Hakeem Nicks could be in a different uniform next season. Credit: Getty Images
The Giants, like the 20 other playoff non-participants, have plenty of holes and questions that need answering as they begin an earlier-than-expected offseason.
Big Blue has missed the playoffs for two straight seasons and four of its last five campaigns. And making matters worse — although they’d never publicly admit it — is the fact their MetLife Stadium co-tenants, the Jets, had a more successful season by merely going 8-8. In fact, they may have the brighter future going forward. The Giants are always a glass half-full organization. From the top (owner John Mara) on down (head coach Tom Coughlin) they never allow their franchise outlook to seem bleak, as they noted how proud they were to finish the 2013 season 7-3 down the stretch following their horrid 0-6 start.
Optimism aside, however, there are plenty of holes that need patching during the offseason, including retaining key free agents – and discarding those that were the reason for the down season. And luckily for the Giants, their cap situation for next season is far better than this past campaign. According to the league’s projected salary cap of $126.3 million for the 2014-15 season, the Giants are projected to have about $17.45 million in cap space, and they could gain as much as an additional $14.7 million if they make some calculated cap-related moves when the new fiscal year begins on March 11.
Three Giants to keep ...
Jon Beason, linebacker — The offense was “broken” as Mara suggested during his year-end press conference, so it’s likely a mistake to re-sign any of the unrestricted free agents on that side of the ball, which means the defense is where most of the valuable commodities remain. Topping that list is middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was acquired midseason via a trade with the Panthers. Adding Beason, who was oft-injured and viewed as expendable on a deep Panthers defense, was a steal for a Giants squad that was missing an every-down linebacker with great pedigree and leadership skills. Beason finished the year with 65 tackles, despite only playing in 12 games (10 starts), which was good enough for third on the team. The veteran made as big an impact off the field as he did on, as his teammates used words and phrases like “savior,” “heart and soul” and “leader.” Such praise should mean something when it’s coming from longtime leaders like co-captains Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle.
Justin Tuck, defensive end — If this list was made mid-season, there’d be no way that Tuck would’ve made the cut. But following an impressive stretch run where he tallied 8 1/2 of his team-high 11 sacks in the final five games, bringing back the two-time Super Bowl champ should be a must. Tuck finished with 41 tackles and his second career interception, which shows he can still be a viable asset to Big Blue.
Stevie Brown, safety — Brown, who was on a one-year deal, tore his left ACL during a preseason game on Aug. 24. And while a torn ACL is a damaging injury, it’s a good sign that Brown is on track to return to action by training camp — for whichever team signs the talented ball-hawking safety. The Giants hope it’s them, as management and the coaching staff have raved about his instincts and playmaking abilities. Brown will be sought after by the Giants because he’s not only a talented player, but because the alternative is Will Hill, who is always one off-field transgression from being suspended. As gifted as Hill is, the third-year safety could be facing his third drug suspension in as many seasons next year. That transgression could force the league to suspend Hill for eight games next season, making re-signing Brown all the more important.
Honorable mention: If the price is right, here’s a few unrestricted and restricted free agents that need to be given thought: defensive tackle Linval Joseph (unrestricted free agent), running back Andre Brown (restricted free agent), guard Kevin Boothe (unrestricted free agent), linebackers Keith Rivers (unrestricted free agent) and Spencer Paysinger (restricted free agent), guard/center Jim Cordle (restricted free agent), fullback Henry Hynoski (restricted free agent), kicker Josh Brown and cornerback Trumaine McBride (unrestricted free agent).
Three Giants who should walk ...
Hakeem Nicks, wideout — It shouldn’t surprise Giants fans to see his name here, as Nicks has regressed mightily over the last two seasons. He hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiving season in two years and is coming off his worst statistical season in which he tallied just 56 catches for 896 yards, and didn’t score a touchdown. That’s following a 2012-13 campaign (53 receptions, 692 yards and three touchdowns) that was pedestrian as well. Adding up variables — his mysterious vanishing act during last season’s organized team activity (OTA) period, his contract squabbles (which he steadfastly said his OTA holdouts had nothing to do with), losing his status as the primary receiver and his steady decline — make Nicks’s departure seem elementary.
Chris Snee, guard – He’s a respected veteran, not to mention Coughlin’s son in-law, but Snee’s time has seemingly passed. He’s been through lingering injuries over the years which have sapped away the abilities that once made him a perennial Pro Bowler. A case could be made that Snee’s absence is a correlation to the Giants’ struggles along the offensive line, but the truth is, when he was healthy and in the lineup, the 10-year veteran’s play was already on decline. Snee is technically signed through next season, with a player’s option, as he’ll be entering the final year of his six-year, $42.5 million contract, but with the hip injury slowing him down over the year, the prideful Giant may actually do the honorable thing and walk away while he still can.
Corey Webster, cornerback — Giants fans have seen the back of Webster’s jersey too many times over the years, as opposing wideouts repeatedly beat him downfield, so this isn’t a shock. Webster has been battling injuries, shared playing time with younger guys like Prince Amukamara and McBride and inconsistent play to be relied upon as a top-tier cover corner anymore. The nine-year vet also has a player option next season in the final year of his deal, but the $1.25 million “dead money” (money that sits on a team’s salary cap payroll despite no longer being on the team) wouldn’t be a great deterrent in cutting him loose.
Other notable names who need walking papers: center David Baas (two years remaining, but could be a cap casualty), guard David Diehl (unrestricted free agent), cornerbacks Aaron Ross (unrestricted free agent) and Terrell Thomas (unrestricted free agent) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (restricted free agent).
Three free agents the Giants should consider ...
Alex Mack, center, Cleveland — The Giants will be in the market for depth at offensive line and running back – two key units that expedited the demise of quarterback Eli Manning last season. Manning threw a career-high and franchise record 27 interceptions, and while more than a handful could be attributed to him, he unquestionably got little protection from the linemen and barely any help from the running backs. Since Baas could be a cap casualty, the Giants could make a run at a veteran center like Alex Mack of the Browns. If that falls through, Big Blue could always bring back Boothe, who’s a respected veteran, beloved by his teammates and coaches and has played every position on the offensive line over the years. The Giants could even take a look at a serviceable veteran like Branden Albert of the Chiefs, who can also play either tackle position or guard in a pinch.
Joique Bell, running back, Detroit — Andre Brown will likely be brought back — at the right price — but if his representatives overplay their hand, Big Blue could go an alternative route. The free-agent market will include notable names like Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars, former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw of the Colts, Ben Tate of the Texans and the Raiders tandem of Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings. But of them all, Joique Bell of the Lions could be the guy to spearhead New York’s rushing attack nest season. As the availability of incumbent David Wilson is still up in the air, due to offseason neck surgery that may happen, the Giants need a Plan B, and Bell could provide that. The fourth-year back already has experience as a capable fill-in when he spelled Reggie Bush last season and tallied career highs in rushing (650), rushing touchdowns (eight), receptions (53) and receiving yards (547).
Tight end – Veteran Brandon Myers had his moments, but wasn’t a great fit, especially since he struggled as a run-blocker — which is a must for any tight end in a Coughlin offense. Myers finished with 47 catches for 522 yards and four scores. Myers never seemed totally in synch with Manning, and his backups — Bear Pascoe, Larry Donnell and Adrien Robinson — don’t inspire much confidence going forward. While the Giants are grooming the athletically gifted latter two, they’ve struggled to grasp the offense or stay healthy, meaning Big Blue will need to look for alternatives. New York won’t splurge on the tight end position, because they never do, but they can reach out to a productive player like Scott Chandler of the Bills. Chandler, who registered team highs in receptions (53) and yards (655), actually spent time with the Giants a couple of years ago and is likely still familiar with the offense. He’d be a great upgrade over last year’s quartet.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter@TBone8.