Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Today, we look at the Giants, who must fill out at linebacker position after a rash of 2015 injuries leave them in need. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Robert Ayers, CB Prince Amukamara, WR Rueben Randle, DT Cullen Jenkins, S Craig Dahl, CB Trumaine McBride, S Brandon Meriwether, DE George Selvie, TE Daniel Fells, K Josh Brown
Players that must be re-signed
Pierre-Paul, Ayers, Amukamara, Brown: Pierre-Paul made a good comeback after losing part of his hand in a July firework accident, and it’s likely that he’ll be even better in 2016 as he learns to adjust his hand moves that every defensive end needs to penetrate the pocket.
Ayers is really the must-sign guy—he was absolutely tremendous in an atrocious defense, amassing 10 sacks, 13 hits, 25 hurries and 27 stops. All of those totals led the team. He’s going to be 30 in September, but Ayers is on a steady uptick from a production standpoint, and he can play in 3–4 and 4–3 fronts. Someone is going to give him a big payday.
Amukamara wasn’t the Giants’ best cornerback last season—that honor goes to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—but he’s a steady presence. And unless another team flashes a huge contract his way, New York should bring him back next season; the advantage of having two good cornerbacks on a defense that needs all kind of help can't be overstated.
Brown led the NFL in field goal percentage, making 30 of 32 tries, and he missed just one of his 45 extra point attempts in the first season of rules designed to make that exercise a lot more challenging.
Most important position to improve
Linebacker: When the 2015 season began, the Giants thought their linebackers would be Jon Beason, J.T. Thomas III and Devon Kennard. All three of those players landed on injured reserve before the season was done, and none of them are true game-changers. In the end, guys like Mark Herzlich, Jonathan Casillas and Jasper Brinkley filled those gaps, and only Brinkley really made an impact.
No team gave up more catches and touchdowns to tight ends last season, and the Giants’ linebackers were mostly at fault. Yes, injuries were a problem, but the evaluation of linebackers in the franchise’s preferred 4–3 schemes has been an issue for Jerry Reese since he became the team’s general manager in 2007. With Reese still in charge of personnel, it’s hard to assume that things will change anytime soon. Beason is out of the picture, and nobody else really has a stronghold on things.
Other positions to improve
Pass rusher, safety, offensive line, receiver: The Giants probably won’t be able to keep both Ayers and Pierre-Paul, which means that they either need to bring in new blood, or hope that some of the recent draft picks reach a new level.
Owa Odighizuwa missed 12 games in his rookie season due to injuries, and Damontre Moore, selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, was waived over various issues that trumped any production. In ’15, the Giants took Alabama safety Landon Collins with their second-round pick, and watched him stop the run well, while predictably struggling in coverage. Brandon Meriwether and Craig Dahl were veteran fill-ins at best. Perhaps the best option for Collins is to become a safety/linebacker hybrid, as Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon have done, and for the team to look for safety help in other areas.
The offensive line is also in transition—the Giants selected Miami tackle Ereck Flowers with the ninth overall pick, and talked him up ceaselessly despite his obvious technique issues. The team started him at left tackle after Will Beatty suffered a torn pectoral muscle, and Flowers allowed more total pressures than any other offensive lineman in the league. Justin Pugh, selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, struggled mightily at right tackle but has been decent at left guard.
Now, with Beatty and right guard Geoff Schwartz released, more must be done—and again, there’s not enough evidence to indicate that the current front office will be able to put an above-average line together. Beyond Odell Beckham, Jr., there isn’t much in Big Blue’s receiver corps right now. Rueben Randle, who has struggled with consistency, is a free-agent, and Victor Cruz, who’s been injured most of the last two seasons, is approaching 30 and has a $9.9 million cap hit for 2016.
Overall priority this offseason
Figure out a personnel strategy that actually works: New coach Ben McAdoo has his work cut out for him, because the Giants’ drafts over the last few years have been—to put it charitably—inconsistent. Reese and his people have overdrafted players in multiple instances, and then insisted on keeping those players in the fold. It’s a problem when a team that refuses to admit its mistakes until it’s too late, and releases happen due to salary cap concerns or obvious declines.
Reese was certainly on the defensive in January, when Tom Coughlin held his masterful retirement press conference, and he did not follow it up well. Instead of taking complete responsibility for the team’s erroneous personnel decisions, he blamed injuries and overtalked the close games the Giants lost. It certainly didn’t appease those who believe that, for whatever reason, Reese is in over his head.
This is a crucial year for the franchise—if the Giants underperform in another draft and suffer through their fourth-straight losing season, more change could be coming. Whoever’s in charge of making those decisions needs to re-think how those decisions are made.