a sense around the Giants and across the league that another sub-.500 season could mean big changes and even the end of Coughlin's time with the team. And the reason for that is not -- as it might be in other places -- fickle ownership or uncertainty about the quality of the coach. The reason there's uncertainty about Coughlin's long-term status is the performance of the team during the past several years. And that, if anything, is the reason the Giants might not gleam quite as brightly as a desirable free-agent landing spot as they once did.

This is a Giants team that has not finished better than .500 since 2012 and has missed the playoffs in five of the past six years. That's a pretty long track record of disappointment, and the fact a Lombardi Trophy showed up in the middle of it can only go so far in erasing the questions about the overall quality and direction of the team. Yes, the Giants have won two Super Bowls in the past eight seasons. But they've also missed the playoffs in five of them. At some point, that second thing starts to loom at least as large in the minds of prospective employees as the first thing does. Coughlin and Eli Manning are the kind of coach and quarterback who can win you a Super Bowl, yes. They have proved that. But their record also tells you they very rarely qualify for the postseason.

So, in answer to the question of whether Coughlin's job status is having an adverse effect on the Giants' pursuit of players, I'd say yes, but only as part of the bigger picture. If the Giants still were the consistent winner of an organization they hold themselves out to be, then Coughlin's job status wouldn't even be a topic for discussion. But based on the way things have gone the past three years, they're just not.
The New York Giants are in agreement on a contract with free-agent running back Shane Vereen, formerly of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. I don't have contract details yet, but my guess is the Giants had to overpay to lure Vereen away from the champs and that his deal will make him the highest-paid running back on the roster. Rashad Jennings, signed last year at this time, makes $2.5 million per year.

Jennings isn't going anywhere, and neither is second-year back Andre Williams. But the Giants went into this offseason looking for a change-of-pace back to fill the role they had carved out last year for David Wilson before his forced early retirement, and Vereen fits the bill. He has caught a total of 99 passes over the past two regular seasons and caught 11 for 64 yards last month in the Patriots' Super Bowl victory over Seattle.

Vereen is known as a sharp route-runner and sure-handed receiver, but also as a strong pass-protector, so he'll slide in nicely as a third-down back with Jennings and/or Williams handling the early-down work. Jennings is also a good receiver who can and will play on some third downs, but Vereen also can line up as a slot receiver or in several different places along the formation.

Basically, Vereen gives quarterback Eli Manning and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo another weapon. All season, Manning and McAdoo talked about "hunting for completions" as a part of the foundation of the Giants' offense. They want to get the ball out quickly, make sure it's complete and get it into the hands of their playmakers to allow them to make plays. Vereen, Jennings, Williams, tight end Larry Donnell and receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle form a diverse and potentially dynamic collection of players at Manning and McAdoo's disposal on any given play.

There are potential drawbacks here, of course. Vereen has played a full 16-game season only once, and it was this past year. And part of me finds it tough to trust a player who only had big games when Bill Belichick liked the matchup. Vereen has played in 42 career games and has recorded more than 40 total yards in only 23 of them -- more than 100 in only five. But Belichick's game plans are so matchup-based that you can't fault Vereen for the week-to-week inconsistency in his numbers. The Giants are paying for the guy who helped make a difference when he was featured in Belichick's game plans, and hoping they can extrapolate that over a full season. Vereen just turned 26 last week, so he has some prime years still to come.
Offically, the new NFL league year begins at 4 pm ET. Officially, that's when teams can start signing other teams' free agents. Of course, if you've been following since Saturday, you know that much of this work has already been done and what will happen at 4 p.m. ET is basically a lot of announcing of deals that have been agreed to for days.

The New York Giants have had a rough pre-free agency period. They targeted New England safety Devin McCourty and Philadelphia pass-rusher Brandon Graham only to see each re-sign with his current team for similar or smaller deals than the Giants were offering. But the Giants are still plugging away and are likely to add some players either today or in the coming days in free agency.

Here's where things stand as of Tuesday morning with the Giants:
  • They continue to have conversations with the representatives for Arizona defensive tackle Dan Williams and Kansas City safety Ron Parker, though they are getting competition from other teams for both players. I'm not sure where they are on defensive end after losing out on Graham, but I did hear some talk Monday night that they could make a run at Lions restricted free agent George Johnson. Detroit gave Johnson an original-round tender, so he wouldn't cost much to sign, but the Lions would have the right to match the offer.
  • I would expect them to add at least one offensive lineman, and I wouldn't be shocked if it turned out to be St. Louis right tackle Joe Barksdale. A tackle signing would indicate a decision to move Justin Pugh from right tackle to one of the guard spots. A guard signing would indicate a decision to keep Pugh at the position he's played his first two years in the league.
  • They are talking to the representatives for several running backs as they look to diversify their options in the run game and add a big-play threat to a stable that includes Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams. Various reports have linked the Giants to Roy Helu, Antone Smith, and even Shane Vereen. I was a bit surprised to see Vereen's name surface Monday night, because my sense was that the Giants were looking for a back to fill a niche role and that some team would be interested in Vereen for a larger role. But in keeping with recent trends, the running back market does not appear to be flush with big offers, and if the Giants do like Vereen, it's possible they could get him for a decent price. A pass-catching back with big-play potential, Vereen would expand the number of creative options at offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's disposal.
  • The Giants have remained in contact with a few of their own free agents, and it's possible that any or all from a group that includes safety Stevie Brown, linebacker Mark Herzlich, fullback Henry Hynoski, and tight end Daniel Fells could sign before 4 pm ET. I think it's safe to expect Antrel Rolle, Walter Thurmond, Mike Patterson, Jerrel Jernigan, Jacquian Williams, and James Brewer to hit the market and find work elsewhere.
  • The Giants got Jon Beason to agree to a pay cut Monday, which clears about $3 million in cap room and takes them to just under $16 million (accounting for the $14.813 million franchise tag for Jason Pierre-Paul). I don't think the Beason pay cut was to clear cap room for any particular signing or signings, but rather to get Beason's contract in line with his performance after a year in which he missed all of training camp and 12 games because of foot injuries.
  • With Beason back in the fold, the Giants could end up cutting linebacker Jameel McClain if they find themselves in need of more cap room. Cutting McClain would save another $3.1 million, or they could try to talk him into a pay cut and save a little less while also keeping a player they like. Or they could leave his deal alone. It just offers them an option if they need cap room down the road.
  • Cornerback Prince Amukamara's $6.898 million salary for 2015 becomes fully guaranteed as of 4 pm ET. Amukamara is a 2011 first-round draft pick who had his 2015 contract option picked up. The Giants have not approached him about an extension. GM Jerry Reese said at the combine last month that the Giants would need to see Amukamara, who ended the season on injured reserve with a torn biceps tendon, healthy before discussing an extension, and that he considered Amukamara's salary a good price for a starting cornerback. The current free-agent market seems to bear that out.
  • I have heard no talk on an extension for Eli Manning, which is another device available to the Giants that could clear up to $11 million in cap room. At this point, the Giants don't need that cap room and have no reason to extend Manning now unless he's offering them a discount, which he likely won't. The Giants are considering letting Manning play out the final year of his deal, knowing they could franchise or sign him and keep him off the market next winter if it came to that.

More to come throughout the day.

By this time next week, or very shortly thereafter, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will sign a new free-agent contract that's likely to be larger than any non-quarterback deal in NFL history. The identity of the team whose logo will be on this contract's letterhead is unknown, and the speculation will only intensify over the weekend and into Tuesday, when free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET.

Some reports have begun to link the New York Giants to Suh, based on the belief that he'd like to play in New York and the fact that the Giants' defense needs ... well, a lot of help. It's a fun connection for Giants fans to make. Yes, obviously the Giants would benefit from having Suh on their defensive line. Any team would. He's a generational talent who'd upgrade anyone's line, and that's why he's going to make so much money.

But I don't think it's realistic for the Giants or their fans to honestly think they can sign Suh, and that's because of their financial situation relative to the rest of the league. Put simply, there are too many other teams with far more cap room, a mandate to spend money, and a need for the kind of instant and dramatic upgrade Suh would offer. Especially with franchise player Jason Pierre-Paul now on the books for $14.813 million for 2015, I don't believe the Giants have the salary cap wherewithal to bring Suh into the fold.

Based on the conversations I've had on this topic with various people around the team and the league, I believe the Giants will be among the teams to call Suh's agent this weekend and express an interest in signing Suh. As of Saturday, teams can contact the agents for pending free agents and talk contract parameters, and the Giants would be foolish not to at least find out what the asking price will be. Players like this don't become free agents very often, and before conducting their other business the Giants will do their due diligence and find out how much budget stretching it would take to sign him.

But based on those same conversations, I don't think the Giants will get very far, and I believe they know it. Once Pierre-Paul signs his franchise tender, the Giants will have $13,795,930 in cap room. Take off what they'll need to sign their draft picks and that drops it down to about $10 million. You could conceivably fit the first year of a long-term Suh deal under that number if you structured it correctly, but then you couldn't do much of anything else. And while the Giants could add more cap room by restructuring or eliminating the contracts of guys like Jon Beason, Jameel McClain and Trumaine McBride, that would open up more holes on defense that would need to be filled.

The two other ways of creating large cap room are difficult. The Giants could extend the contract of quarterback Eli Manning and save as much as $11 million this year, but to this point talks on that front have been fruitless and the Giants appear inclined to let Manning play out the final year of his deal. The other option is to withdraw the franchise tender to Pierre-Paul and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, then spend his money on a pursuit of Suh. But doing that leaves the Giants without a real pass-rushing threat at defensive end, and they'd have to spend big to patch that hole, too.

So in conclusion, while I expect the Giants to poke around on Suh -- and I expect said poking to generate more headlines, clicks and discussion -- I don't think it's realistic to think they actually can get him. Teams like Jacksonville, Oakland and the Jets have cap room in the $40-60 million range and will be able to offer far more than the Giants can offer even if they did do all of the dangerous salary-cap dancing they'd have to do to get into the game. If you're a Giants fan and you want to dream and wish and hope, well, that's your right as a fan. But I don't think this is something, in the end, that the Giants can actually do.
The deadline for NFL teams to designate franchise players is 4 p.m. ET Monday. Barring a major last-second break in long-term contract negotiations, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is likely to be among the half-dozen or so players to receive that designation. We won't know the final franchise numbers until the 2015 salary cap is official, but based on all projections you can expect Pierre-Paul's one-year salary -- if he plays on the franchise tag -- to be about $15 million for 2015.

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJason Pierre-Paul, who was drafted by the Giants in 2010, faces his first free-agent payday as the franchise deadline draws near.
Getting franchised today doesn't preclude Pierre-Paul from getting the long-term deal he seeks from the Giants. The two sides would still have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract. If they don't get something done by then, Pierre-Paul would play out the 2015 season on the franchise salary and then be eligible for free agency again this time next year, shortly after his 27th birthday. His 2016 franchise number, should the team decide to franchise him again, would be 120 percent of his 2015 salary, or about $18 million. That rule is designed to make it more difficult for teams to franchise players multiple times.

From what I have been told, Pierre-Paul is looking for a contract close to the top of the pass-rusher market. The deal Robert Quinn signed with the Rams last year averages about $14.2 million per year and came with about $15.6 million in guarantees. That's probably a good guideline as to where Pierre-Paul sees himself, and at this point the Giants aren't ready to commit to Pierre-Paul at that level. There are still legitimate health concerns, as Pierre-Paul's 2012 and 2013 seasons were severely affected by injuries. And while Pierre-Paul played all 16 games in 2014 and finished eighth in the league with 12.5 sacks, the Giants privately and publicly expressed concerns about the consistency of his production in the pass rush. Nine of his sacks came in the season's final five games.

So, assuming they can't get him to sign a long-term deal at their preferred price, letting him play one year on the franchise number isn't a bad way to go. It gives him a chance to put another year between himself and his health issues, and to demonstrate the week-to-week consistency they're asking from him. And at his very young age, a long-term contract signed this time next year would still include several prime seasons.

Also, they can afford to do this. The Giants have about $25 million in cap room right now, and this move would obviously eat up a large chunk of it. But they have the ability to increase their cap room with adjustments to the contracts of players such as Eli Manning, J.D. Walton, Jon Beason and Jameel McClain. They could save $3 million by releasing Walton, $2.858 million by releasing Beason and $3.1 million by releasing McClain, and they could save up to about $11 million if they extended Manning's contract beyond 2015.

It sounds crazy to say this about a team that's 13-19 over the past two seasons and has missed the playoffs three years in a row, but the Giants don't have a lot of big spending to do this offseason. The positions at which they need free-agent help aren't very costly ones. They need a right tackle or guard, a safety or two, a couple of rotation players at defensive end and defensive tackle, maybe one or two 4-3 outside linebackers and a change-of-pace running back. Tagging Pierre-Paul will use a lot of cap room, but he's by far the biggest-ticket item on their shopping list. They can absorb it.

The stickier question is how Pierre-Paul will take it. Sometimes, a player who has been looking ahead to his first big free-agent payday gets annoyed or upset about being franchised instead of signing the long-term deal of which he's been dreaming. Often, that player is annoyed enough to skip offseason workouts. Even the mandatory minicamp would not be mandatory for Pierre-Paul if he waited until after it ended to sign his franchise tender. So the biggest risk the Giants are running if they franchise Pierre-Paul is upsetting him.

But there's little-to-no risk of Pierre-Paul holding out into the regular season. Like almost everyone else who's ever been franchised, he'll eventually make his peace with the fact that this is the collectively bargained situation under which he and his fellow NFL players must operate. While the system is obviously slanted heavily in favor of the teams and not the players, a $15 million salary is a pretty sweet consolation prize. And there are worse things than being a 27-year-old free agent with two (or possibly three) double-digit sack seasons on your resume.

So there you have it. A full rundown of the situation most likely to unfold before 4 p.m. ET. Fundamentally, the Giants want Pierre-Paul on their team in 2015, and this appears to be the best way to make sure that happens. It doesn't ruin the chances of his spending his whole career with the Giants. It just delays the decision on that for at least a few more months and maybe one more year.
The New York Giants right now project to have about $14 million in salary cap space for 2015. That assumes a $140 million cap (which I think is a conservative projection) and accounts for the $1.3 million reduction once David Wilson's retirement becomes official. It does not take into account the additional $4.825 million they can save by cutting Mathias Kiwanuka (which I expect they will) or the additional $3.53 million they can save by cutting Jon Beason (which is possible).

So at this point assume something close to $19 million in cap room and expect them to push it over $20 million with roster cuts, pay cuts or other contract adjustments. That would give the Giants enough cap room to operate their offseason even if they don't extend the contract of quarterback Eli Manning.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsThe Giants could extend Eli Maning's contract to gain cap space in the short term and keep the QB around for the long term.
But extending Manning would help make things even looser for the Giants under the cap this offseason. He has one year left on his deal at a salary of $17 million and a cap number of $19.75 million. By not extending him now, they run the risk of having to pay him more (or franchise him) in 2016 and beyond, or of losing him in free agency and having to start over with a new, likely far less reliable quarterback option.

If the Giants do extend Manning this offseason, what would that deal look like? He has averaged $16.25 million a year on the six-year, $97.5 million deal he signed just prior to the 2009 season. Given his production in recent years, it's easy to say they should just extend him for the same money. But given the way quarterback contracts have gone since then, with guys such as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco averaging more than $20 million a year on new deals and Jay Cutler, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford coming in around $18 million a year, it's legitimate for Manning to ask for more.

For the sake of argument (JUST AS AN EXAMPLE), let's give him Romo's deal -- six years, $108 million with a $25 million signing bonus. Takes him to age 40 if he plays it out, but we all know those last couple of years aren't guaranteed. If they structured it the way Dallas structured Romo's deal, they'd knock another $11 million off this year's cap by rolling this year's salary into the new deal and giving Manning a low base salary in 2015 in exchange for the signing bonus. They'd be on the hook for big guaranteed salaries in 2016 and 2017 but nothing after that, and the length of the deal would allow them to restructure that big guarantee in Year Two if they wanted to do it.

I don't know what the Giants' plans are for this. I know they're considering all options, and I know they'd like to keep Manning around for the rest of his career. I know the options on the market aren't any better than Manning, and I believe an extension for Manning is the right way for the Giants to go -- whether now or a year from now. As for the timing: Yes, they can operate their offseason with a fair amount of flexibility if they don't extend Manning this year. But they could have a much more effective and helpful offseason if they do.
The biggest decision the New York Giants will make about their salary-cap situation this offseason is whether to extend the contract of quarterback Eli Manning beyond 2015. Manning carries a 2015 salary cap number of $19.75 million, and the Giants could get significant relief with an extension. They have not yet decided whether to do this, though if they do, they're likely to find Manning more receptive after his strong 2014 season than they did after his weak 2013.

But while that issue looms over the offseason, there are some significant salary-cap questions for the Giants to answer on defense as well. Here are five:

1. What to do with Jason Pierre-Paul?

A strong finish got Pierre-Paul to 12.5 sacks on the season and seems to have set him up for a free-agent contract push. His demands on a long-term deal, expected to be more than $12 million per year, could be more than the Giants are willing to pay for a player who was as limited by injury as Pierre-Paul was in 2012 and 2013. But he just turned 26 last week, and it's hard to find too many better 4-3 defensive end options on the market. The Giants do not have a ready replacement if Pierre-Paul leaves and will have to address the pass rush either way. One possibility is to use the franchise player designation on Pierre-Paul, effectively signing him to a one-year contract worth something close to $15 million. That would hurt them against this year's cap, but assuming they found relief elsewhere it would give them a year to assess Pierre-Paul's worthiness of their long-term commitment as well as the development of players such as Damontre Moore and Kerry Wynn as potential replacements.

2. Is Mathias Kiwanuka done with the Giants?

I believe the answer to this is yes. He's clearly not coming back on his current contract, which includes a $4.775 million salary and a $7.45 million cap number for 2015. He's almost certain to be cut, and the only way I can see him back is on a veteran minimum deal, which I don't even know for sure they'd want to offer him. The Giants can save $4.825 million against their 2015 cap by cutting Kiwanuka.

3. What to do with Prince Amukamara?

As a 2011 first-round draft pick Amukamara was subject to the fifth-year option rule established by the new collective bargaining agreement, and the Giants did in fact exercise his 2015 option (expected to be about $7 million) last offseason. But that money is not guaranteed, and the Giants still could cut Amukamara by Sept. 1 if they wanted to. They don't, but his season-ending injury cut short a promising year and likely gives them leverage to negotiate a lower 2015 number on a two-year or three-year deal if they prefer. They do like him and want him back.

4. Can they still carry Jon Beason's contract?

Middle linebacker Beason was a centerpiece of last offseason's plan, but he barely played after suffering a springtime toe injury, and he carries a $7.167 million cap number for 2015 and $6.992 million for 2016. This is a contract that will need to be overhauled if they're to fit it, Pierre-Paul and free agent Antrel Rolle into the 2015 and 2016 budgets. Beason says he wants to be back, but the Giants have to reassess his value given his injury history.

5. What about safety?

Cooper Taylor and Nat Berhe are the only safeties signed to 2015 contracts for the Giants as of right now. Rolle is a free agent they'd like to have back, but he's 32 and they're not likely to overpay to keep him. This is a position on which the Giants have shown they're willing to spend major resources (i.e., first-round picks and big free-agent dollars), so expect them to carve out some room in the budget to plug their holes at this position, regardless of what happens with Rolle.

New York Giants season report card

December, 31, 2014
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The 2014 New York Giants had two three-game win streaks. Their quarterback cut his interception total nearly in half from last year. And they might well have the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.

But what the Giants didn't have was enough success -- not nearly enough. After going 7-9 last year and overhauling the offense, the Giants went 6-10 in 2014 and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years.

Yes, they had a ton of injuries -- 22 players on injured reserve, more than any other team in the league. And yes, they did have their moments on offense. But they couldn't hang with the good teams in the league and really were never a factor in the playoff race after the midway point of the season.

At the end of it, another disappointing year for a team that always says it wants to win the Super Bowl but, most years, can't even get itself into the postseason.

Team MVP: Odell Beckham Jr. To win a team MVP award after missing all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury takes some doing. But the Giants' rookie wide receiver was unquestionably their best player once he was on the field, and the numbers he put up in his three-quarters of a season ranked among those of the best players in the NFL. He finished the season with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in only 12 games. The Giants are excited as they look ahead to the possibility of a full 2015 season with Beckham and Victor Cruz both healthy at wide receiver.

Best moment: Beckham's twisting, one-handed touchdown catch in the Week 12 loss to the Cowboys might have been the No. 1 individual highlight of the entire NFL season. The catch made Beckham an instant sensation, landed him a dinner in New York City with LeBron James and shined a light on the best thing the Giants had going for them in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and overall dismal season. Those who had been watching Beckham in practice every day, in pregame warmups and in non-prime-time games were of course dazzled to see his best work live and in a difficult game situation, but the excitement over Beckham that has followed is fully justified based on the way he played before and after "The Catch."

Worst moment: When Cruz went up to try to catch a short pass in the end zone in Week 6 in Philadelphia and tore his patellar tendon before he hit the ground, it was as sickening and disappointing a moment as any the Giants had all year. Seeing Cruz, in tears, taken off the field on a cart with a team trainer holding his knee in place was tough to watch, and obviously the impact on the Giants' offense the rest of the way was significant. If they ever had a chance to make anything of this season, losing Cruz just as they were getting Beckham into the lineup took it right away from them.

2015 outlook: Hard to say for sure until we see what happens in free agency. But assuming they add a piece or two on the offensive line and address the pass rush, either by re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul or finding a high-end solution on the market, there is reason to hope next year will be better than the past two were. They obviously demonstrated progress and growth in Ben McAdoo's offense as the year went along. Quarterback Eli Manning had a fine season and -- apart from one five-interception mess against the 49ers -- did a better job of protecting the ball and making smart decisions than he has in years past. The array of weapons around Manning heading into 2015 gives reason for optimism.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The moments following the end of their 6-10 season were not, the New York Giants decided, the time to talk in depth about the future. Asked whether he thought the team was headed in the right direction and whether he wanted to be back, coach Tom Coughlin said he wouldn't address the latter but, "I think it's headed in the right direction, yeah."

But is it? And more importantly, is that the right point of view for the Giants to take as they begin their offseason evaluations?

Coughlin's micro focus is one of his coaching strengths. His ability to lock in on one week's preparation at a time and block out external noise ensures that his teams are generally well-prepared for their games. And if your focus is on each individual game, you could certainly talk yourself into thinking that the Giants are moving in the right direction. The offense looked much better in December against weak opponents. Eli Manning had a fine statistical season. Odell Beckham Jr. would get anyone excited about the future.

"You look at the games we lost, and we really feel like we beat ourselves," running back Rashad Jennings said. "And when that's the case, you know you can fix it."

[+] EnlargeGiants Selfie
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesIf the Giants take a hard look at themselves this offseason, they'll see they still have a long way to go to get back to a championship level.
The problem is, that game-to-game micro focus can distract from the big picture. And for the Giants right now, the big picture is one of disappointment and mediocrity. Their regular-season records the past six years are 8-8, 10-6, 9-7, 9-7, 7-9 and 6-10. Even if you add in the 4-0 postseason record that followed the 2011 season, Coughlin is still just 53-47 over the past six years -- not a record that screams "headed in the right direction."

The case for keeping Coughlin isn't necessarily that much stronger than the case for moving on. Before settling their heads once more on the pillow of status quo, the people who run the Giants need to make an honest evaluation about where their franchise stands and how much work they have to do to return it to a championship level.

For example: Coughlin seemed to be delivering a message, postgame, in support of embattled defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, whose unit ranked near the bottom of the NFL. Unsolicited, Coughlin said, "Defensively, I think we had a good plan and that the plan was well-taught." And while he has the right to defend (and choose) his own staff, the takeaway was clearly that there's a disconnect between Coughlin's evaluation of Fewell and the public perception that Fewell is a goner. If the front office and ownership believe Fewell must be replaced, there could be a fight over that between them and Coughlin in the coming days.

Which, again, is fine. These decisions shouldn't come without careful, even painful consideration. Fewell's a good guy and a good coach, but the performance of the defense this year and in recent years is the kind that gets coordinators fired. An honest self-evaluation should lead the Giants to do on defense what they did last offseason on offense: Overhaul the whole thing. Refresh it. Bring in a new coordinator, a new scheme and rebuild it with new people in key positions. It may be too extreme to say the defense is "broken," as John Mara said the offense was a year ago, but at best it's stale. The Giants trade on the idea of stability in leadership roles, and in general that's a good and too-unusual way to operate. But it can't be a crutch that keeps you from making tough decisions when they need to be made.

The Giants should be looking at absolutely everything and everyone with a critical eye. It makes no sense that the job status of GM Jerry Reese, with his draft record, isn't even questioned. It shouldn't be automatic that Coughlin, who has won playoff games in only two of his 11 Giants seasons, returns just because the Giants don't want to be a team that fires coaches. And if performance dictates otherwise, it shouldn't be a slam-dunk that Fewell or special-teams coordinator Tom Quinn comes back just because Coughlin likes coaching with them.

Huge decisions loom about player personnel, of course, at the end of all of this. They can't get lulled to sleep by the fact that the offensive line was a bit better in December than it was in September. All offensive lines are. The Giants' line still needs better players. They need to overhaul the pass rush -- the Giants' sack total was inflated by a strong finish -- either around a re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul or around a viable playmaking replacement. They need to address safety and linebacker, look honestly at the run game and decide what the best thing is to do about Manning and his contract.

It's entirely possible that losing Sunday's game was a good thing for the Giants. Something about 6-10 feels a lot worse than 7-9, and if that reminds them of how much work they really have to do on this work-in-progress roster, then good. Because no matter how much they may want to convince themselves they're headed in the right direction, the Giants can't lose sight of how far they are away from where they want to be.

Eagles vs. Giants preview

December, 26, 2014

The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played a game without playoff implications, it was the tail end of the 2012 season and Andy Reid was still their coach. For the New York Giants, Sunday's 1 p.m. ET regular-season finale against the Eagles at MetLife Stadium will be the fifth consecutive game in which both they and their opponent have already been eliminated from postseason contention. Nothing on the line here but pride for these division rivals. ESPN NFL Nation reporters Dan Graziano and Phil Sheridan are here to break it all down for you.

Graziano: Well, that fell apart in a hurry. Three weeks ago, the Eagles were in the NFC East driver’s seat. Now, Sunday’s game means nothing more to their playoff chances than it does to the Giants’ playoff chances. What’s the biggest reason for the collapse?

Sheridan: I’ve had a little time to ponder this and I think it’s relatively simple. The Eagles were not an elite team this year. They were pretty good, able to compete within the NFC East and against St. Louis and Jacksonville and such squads. But every time they had to face a playoff-caliber team -- Arizona, San Francisco (before their fall), Green Bay -- they lost.

That big Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas created the illusion that the Eagles had hit their stride. But Seattle brought them right back to reality. Seattle simply beat them up the way superior teams beat average teams.

The two most recent losses, to Dallas and Washington, were due to factors that have lingered all season for the Eagles. Turnovers? They lead the league in giving the ball away. Red zone? Break out the rookie place-kicker. Pass defense? Er, next question.

Early in the season, the Eagles got a bunch of touchdowns from their defense and special teams. That was a tough way to win, and it dried up on them against the better teams.

The Giants were 3-9 when the Eagles were 9-3. The Eagles haven’t won since, the Giants haven't lost since. Is that just late-season, no-pressure-to-win stat-padding, or have the Giants really turned things around? Put another way: Is this something they can carry over to 2015?

Graziano: They think it is, which I think is important, considering how young the players are who are contributing to this run. The schedule has helped, of course. The Giants' three-game winning streak is against Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis. But the Rams were playing defense as well as anyone in the league coming into Sunday, and the Giants dropped 37 points on them. So something is going right. Rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham is the superstar, but rookie Andre Williams has two 100-yard rushing games in the past three weeks, rookies Devon Kennard and Kerry Wynn are contributing on special teams. Add in strong late surges from cornerstone players in quarterback Eli Manning and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and the Giants are on the kind of roll that means nothing to this year but could, they hope, give them some confidence going into the offseason that they're on the right track for 2015. The offense has definitely shown progress since Week 1, and in the first year with a new coordinator, that's one of the biggest things for which the Giants were hoping.

Hey, Mark Sanchez is back in his old stomping grounds this week. Am I safe in assuming the Eagles go into this offseason with quarterback high on their priority list? Or do they expect/want Nick Foles to come back and win the job?

Sheridan: You’d be safe in that assumption if I were the general manager or head coach. As for Howie Roseman and Chip Kelly, I’m not sure how they view this. I think it will be a little bit of a Rorschach test: What they see when they look at Foles will tell a lot about them.

If they blame the collapse on Mark Sanchez and his 13 turnovers in eight games, that will mean they choose to overlook Foles’ 13 turnovers in his eight games. It’s a shame, really, that Foles wasn’t cleared to play in time to get one or two more games in. It would have helped the evaluation process to see him behind the relatively healthy version of the offensive line. It was banged up when he was playing (which is one reason he ended up with a broken collarbone, frankly).

Sanchez will be a free agent. Foles still has one more year on his rookie deal. It would certainly be easy enough to bring Foles back and let 2015 decide whether he gets a franchise-quarterback contract. But then Kelly is in his third season and if Foles plays more like he did this year than last year? Year 4 isn’t exactly the time to start looking for a franchise quarterback.

I would expect Kelly and Roseman to explore all the options, including mortgaging some draft picks to move up and try for Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. If they can’t hit a home run, they can always come back with Foles. But swinging for the fences seems like the right thing at this point.

How responsible is Beckham for the Giants’ recent success? It looks from a distance as if he quickly has become the bell cow for that team. Does it look like that from up close? How good can the kid be?

Graziano: He's the engine, that's for sure. I thought the target distribution was more even this week, then I looked at the box score and saw Beckham was targeted 12 times and no one else was targeted more than six. And this in Manning's best game of the year. It's not exaggerating to say there's no one in the league playing the receiver position better than Beckham is playing it at the moment. He runs great routes, has great speed, catches everything and offers the ability to run trick plays where he lines up in the backfield because he can run with the ball or even throw it. He had only two catches for 28 yards in the Week 6 whitewashing in Philadelphia in which Victor Cruz went down. But since that game, Beckham has 1,048 yards and 10 touchdowns in only nine games. He can be as good as he wants to be. Remember, he's doing this after missing almost all of the offseason program, all of training camp and the first four games of the season due to a hamstring injury. In the grand scheme of things, at the NFL level, he has barely even practiced.

As far as this game goes, Beckham and the Giants’ offense are on a roll. Do you expect them to be able to continue it against an Eagles defense that shut them out in Week 6?

Sheridan: Yup.

Oh, I should write more? I just don’t see anything from the Eagles' defense that suggests they’re equipped to stop the bleeding that has cost them these past three games. There is some chance that Bradley Fletcher will get benched after his escapades covering Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson, but there is a reason the Eagles kept running Fletcher out there. He’s better than Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin.

That said, can he cover Beckham? I shudder to think about the damage that might be done if the Eagles try to find out. The simple fact is the Eagles have tended to lose against good quarterbacks with decent weapons to work with. You know better than I do what was up with Manning and the Giants when the Eagles shut them out in October. Cruz got hurt in that game. Beckham was only a household name with “David” in front of it back then. But if the Giants of the past few weeks show up Sunday, they will be able to get some big plays on this defense.

There always seems to be speculation about Tom Coughlin’s future. He endured a seven-game losing streak this season. Now that things seem turned around, is there more confidence in Coughlin going forward? Is he feeling re-energized?

Graziano: I never sensed a lapse in energy -- not for any sustained length of time. Coughlin was down after the loss in Jacksonville that dropped the Giants to 3-9, but true to his nature he was right back up Wednesday and getting the team ready for the next game the way he always does. At this point, I think it would be shocking if he's not back next year, based on everything I've heard inside and outside the building about this. Ownership never wanted to get rid of him -- especially after only one year in the new offense and with Ben McAdoo still only 37 and likely not ready yet to take over. There was some concern that a lousy finish might force their hand, but the three straight wins here have mellowed things, and now I expect Coughlin back in 2015. And I don't expect to see any difference in the way he coaches or operates. He's as consistently a high-energy coach as there is in the league, even though he's the oldest, and if there was no reason to get rid of him last year, I don't see what the reason is to do it a year later.

» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster


Odell Beckham Jr., WR: "Snubs" is an inaccurate word to use in this case, because there is no Giant who truly makes a good case for inclusion on the Pro Bowl roster. But Beckham has been the team's best player, racking up 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns on 79 catches in just 11 games, and he's generating enough buzz that the game likely would benefit from his inclusion in it.

Who he should have beaten out: No one, but since Beckham is a first alternate at wide receiver, he's likely to end up in the game anyway. And if you want to go strictly by numbers, he has more catches, yards and touchdowns than both A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson and more touchdowns than T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones.

Jason Pierre-Paul, DE: He's played the run very well, and his December run of sacks has his season total in that category at 10.5 -- the second-most of his career.

Who he should have beaten out: No one. He is a fourth alternate, so there's an outside shot he ends up there if enough guys ahead of him drop out.

Johnathan Hankins, DT: Expected to be a big-time run-stopper in his second NFL season, Hankins has delivered in that area and also been a factor in the pass rush. His seven sacks rank fifth among defensive tackles. He also has three passes defensed and a forced fumble. At a position that doesn't accumulate too many stats, he has some that stand out.

Who he should have beaten out: Again, no one. But while it's tough for me to evaluate this position league-wide without really seeing everyone play, Pro Football Focus has Hankins rated the No. 5 defensive tackle in the league, ahead of both Dontari Poe and Kyle Williams, who are on the team.

Eli Manning, QB. Yeah, yeah, I know. But look both at Manning's numbers and the state of quarterback play around the league. Manning has 3,981 passing yards this season, 10th-most in the league and more than he had in either of the past two seasons. He has 29 touchdown passes, ninth-most in the league and two off his career high. He has thrown 13 interceptions, which, if he doesn't throw one Sunday, would be his lowest total since 2009. His completion percentage of 64.1 is by far the highest of his career, and he ranks sixth in the league in Total QBR.

Who he should have beaten out: To repeat myself, no one, but to play the game we played with Beckham, Manning has more passing yards than Tony Romo, a higher completion percentage and total QBR than Andrew Luck and fewer interceptions than both Luck and Peyton Manning.

QB snapshot: Eli Manning

December, 23, 2014
A quick observation of quarterback Eli Manning and the way he played in the New York Giants' 37-27 victory in St. Louis on Sunday:

If this season has been about showing progress in the new offense, then based on Sunday Manning surely is trending in the right direction. This was his best game of the season -- 25-for-32 for 391 yards and three touchdowns.

Yes, he targeted Odell Beckham Jr. 12 times and no one else more than six, but in spite of that the target distribution was more even than it had been. Rueben Randle went over 100 yards and caught a touchdown, each for just the second time this season. Manning was, as Tom Coughlin put it, "as focused and as zoomed in on what he was looking for in this game as any game we have seen this year." He checked in and out of run plays like a surgeon and threw the ball with complete confidence.

This was an excellent game for Manning to put on tape with the offseason and a second year in Ben McAdoo's offense around the corner.