Joe Judge‘s first season as head coach of the New York Giants yielded only a 6-10 finish. Yet there are reasons for optimism, despite the poor record. The Giants dealt with a tough schedule in 2020 that began with hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers. It also included games against the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, and Seattle Seahawks. Judge’s team played most games close, despite losing star running back Saquon Barkley for the season in Week 2. Quarterback Daniel Jones also missed time.
The offense was a mess, but the defense gives the Giants hopes for 2021. Patrick Graham coordinated a unit that allowed the ninth-fewest points in the NFL. He produced those results without an elite edge-rusher. What Graham needs is a presence on the outside to complement Leonard Williams, a pending free agent the Giants must keep. General manager Dave Gettleman will need to get creative during free agency since the Giants don’t have a ton of cap space to work with. Fortunately, there are plenty of bargain-priced veterans who would help Big Blue be more competitive in the NFC East in 2021.
Pending Free Agents
Williams heads a list of key players who could be playing their football away from MetLife Stadium next season. In all, the Giants have 18 players slated to hit the market. The biggest losses could occur in the trenches, with Gettleman facing some tough decisions, especially regarding the defensive line, a team strength. Sacrifices will have to be made because the Giants are projected to have just under $1 million in cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. Fortunately, there are a few cuts Gettleman could make to inflate that figure, but even that won’t prevent a quality free agent or two from finding new homes.
Leonard Williams, Defensive Line
Williams is the one player the Giants must keep based on the strides he’s made since arriving from the New York Jets in a midseason trade in 2019. Not always a high-effort player, Williams put his foot to the gas during a contract year and paced Graham’s defense with 11.5 sacks.
Leonard Williams has THREE sacks in this game and 11.5 on the year! pic.twitter.com/0zajE1DRz0
— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) January 3, 2021
No. 99 is a player who can cause damage from anywhere along the front. He’s too versatile and disruptive to be let go. Williams played on the franchise tag last season, and it’s an option for the Giants again, but it’s more likely Gettleman gets creative to free up the dollars needed to secure Williams for the long haul.
Dalvin Tomlinson, Defensive Line
Keeping Williams would almost certainly mean having to let Tomlinson walk. The beefy nose tackle is a useful presence in the trenches, but he’s not the impact player Williams is nor as active as Dexter Lawrence. The Giants will find another big body to play over center for cheaper than bringing Tomlinson back on an improved contract.
Wayne Gallman, Running Back
Gallman’s performances were a pleasant surprise for the Giants after Barkley’s injury. Gallman rushed for 682 yards and six touchdowns. He outperformed Alfred Morris and Devonta Freeman, veteran retreads brought in to help soften the blow of losing Barkley. Keeping Gallman as a change of pace for fit-again Barkley makes the most sense, but it won’t be easy. Gallman’s played his way into making another team believe he can carry the load as a lead back.
Cameron Fleming, Offensive Tackle
Fleming started all 16 games at right tackle in 2020. His return on a cap-friendly deal makes sense for a team needing to foster some continuity in front of Jones. Andrew Thomas has the left tackle slot locked down, so letting Fleming return on the right would ensure Jones has bookend protectors up to speed and ready to go for the new season.
Nate Ebner, Safety
Judge cut his teeth coaching special teams for the New England Patriots, and Ebner was a big part of his success. The Giants’ special teams weren’t quite as effective in 2020, but Ebner remains an invaluable utility man, who is not only a demon in football’s third phase but can fill multiple roles in sub-package defenses. He’ll be back.
Potential Cap Casualties
There are going to be cap casualties in New York. How else is Gettleman going to free up funds and space to absorb a long-term deal for Williams? A look at the roster shows some obvious candidates on offense whose exits would save the Giants a healthy chunk of change.
Nate Solder, OT ($6 Million Saved)
Solder opted out of the 2020 NFL season because of concerns about Covid-19. The former Patriot starter had battled cancer in the past and has a young son afflicted with the same illness. Before 2020, Solder had flopped somewhat after arriving as a high-priced free agent two years earlier. He’d struggled to solidify the left tackle spot, something Thomas managed as a rookie. Solder, 32, could retire, but if he continues playing it will be somewhere else in 2021.
Golden Tate, WR ($6.1 Million Saved)
Tate’s days with the Giants are surely numbered. He caught just 35 passes last season and was even benched after being publicly critical of his role in the offense. The Giants simply aren’t getting enough production to justify carrying Tate’s cap number of over $10 million into the new season. Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett need more explosive plays from the wideout position anyway.
Kevin Zeitler, G ($12 Million Saved)
Cutting the starting right guard loose would be a risky move, but Gettleman may not be able to look past the $12 million he’d save by waving goodbye to Zeitler. There’s nothing wrong with Zeitler’s performances, but there’s nothing dominant about them either. The Giants got a solid effort from 2020 fifth-round pick Shane Lemieux, who started nine games at left guard after Will Hernandez was injured. Moving Lemieu over to the right would not only pave the way for fit-again Hernandez on the left. It would also let the Giants save a small fortune on Zeitler.
Sterling Shepard, WR ($3 Million Saved)
Cutting Shepard loose may appear foolhardy given the Giants’ problems at wide receiver. Yet a saving worth $3 million, along with Shepard’s history with injuries, makes it worth considering. Shepard led the Giants with 66 catches in 2020, but his yardage total of 656 was modest. To put it into context, Darius Slayton was the yardage leader with 751, despite logging 16 fewer receptions. Slayton can stretch the field, something the Giants need. Shepard is an intermediate target who has completed a full season just twice in five years. The Giants should move on and bank on finding an upgrade from what is a deep draft class at the position.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
Graham’s defense needs a consistently disruptive rusher off the edge. The Giants logged 40 sacks in 2020, but most of those owed everything either to Williams’ awesome power or Graham’s clever scheming. The passing game lacks dynamic targets for Jones. Tight end Evan Engram is a playmaker, despite the drops, while Slayton has flashed potential as a vertical threat. Beyond those two, the cupboard is bare.
Deatrich Wise, DL, New England Patriots
Wise is a versatile pass-rusher whose flexibility will appeal to Graham. The latter spent time in New England, so he’s from a school of thought that teaches scheming pressure. Wise fits because he can bring the heat from the outside or from the interior. His ability to disrupt the pocket from the inside would make him a useful complement to Williams in obvious passing situations.
Congratulations to Deatrich Wise (@wisehog94) on achieving the HOLY GRAIL of FOOTBALL
— Scott Casterline (@ScottCasterline) September 27, 2020
Graham could also get creative by pairing Williams and Wise together on the same side on some fronts. Another roving pass-rusher makes sense for a scheme based on moving parts, and Wise’s contract wouldn’t break the bank.
Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Football Team
Shelling out to keep Williams will mean Gettleman has to go bargain hunting in free agency. He won’t find a better bargain than Kerrigan. The 32-year-old is the franchise sack leader for Washington but may well be deemed expendable. Washington is blessed with riches in the pass-rush department. Chase Young and Montez Sweat occupy the edges, condemning Kerrigan to a bit-part existence. He’s also not an ideal fit for the 4-3 defense preferred by head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Jack Del Rio. Kerrigan has thrived in the kind of multiple 3-4 schemes the Giants use. He knows the offensive tackles of the NFC East well and would give Graham a high-motor rush threat and source of big plays.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
The wide receiver market is loaded, but it’s tough to imagine the Giants being serious players for the big names like JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.Y. Hilton, or A.J. Green. Instead, a still-useful vet like Watkins is a wideout who should be on Gettleman’s radar. Watkins’ numbers were way down for the Chiefs in 2020. He caught 37 passes for 421 yards, compared to 52 grabs for 673 during the 2019 season. The dip in production means Watkins can be had for a reasonable deal. He’s also had trouble staying healthy, appearing in only 10 games during the regular season, but that shouldn’t deter the Giants from adding a proven burner who would expand their aerial attack.
Rashard Higgins, WR, Cleveland Browns
Higgins can use free agency to earn himself a better contract and a bigger role away from the Browns. It would be ironic if he got those things with the Giants after Higgins proved his worth when former Giant Odell Beckham Jr. suffered an injury. Higgins turned increased playing time into 37 catches. He averaged 16.2 yards per grab during the regular season, before averaging 16.6 on seven postseason catches. Those are numbers the Giants need from what was a small-ball passing game in 2020.
Samson Ebukam, OLB, Los Angeles Rams
Ebukam has been a steady edge-rusher in recent seasons. He recorded 4.5 sacks in 2020 and ’19. Not spectacular numbers, but proof of his potential to get to the quarterback in the right scheme. Graham’s defense would be perfect for Ebukam, who is a big-bodied linebacker comfortable handling the myriad of responsibilities in a Patriots-style system.
Previewing the Draft
The Giants don’t have to break the bank in free agency because Gettleman can find a top-notch wide receiver with the 11th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He’s well-placed to have a chance of landing Jones a legitimate No. 1 target. Gettleman has usually stuck to a simple blueprint in previous drafts. Namely, fortifying the trenches, but that should change this year with so much talent available at the skill positions.
Round 1, Pick 11: Wide Receiver
DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle. It could be a case of taking your pick for the Giants. Choosing between the two Alabama standouts is not easy, but Smith offers a more reliable target. Waddle, meanwhile, is the game-breaker, somebody who would immediately become the focal point of Garrett’s passing game.
Round 2, Pick 42: Outside Linebacker
There are some big-name edge-rushers slated to come off the board in the first round, but the Giants would be wiser to spread their resources in the hunt for more pressure. A bargain veteran with a proven track record for getting after the passer, joining forces with a raw but promising rookie offers greater value. Joseph Ossai of Texas fits the bill as a day two steal.
Round 3, Pick 76: Nose Tackle
Gettleman can fill the Tomlison-shaped hole in the Giants’ front seven by targeting a zero-technique defensive line in round three. LSU’s Tyler Shelvin is a true force against the run but not much of a difference-maker in passing situations. He’ll still be on the board when the Giants come to make this pick.
Early 2021 Expectations
The Giants can be a sneaky contender in 2021. Having Barkley and Jones healthy again will make a difference on offense, but not as big as adding a few new targets, including a blue-chip receiver from the draft. The defense is already playoff-ready, even though an edge-rusher or two would help. If Gettleman can add the missing pieces and retain Williams’ services, the Giants will be primed to take the NFC East crown.