Giants mostly look to build from within

Tom Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese mostly espouse a build-from-within mentality.

The Giants don’t need to go chasing after Peyton Manning, as they already have their own passer of the same namesake, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have other holes to fill.   

As the free agency period is set to begin on Tuesday, the defending Super Bowl champions have to get right back to work and figure out who’s staying, who’s going and who they’re bringing aboard.   

Notable names like running back Brandon Jacobs and right tackle Kareem McKenzie will not return, while Super Bowl hero, wideout Mario Manningham, will likely look for greener pastures. Jacobs couldn’t come to terms on a new deal and the Giants were not going to pay him $4 million for the 2012 season, including a $500,000 roster bonus later this month, so he was shown the door. McKenzie was one of the longest-tenured offensive linemen on the team, missing just four starts in six years, but will be 33 when next season begins. He was already showing signs of decline, so according to a team source, McKenzie was told to “go shopping” and test the open market.    

Manningham’s situation is the age-old story of an unlikely Super Bowl hero cashing in on his newfound heroism. He’ll likely follow former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who was recently hired by the Buccaneers to be their offensive coordinator.     

Whatever the Giants decide to do with the newfound roster spots, they’ll certainly take a look within first, as head coach Tom Coughlin favors familiarity over anything else.       

“Continuity is important,” Coughlin said. “It’s not that I don’t think there are some talented people out there. But I do like to take people that are in the system, that understand the system, understand how we work [and] are very comfortable with the organizational scheme that we use in preparation. … We will continue to support our players at those positions with people who are products of the system.”    

Such a statement is the epitome of Coughlin’s “next man up” credo. Whenever a player went down for an extended period of time due to injury, it was expected the next guy on the depth chart would simply fill the void. Jacobs’s departure now opens the door for guys like D.J. Ware and Da’Rel Scott. If not a promotion from within, the Giants could turn their attention towards former Falcons and Rams running back Jerious Norwood. The veteran running back was brought in for a workout two years ago before re-signing with Atlanta, so the Giants are certainly familiar — and are fans of — his shifty running style. Former Packers’ running back Ryan Grant, who was once on the Giants’ practice squad, could also be an option, as well as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was on the Patriots.         

McKenzie’s spot would be up for grabs between guys like Stacy Andrews, Selvish Capers and James Brewer, who the team thinks highly of. Brewer was a fourth-round pick last season and was solid in spot duty. Another option would be to shift David Diehl to McKenzie’s old spot. Diehl manned left tackle when Will Beatty was lost for the season, but with Beatty returning Diehl could go back to his customary left guard spot or be the team’s swing tackle.  

Manningham’s slot could allow guys like Jerrel Jernigan, Ramses Barden or Domenik Hixon to fill the void — or even a reunion with Steve Smith. The veteran wideout departed Big Blue last off-season after contract talks stalled and with him still nursing a knee injury. He then joined the hated Eagles but didn’t have anywhere near the amount of success as he did in New York. As far-fetched as a reunion sounds, Smith still has friends within the Giants’ locker room and was a fan favorite.   

If the two sides can’t come to an agreement look for Hixon to be the leader to fill Manningham’s role. Hixon, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL during mini-camp, recently re-signed for two more years. Despite two knee surgeries in two years, it didn’t diminish Hixon’s value to the Giants and most certainly didn’t quell his desire to continue playing. Thought to be a frontrunner to fill Smith’s role in the slot position heading into last season, Hixon’s injury gave way to the Victor Cruz phenomena. But now fully recovered, Hixon said he’s grateful the Giants still see a need for him, which also showed a sign they look for him to expand his role in the offense.    

“It’s one of those things [where] they gave me an opportunity again,” said Hixon. “They stuck with me when they could have cut me and let me be on my way and be done with me. But they didn’t do that. They treated me the same and I really appreciate that. … I know a lot of times in the NFL loyalty isn’t that big, but in this situation I really felt like I wanted to be here. They helped me out time and time again. I wanted to stay here and repay that.”     

The return of Hixon is a feel-good story, but when it comes to the handling again of Osi Umenyiora’s contract situation, all bets are off. Umenyiora became a bit of a distraction last season during training camp as he bemoaned his deal. Then he came back to camp proclaiming he had a sore knee and spent the first couple of months on a stationary bike during practice. He had arthroscopic knee surgery and then rehabbed for the first four weeks of the season.    

Just like last year, Umenyiora will surely ask for an extension, of which the Giants haven’t been in too much of a hurry to do in the past. And like seasons past, New York will have three options: pay him big money, trade him or tell him to just deal with the circumstances and come to work — disgruntled or not.   

Things could get ugly again, as Umenyiora’s current deal will earn him roughly $4 million in 2012, the final year of his contract. That figure is far below the market value of other defensive ends who don’t put up half the numbers he’s posted. Umenyiora was second on the team in sacks with nine in only nine total games (seven starts). Such a dominant — if brief — season actually led general manager Jerry Reese to think contract extension, according to a team source. Umenyiora, 30, has reportedly warmed to the idea of open dialogue, even going as far as to say he might give the Giants a “hometown discount.”          

Should things deteriorate again, however, Umenyiora could be moved to another team because the Giants would much rather prefer to avoid the same drama the summer of 2011 brought. And as one team insider said, New York will “not let this situation stand pat,” meaning something will be done about Umenyiora’s lame duck contract one way or another.   
 
Big Blue notes

» Punter Steve Weatherford was designated with the franchise tag last week. And while the tag means he’ll have to be paid with a salary that is competitive with the averages of the top five punters in the league, it won’t be a costly deal to retain the underrated Super Bowl hero. During his first season with the Giants, Weatherford was statistically a middle of the road punter (he ranked 14th in the NFL with a 45.7-yard gross average and 13th with a 39.2-yard net average). But it was Weatherford’s postseason where he earned his money. Weatherford punted 12 times in the Giants’ NFC Championship Game victory in San Francisco and his 557 punting yards vs. the 49ers easily outdistanced the former postseason record of 422, set by Brad Maynard in the Super Bowl 11 years ago. Weatherford’s performance got even better two weeks later when he dropped a Super Bowl record three punts inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line, dramatically effecting field position. Weatherford will most certainly stay a Giant, as the two sides work on a long-term deal, because should a team try to sign Weatherford while still under the franchise tag, it’ll cost that team two first-round picks as compensation.     

» Quarterback Eli Manning also made news with the restructuring of his contract last week, effectively saving the team nearly $8 million in cap space for 2012. The move put the Giants roughly $7 million under the cap. By restructuring, Manning will earn $1.75 million instead of $10.75 million, reducing his cap total to $9.6 million and not $16.95 million. He’ll then earn balloon payments of $13 million in 2013, $15.15 million the following year and $17.5 in 2015. 
   
» The Giants also re-signed tight end Jake Ballard to a one-year contract, even though his torn ACL won’t make him available anytime soon. Ballard tore the ligament in the Super Bowl and may not be ready for training camp, according to Reese. Should he not progress, it’s a strong possibility that Ballard could be sent to the physically unable to perform (PUP) list which means he wouldn’t be eligible to play until at least Week 6. 
 
» Cornerback Bruce Johnson, who spent last season on injured reserve, also re-signed. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8 for breaking free agent news.



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