With an estimated $17.58 million in cap space as of today, the New York Giants have less spending room than 16 other teams. That just means that there will be several teams with similar cap room trying to fill similar needs. These parameters seem to align with the team’s most used strategy under Jerry Reese during free agency—sign one free agent in the first few days and then hang back and wait for the market to settle before adding several cheap options later. That needs to change. This is a roster that backed their way into seven wins in 2013. The Giants’ best option is to follow a more aggressive free agent blueprint like the one used in the 2005 offseason before Reese became general manager.
Last offseason, the Giants were strapped against the salary cap and couldn’t sign anyone until several weeks into free agency. Putting that year aside, Reese has not strayed from using the same free agent approach. We’ve seen it used by the Giants in the previous three offseasons (2010-2012). In 2012, the Giants re-signed Terrell Thomas to a four-year, $28.4 million contract. The year before, they signed David Baas to a five-year, $27.5 million contract. Before that, they added Antrel Rolle to a five-year, $37 million contract. In all three occasions, the team followed these signings by waiting to pick off cheaper veterans later on.
Reese has described this process in the past. “You have the first wave where teams are really hot for guys and they go out and secure them right away,” he told Newsday. “Then you have a second level. Then you have a third level of free agency. You can get some bargains on the back end. But if you covet a guy and you have the money to go get him, go get him. We’ve done that in the past.”
The approach has had varying levels of success. If you evaluate the three big signings I named above, you will see that only Rolle returned value. What’s more concerning is the lack of production that they’ve gotten from the back-end free agents who Reese pointed to as a good source of value.
Back in 2005, under former general manager Ernie Accorsi, the Giants took a different approach in free agency. I will leave out the contract numbers because they are irrelevant due to the increases in the salary cap since 2005. They kicked off free agency by addressing their biggest need and signing Kareem McKenzie to a contract that made him the highest-paid right tackle ever at the time. Instead of retreating, they continued to attack in free agency by adding Plaxico Burress and Antonio Pierce. Although both Burress and Pierce were not at the top of the market, they were talented and young at 27 and 26, respectively. The Giants had to spend to acquire them and neither player came as a “back-end value.” These three players combined to play major roles in three different Super Bowls—once each with Burress and Pierce and twice with McKenzie.
This offseason, Reese would be wise to follow a similar path. The Giants need to upgrade their roster with new talent, and there is enough young talent on the market for the Giants to find impact players. Signing players to bigger contracts has more of an effect on the salary cap in future years than right now. For example, last offseason Victor Cruz signed a six-year, $45.88 million contract. Although the contract averages out to about $8 million annually, his 2013 salary cap hit was just $2.53 million.
The NFL salary cap is set to jump about $12 million from 2013 to now, and some estimates have it rising another $23 million by 2016. There is no reason to worry about allocating heavy cap hits to several players in the coming years as the salary cap increases. After all, the players currently on the roster aren’t exactly banging down the doors for early contract extensions. Teams like the Seahawks and 49ers have to save cap room for the impending big contract extensions with their quarterbacks still on their rookie contract. The Giants have already paid their quarterback, and aside from maybe Prince Amukamara, no other player has a squeaky clean case for a big contract extension.
It’s up to Reese to find these impact players.