By Jack McKessy
For all of the faults the New York Giants had with their offense this year, their defense was almost enough to make up for them. They were a top-10 scoring defense across the league, and they only trailed Washington in scoring defense within their division. But as with any team, especially ones that lose 10 games, there’s room to improve.
New York’s general manager, Dave Gettleman, did well with his free agent signings last offseason. Cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez were immediate and consistent contributors to the Giants’ defense all year. Even backup quarterback Colt McCoy had bright spots in his time replacing an injured Daniel Jones. If you include the franchise tag on Leonard Williams as another signing, Gettleman knocked it out of the park. But this year’s offseason might prove to be more difficult for him and the Giants.
With the losses each team suffered this season due to the pandemic, the estimated league-wide base cap this year will drop to $180.5 million per team according to Over the Cap, compared to 2020’s $198.2 million per team. This leaves New York in a hard spot with their projected cap space this offseason, as they’re currently estimated to enter the 2021 free agency period over the cap.
If New York can move some money around by cutting or trading underperformers and veterans with bigger contracts (I’m looking at you, Golden Tate), it should give them at least a little bit of breathing room. Unfortunately for the Giants, even if they save money with these methods, they’re still likely to lose at least one of their two best defensive linemen this year: Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams.
In the Giants’ ideal world, they would keep both. Tomlinson is a homegrown nose tackle who’s started all 64 games of his four-year rookie contract. Williams is the first player ever traded to the Giants from the Jets. His stellar performance—11.5 sacks in 12 starts—on a $16.1 million franchise tag in 2020 proved that he’s worth a long-term investment. But keeping one likely means letting the other go, given Tomlinson’s potential payday elsewhere and especially if New York is aggressive in their attempt to extend Williams.
Taking into account the Giants’ cap situation and roster needs, here are some targets New York’s front office should look at.
Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
Assuming the Giants can’t retain Tomlinson, Short is a great free agent fit for New York. Just released by the Panthers, Short has struggled to stay on the field in the last two years. When he’s healthy, he balls out. Over his first six seasons in the NFL, Short recorded an average of 45 combined tackles per year. He’s an explosive player able to rip through blocks and disrupt the backfield. In his eight-year career, he’s made 59 tackles for a loss with 32.5 sacks. In half that time, Tomlinson has just eight career sacks and 21 tackles for a loss.
The risk associated with signing Short would be relatively low, too. His age and injury issues would give him a cheaper price tag, which would give the Giants some breathing room under the lower salary cap. If his injury problems persist, New York has Dexter Lawrence already on the roster and able to step into the nose tackle role. If Short can stay healthy, the former Panthers team captain would perfectly fill a Tomlinson-shaped hole in the roster immediately. On top of that, the former Carolina defensive tackle has a history with New York’s general manager. Gettleman drafted Short with his second pick ever as a general manager with the Panthers in 2013. Should the Giants lose Tomlinson, it’s hard to find a better replacement fit in New York than Short.
William Jackson, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Bradberry was a great move for the Giants last offseason, but the 2020 Pro Bowler can’t defend the whole field. The Giants’ other cornerback position was a revolving door of CB2s that never really impressed. Jackson would provide that needed upgrade for the Giants’ secondary. Jackson had one of the best seasons of his young career in 2020 with 45 combined tackles, 11 passes defended, and a 51.4% completion percentage allowed on targets.
However, signing Jackson and keeping the Giants at some distance from the salary cap may be more difficult. There aren’t many cornerbacks on the free agency market, and teams that both need a cornerback and have more money to spend could pull Jackson out of New York’s reach. If the Giants miss out on Jackson, I also like Patrick Peterson, whose age and slight performance decline might mean a cheaper price tag.
Haason Reddick, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
Under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, the Giants’ pass rush improved greatly in 2020 compared to an underwhelming 2019. They were able to get more sacks and pressure in the backfield than the year before. It’s an impressive accolade given that edge rushers Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter were injured and played in only four and five games this year, respectively.
Reddick is hitting free agency out of a breakout season with Arizona. His 12.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, and six forced fumbles were all career bests and higher totals than the first three years of his career combined. Despite the breakout, some teams may be wary of signing Reddick with the uncertainty of whether he’ll continue to perform at that level. Assuming the Cardinals don’t franchise tag Reddick, the market on the edge rusher might be cool enough to give New York a chance to sign him to a relatively inexpensive deal and upgrade their pass rush.