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(CBS Sports)

(CBS Sports)

It’s that time of the year ladies and gentlemen. The NFL off-season is here. Free agency begins today at 3 p.m. and the NFL draft will be from April 27th-29th. Every GM will do their best to use the free agency period, as well as the draft, to improve their team in the best way possible. Whether this means dishing out monster contracts to big-name players in order to make a playoff push as soon as possible, or signing players methodically and using the draft to rebuild is entirely up to the team. The New York Giants are a team that is in “win-now” mode as Eli Manning enters the twilight of his career and it certainly showed last off-season.

During the 2016 off-season, the Giants made a huge splash by going out and spending millions of dollars to bring in high-priced and big-name free agents. The G-Men signed defensive end Olivier Vernon to a five-year $85 million deal, cornerback Janoris Jenkins to a five-year $62.5 million deal, and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison to a five-year $46.25 million deal. Many people, including myself were skeptical of these moves because, a majority of the time, teams that spend big in free agency usually tend to flop. Just look at the Eagles back in 2011 or the Dolphins back in 2015. Those teams both spent a ton and didn’t even make the postseason. However, it worked marvelously for the Giants, especially on defense.

Their defense went from ranking dead last in yards allowed in 2015 to 10th this year. They also went from 30th in points allowed to 2nd this year. The biggest factors were Vernon, Jenkins, and Harrison, but also the return of Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants managed to make the playoffs, but they lost their only playoff game against the Packers in Green Bay. This off-season, they’ll look to make enough moves to vault the team into title contention. Let’s take a look at how the Giants can do that.

Potential Cuts:

Sometimes, the best addition is subtraction. Getting rid of bad contracts is a big part of every team’s offseason. Sometimes, players get paid more than they deserve, whether it be because of poor performance or injury, and they become viable cut candidates. The Giants have already made a couple moves of this variety by releasing long-time receiver Victor Cruz as well as veteran running back Rashad Jennings. Both of these players were entering the final year of their respective contracts. Personally, I think there’s a few other cuts the Giants could make that would give the team a bit more wiggle room when it comes to trying to bring in any outside free agents.

  • RB, Shane Vereen – Don’t get me wrong, I think Vereen could be a solid player in this Giants offense, but I think he’s exactly the type of player they could move on from. Cutting Vereen would save the team $3.75 million, which is a nice chunk of change. This past season, Vereen managed to play in just five games, totaling 33 carries for 158 yards and a touchdown as well as 19 catches for 94 yards. This is simply not the type of production you’d expect from a player making that type of money. His injury issues last season are a concern as well. The Giants may be better off letting Paul Perkins take over.
  • OLB, J.T. Thomas – Thomas is a nice payer, but he’s scheduled to make $4 million this year and the Giants could save $3 million by cutting him. He’s simply an average linebacker that the Giants needed because their linebacker core is so pitiful. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve the position with free agency and the draft, so moving on from Thomas wouldn’t hurt. Thomas also didn’t play at all last season and managed just 46 tackles with not a single stat registered in any other category in 2015. This one seems like a no-brainer to me.
  • OLB, Jonathan Casillas – Similarly to Thomas, the Giants could save $3 million by cutting Casillas, who is just an average linebacker. Although, I think Casillas is definitely a better player than Thomas and the Giants can’t get rid of all their linebackers, so they probably should hang on to him. I simply included him because he’s a little overpaid.

In-House Free Agents:

The first part of free agency after the roster cuts to clear cap space is signing your own guys. The Giants have quite a long list of free agents, but it doesn’t include too many big names. Here’s the list:

  • DE, Jason Pierre-Paul
  • DT, Jonathan Hankins
  • OT, William Beatty
  • OT, Marshall Newhouse
  • G, John Jerry
  • TE, Larry Donnell
  • CB/S, Leon Hall
  • K, Robbie Gould
  • LS, Zac DeOssie
  • LB, Mark Herzlich
  • LB, Kelvin Sheppard
  • LB, Keenan Robinson
  • CB, Trevin Wade
  • CB, Coty Sensabaugh
  • QB, Ryan Nassib
  • RB, Bobby Rainey
  • RB, Orleans Darkwa
  • DE, Kerry Wynn
  • RB, Nikita Whitlock
  • WR, Ben Edwards

Like I said, there are not too many big names here. JPP is easily the best player here and he’s already been franchise tagged, meaning he’ll play for the Giants next season. They’d be smart to get a long-term deal done, however, as he’ll cost nearly $17 million on the cap hit this season playing under the tag. It would also behoove the G-Men to bring back Hankins as he’s a big part of the defensive line. Starting next to Harrison all season, Hankins managed 43 tackles and three sacks. He was a true force on the interior of the Giants’ defense, but he may cost too much for them to bring back.

The Giants also have three key offensive lineman hitting the open market, including two 2016 starters in Jerry and Newhouse. Honestly, both of them were awful and the Giants should look to move on from them anyway, but they may find it difficult to find two starting lineman by next season and may need to bring one of them back. The other route they could take would be re-signing Beatty and hoping he could stay healthy, but that seems like a long shot.

There’s also a couple other defensive contributors on this list, such as Leon Hall, Keenan Robinson, Kerry Wynn, and Trevin Wade. These guys were all solid depth players and could be brought back on cheaper deals. Although Hall is getting up there in age, so they could probably part ways with him.

The special teamers shouldn’t be ignored, either. Zac DeOssie has been the team’s long-snapper for a long time so they may not want to lose him. Last season’s kicker, Robbie Gould, could be easily replaced, though. He’s getting old and nothing special.

The Giants also need to decide what they want to do with Ryan Nassib. They could keep him as the backup quarterback and hope he improves, or they could move on and draft someone else to eventually replace Eli. Nassib doesn’t appear to be that guy so I’d anticipate them moving on. Larry Donnell is another interesting player. He’s had success the last couple years, especially in the red zone, but the Giants could look to move on because he’s had injury issues and this year’s draft class is incredibly strong at the tight end position.

The last free agent that seems to be worth keeping is Orleans Darkwa. He has been a solid runningback when he’s gotten the opportunity and could be a nice depth player to hang on to.

If I’m Jerry Reese, here’s who I’d re-sign (other than JPP who’s already been tagged): Hankins (if they can afford it), Jerry, Robinson, Wade, Darkwa, Wynn, and DeOssie. The others could be brought back on cheap deals, but I don’t think they’d be missed.

Possible Outside Free Agent Fits:

This is another area where the Giants have already made a move. Wednesday morning, the Giants reached a two-year, $12 million deal with former Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall. This was a great move for the G-Men as they needed a receiver to compliment Odell Beckham Jr. Marshall is the perfect receiver to pair with Beckham on the outside. His size, at 6’4” and 230 lbs., is something the Giants haven’t had at the position since Plaxico Burress left. It’s also a very fair deal. Marshall claims he had better offers, but chose the Giants because he wants a chance to win a title. Here’s an interesting nugget: Marshall has yet to play in a playoff game in his 11 year career.

Marshall will be a great red zone threat for Eli Manning and should help the team’s offense improve as long as he can stay healthy and out of trouble. This shouldn’t be a problem, though as Marshall hasn’t played less than 13 games in any single season. There was a reason that Marshall was available, though. The Jets released him after he struggled last year, but for the Giants’ sake, we’ll hope that was because of the Jets’ horrid quarterback play as well as their poorly run team. Personally, I think Marshall is a great fit for the Giants.

Now, if the Giants have any interest in other free agents, they’ll have to make some moves in order to free up cap space. After the Marshall signing, the Giants only have around $6 million left over. Giving JPP a long-term extension would be a good start, because he likely wouldn’t make more than the $16.9 million franchise tag is paying him. They also may need to make some cuts. Due to them being up against the cap right now, I’m going to have to dig deep to find some potential signees for the Giants.

The first step would be to go over their positional needs. They desperately need linebackers. Devon Kennard is the best linebacker on the team and he’s hardly above average. They also need to improve the right side of the offensive line. Marshall Newhouse and John Jerry were both terrible this past season and they’re also both free agents. They could look to add a veteran runningback as well, especially if they end up parting ways with Shane Vereen. With their limited resources, they’ likely turn to the draft to fill most of their needs, but luckily for them, they don’t have too many holes on their roster. I’ll list some free agent options, but they’ll mostly be players that would come cheap.

  • Linebackers:
    • Paul Warrilow – He’s been solid in his four years in Atlanta and is one of the most underrated linebackers on the market (and maybe even in the league). He’s still just 26 years old and wouldn’t be too expensive.
    • Manti Te’o – Te’o is well known for his time at Notre Dame. He’s also well known for having a fake girlfriend. Nevertheless, Te’o has been a solid linebacker at the NFL level when healthy and the Giants could take a chance on the former second round pick.
    • Kevin Minter – Also, a second round pick back in 2013, Minter hasn’t really lived up to his potential. However, at 26, he’s still young and could be a cheap risk.
    • Akeem Dent – Dent is a former third round pick by the Falcons who has spent the last three seasons in Houston. At 29, he’s no spring chicken, but he’s a solid vet who could help the Giants out on a short, inexpensive deal.
  • Running backs:
    • Adrian Peterson – AP is no doubt the biggest name on this list. He’s been one of the best running backs in NFL history, but his time in Minnesota is over and he’s looking for a new home. He’s said he’s interested in playing for the Giants among other teams, so this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. However, I’m not sure he’d come cheap like Marshall so it’s not very likely. If they could get AP, it would be huge. Despite his age and recent injury problems, Peterson is a monster who will work tirelessly to make his career last as long as possible.
    • Latavius Murray – He’s a top-15 running back in the league right now, maybe even higher. He wouldn’t be as expensive as Peterson and would offer much more long-term value. He may be out of the Giants reach, though.
    • Jacquizz Rodgers – Rodgers is the only affordable option listed here. He had some nice games as a starter with the Bucs last season and could be a steal.
  • Offensive tackles:
    • Andrew Whitworth – He’s been one of the better left tackles in the league over the last five years or so, but at 35, his best days are behind him. His price could be hefty, but if teams don’t show interest because of his age, he could wind up signing a cheaper deal to play for a contender. The Giants could sign him and move Ereck Flowers to right tackle.
    • Jordan Mills – Mills would be a much cheaper option than Whitworth. He’s been an underrated tackle for the Bills over the last couple years, but he’s also bounced around since getting picked by the Bears in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.
    • Menelik Watson – Watson is another former second round pick to make this list. He’s got all the athleticism and size to become a great tackle; he just has yet to put it together on the field. He could be a solid, cheap option for the G-Men.
  • Guards:
    • Chris Chester – Chester would be a great option for the Giants. He didn’t play much this past year, meaning he’s got fresh legs and he’ll come cheap. Previously, he had been a very solid guard/center for the Falcons, Redskins, and Ravens. At 34, he’s up there in age, but he’s a good, experienced guard who could help the Giants a lot.
    • J. Fluker – He was just released by the Chargers, but he’s still a young guy at just 25 years old and as a former first round pick, he has the potential to become a solid starter. He’s also got some positional flexibility as he could play guard or tackle.

The Draft:

The final piece to the off-season puzzle is the NFL draft. This is where NFL teams “make their money” so to speak. Every winning franchise is built through the draft. The Packers, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers, and Seahawks are just a few teams that have stuck to this method and had a lot of success in recent years. The draft is very important and it’s the best way to build a team.

The Giants have done a good job of drafting in recent years as well. Last season, their draft class included players like Eli Apple, Sterling Shepard, Paul Perkins, and Darian Thompson. The 2015 class included possibly their best defensive player, Landon Collins, as well as Ereck Flowers, and Owamagbe Odighizuwa. They’ll need to continue this trend in order to remain contenders for the next several years.

Other than filling the current holes on the roster that I’ve already discussed, such as the offensive line, running back, or linebacker, the Giants could also use the draft to add depth to other positions as well as future starters to replace aging vets. So the Giants could potentially target a quarterback to back up Eli Manning and eventually replace him. They could also go after a tight end or a pass rusher. So now, I’m going to list some potential targets in each round of the draft and finish with a seven-round mock draft for the Giants’ picks only.

  • First round targets (pick 23):
    • Jarrad Davis, LB Florida
    • Ryan Ramczyk, OT Wisconsin
    • Forrest Lamp, G Western Kentucky
    • Tim Williams, DE/OLB Alabama
    • Raekwon McMillan, LB Ohio State
    • J. Howard, TE Alabama
  • Second round targets (pick 55):
    • Evan Ingram, TE Ole Miss
    • Zach Cunningham, LB Vanderbilt
    • Dan Feeney, G Indiana
    • Brad Kaaya, QB Miami (Florida)
  • Third round targets (pick 87):
    • Elijah Qualls, DL Washington
    • Roderick Johnson, OT FSU
    • Wayne Gallman, RB Clemson
    • Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB Tennessee
  • Fourth round targets (pick 140):
    • Michael Roberts, TE Toledo
    • Tanner Vallejo, LB Boise State
    • Josh Dobbs, QB Tennessee
  • Fifth round targets (pick 167):
    • Elijah Lee, LB Kansas State
    • Jeremy Sprinkle, TE Arkansas
    • Zach Banner, G USC
    • Ryan Glasgow, DL Michigan
  • Sixth round targets (pick 207):
    • Pharaoh Brown, TE Oregon
    • Donnel Pumphrey, RB SDSU
    • Dede Westbrook, WR Oklahoma
  • Seventh round targets (pick 241):
    • Collin Buchanon, OT Miami (Ohio)
    • Steven Taylor, LB Houston
    • Josiah Price, TE Michigan State

 

Mock Draft:

First round, 23rd overall pick: Forrest Lamp, G Western Kentucky

Lamp could be as good as his name is weird. He’s got ideal size for a guard at 6’4” and 309 lbs. He’s also a solid athlete, as he ranked in the top five in the 40-yard dash, long jump, bench press, and three-cone drill among lineman at the combine. He’s strong and has great technique. He would immediately improve the Giants’ offensive line next season as their starting right guard.

Second round, 55th overall pick: Zach Cunningham, LB Vanderbilt

Zach Cunningham is an intriguing prospect. He’s one of the more athletic linebackers in the class, but he’s also a bit undersized. If he was a little bigger and stronger, he’d probably be a first round pick. I think he’d be great for the Giants because of his playmaking ability. The Giants have sorely lacked playmakers at linebacker in recent years and Cunningham could certainly help fix that. Once he adds some muscle onto his frame, he could end up being one of the steals of the draft.

Third round, 87th overall pick: Elijah Qualls, DL Washington

Qualls is a solidly build defensive lineman and with Jonathan Hankins likely to leave in free agency, he could slide right in as his replacement next to Damon Harrison. Qualls isn’t a supreme athlete, which is the primary reason he’ll likely be available here in the third round, but he’s strong and has great technique. Worst case scenario is he ends up as a solid run-stopper in the interior and nothing more, so this is a very low-risk pick.

Fourth round, 140th overall pick: Tanner Vallejo, LB Boise State

Tanner Vallejo might be the most underrated linebacker in the draft. He’s tough, has great instincts, is a reliable tackler, and he’s good in coverage. He would make a solid outside linebacker in the Giants’ 4-3 defense. He’s a bit undersized and doesn’t really have the frame to add on any bulk, but plenty of linebackers have had success in the NFL despite having the same problem. It might seem unnecessary for the Giants to take two linebackers early in the draft, especially with both of them being a bit undersized, but this is the Giants’ biggest weakness and they should do whatever they can to try and turn it into a strength.

Fifth round, 167th overall pick: Jeremy Sprinkle, TE Arkansas

It might seem like I’m picking some of these players because of their great names, but that’s not what’s happening here. Sprinkle could actually be a great fit for the Giants. They haven’t had a dynamic tight end in some time. Sprinkle could be that guy. He’s got perfect size at 6’5” and 252 lbs. He’s very athletic and ran a 4.69 40-yard dash, so he’s got the speed to become a downfield threat. He’s also a good blocker, so he wouldn’t be one-dimensional. He could stand to get better as a route-runner and at the point of the catch, but the main reason he even falls to the fifth round is because of the depth at the tight end position in this year’s draft.

Sixth round, 207th overall pick: Donnel Pumphrey, RB SDSU

Pumphrey is one of the most exciting players in this draft. He was dominant at San Diego State, breaking all kinds of records. He ran a 4.48 40-yard dash and has speed to burn. He could be the most explosive back in the class and is incredibly dangerous in the open field. The main problem with Pumphrey, and sort of the theme of this draft for the G-Men, is his size. He’s really small at 5’8” and 176 lbs., but if Darren Sproles can make it work, why can’t Pumphrey. The Giants could use a true game-breaker out of the back field and on kick returns.

Seventh round, 241st overall pick Collin Buchanon, OT Miami (Ohio)

Buchanon isn’t exactly a “diamond in the rough” type of player. He’s not a superior athlete who the Giants could take on as a project. He would, however, be a solid depth lineman who could play right tackle, or slide inside to guard. He’s a strong, bullish lineman, but he lacks the length to become an everyday starter at the next level. He could possibly make it as a guard, though.

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