Judging Jerry Reese and the Giants’ offseason now would be premature. Their work is incomplete.
Until Reese completes the business of free agency, drafts in late April, and solidifies the nature of Jason Pierre-Paul’s next contract, it is impossible to praise or vilify his moves — like the fact that, as of now, Ereck Flowers is still Big Blue’s left tackle.
The left tackle position arguably was the Giants’ most glaring weakness from a 2016 season in which Eli Manning never regularly felt comfortable in the pocket.
They entered the offseason with needs at several other positions on offense, including tight end, running back and receiver. But left tackle stood out because Manning, 36, probably only has a two-to-three-year window remaining to make a run at career Super Bowl No. 3.
Can Flowers, who doesn’t even turn 23 until April 25, still grow into a more capable NFL starter, at left tackle even? Sure, maybe. Does Manning have the time to continue to wait for him to blossom? No. No he does not.
And that reality, along with Flowers’ struggles, likely convinced Reese finally to admit on breakup day that the Giants will evaluate if Flowers, Reese’s ninth-overall 2015 first-round pick, must play a different position.
It’s too early to judge Reese on his offseason work at tackle, though, because the GM still has an opportunity to draft one. Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk and Utah’s Garett Bolles have emerged as two of the top options if they fall to the Giants at the 23rd pick.
In a perfect world, the preference would have been to sign a free agent tackle with more experience to better calm Manning’s happy feet. However, the annual average for contracts of Russell Okung (Chargers, $13.25), Riley Reiff (Vikings, $11.75 million), Andrew Whitworth (Rams, $11.25) demonstrated the high-cost bidding that the Giants were up against.
Plus, since there is a good chance Flowers is not the Giants’ left tackle of the future, Reese may be in need of a blind-side protector not just for the next two seasons but for years to come in order to keep his team on the winning course he and Ben McAdoo reset with last season’s 11-5 record and first Giants playoff berth in five seasons.
Monday’s re-signing of starting right guard John Jerry to a three-year, $10 million deal left open the possibility that recent signing D.J. Fluker could be in line to compete at tackle.
Still, if Fluker did play tackle, it would probably be on the right side, where he played his first two seasons with the Chargers. Fluker also hasn’t played tackle since 2014: he’s started 28 games the past two seasons at right guard, Jerry’s position.
Marshall Newhouse, last year’s Giants swing guard/tackle, signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders, though. So Fluker at worst fills Newhouse’s spot. Newhouse opened the 2016 season as the starting right tackle, before an injury led Bobby Hart to take over most of the season — until Newhouse unexpectedly reclaimed his spot in Week 17 and the playoffs.
Now, it’s true Reese’s decision to franchise tag Pierre-Paul at the $16.934 million cap number for 2017 was a major reason he could not bid for a veteran free agent tackle. But it is impossible to argue with that move.
Olivier Vernon and the Giants’ pass rush were non-factors in Big Blue’s 38-13 blowout Wild Card loss in Green Bay with Pierre-Paul injured and unavailable. Reese can’t afford to lose a player of Pierre-Paul’s caliber for nothing, but more simply, his pass rush and defense — for all of last season’s improvements — were annihilated in the final game of the season.
The offense’s shortcomings early in that game certainly contributed. Still, it’s not like Reese can afford to ignore the defensive side of the ball just because last year’s splashy free-agent signings of Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins helped turn Steve Spagnuolo’s unit the most improved in the NFL.
Plus, the franchise tag might have been the only way to keep Pierre-Paul, 28, a Giant. A long term contract will be impossible if JPP demands something close to Vernon’s $17 million-per-year annual average salary and $52.5 million guaranteed (the contract JPP was about to cash in before his fireworks accident). Harsh or not, Vernon received that contract at 25-years-old with 10 fingers and a much cleaner injury history.
Calais Campbell, 30, is more of an inside rusher, but even his four-year, $60 million deal with Jacksonville at $15 million a year and $30 million guaranteed makes negotiations difficult. A fair market value for JPP might be around $13 or $14 million annually, as the Daily News’ Seth Walder broke down recently, but how much money would the Giants be willing to guarantee? And JPP is two years younger than Campbell, so why would he budge below? This will make for an interesting next few months as both parties look at a July 15 deadline to get a long-term deal done before the tag is set on a one-year deal. A sign-and-trade is rare and unlikely but possible.
My guess, too, is that the Giants might draft another pass rusher and even another corner in April’s mid-to-later rounds for the same reason. That should be in the same range they’re looking quarterback, as they eye the strong tight end class, offensive linemen and running backs up high.
So far, though, a clear primary strategy has emerged from Reese and McAdoo’s early offseason signings: Upgrade the offense, especially its attitude and toughness in the running game.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s 6-4 frame gives Manning a better target on third downs and in the red zone and blocks well. Tight end Rhett Ellison is an accomplished blocker. D.J. Fluker, a former Chargers first-round pick, gives McAdoo depth and perhaps a new starter at right guard.
But most importantly, Reese is importing players who embody the qualities McAdoo is seeking on offense, reflecting a lock-step connection between coach and GM.
Reese’s explanation for signing Marshall, contained in a Giants team release, ended with: “Most of all, we believe he still has the hunger.” Reese’s comment on Fluker read: “D.J. is a young, versatile big man with lots of starts in this league. He will bring size, toughness and competition to our offensive line unit.”
Hunger. Toughness. These are the qualities McAdoo wants his Giants to stand for when they take the field on Sundays. Reese is adding players who help that cause. This is why a veteran free agent back like the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount would make perfect sense.
The Giants now have next-to-no cap room due to their signings, and they still several some of their own free agents hovering on the market: defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, last year’ starting right guard John Jerry and linebacker Keenan Robinson. They need a kicker, with Robbie Gould gone to San Fran. Contract restructures or releases of players such as Dwayne Harris are therefore on the table.
Amid all the activity and upgrades, though, it’s important for the Giants not to trick themselves into thinking that adding better blockers around Flowers on offense is guaranteed to make him one.
Flowers is trying, most definitely, and the Giants certainly should do everything to help him mature on and off the field into a productive part of Big Blue’s plan. He is still very young. But Reese has to have a better plan and more depth at left tackle than he did last year.
In other words, Reese’s offseason work not only isn’t done; it can’t be.