What does the loss of Justin Tuck, who signed a free-agent contract with the Oakland Raiders Thursday afternoon, mean for the New York Giants? It has implications for the team's remaining defensive ends, for what the Giants may do during the remainder of free agency and the upcoming 2014 NFL draft, and for the Giants' locker room leadership. Let's look at all three areas.
Giants' Remaining Defensive Ends
It is now put up or shut up time for Jason Pierre-Paul. His mentors in Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are gone. He is now, by reputation, the only remaining star among the triumvirate of pass-rushing defensive ends who help the Giants win the Super Bowl back in 2011.
Problem is, JPP hasn't played like a star since that 16.5-sack All-Pro 2011 season. Yes, the back injury and the subsequent shoulder injury had much to do with last season's miserable two sacks in 11 games performance. The 6.5-sack 2012 season, however, wasn't good enough, either.
The Giants will be desperate for the Pierre-Paul of 2011, the player who dominated games and made plays no matter what teams tried to do to stop him. Pierre-Paul is only 25, and if that player still exists the Giants need him to re-emerge. The 2014 season is a contract year for Pierre-Paul, and the Giants need him to play like a guy DEMANDING to be paid big money.
Damontre Moore was taken in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and from the beginning he excited fans and the coaching staff with his athleticism and pure pass-rushing skills -- at least in shorts. Injuries, including one to his shoulder that required post-season surgery, slowed his development, however. Moore played very little on defense, didn't always seem comfortable with his hand in the ground as a 4-3 defensive end, and was never a factor. That has to change in 2014. He has to be ready -- now.
Veteran Mathias Kiwanuka is, for now, the third defensive end. He played miserably in 2013 with a defense-worst -28.1 Pro Football Focus grade. If he returns -- and that likely is not a sure thing -- the Giants are going to need better play from him.
The Draft and Free Agency
The Giants are now undoubtedly in a situation where they need reinforcements at defensive end. Jerry Reese and Co. most likely knew they might be in this spot, which is why they checked in on Arthur Jones in free agency before Jones went to the Indianapolis Colts.
Big-name guys like Julius Peppers and Jared Allen are out there on the free-agent market, but the Giants are likely to go younger. If they wanted a guy on the wrong side of 30 they would not have let Tuck hit the free-agent market to begin with.
Depending on what happens during the rest of free agency you have to believe this also puts defensive end in play for the Giants early in the draft. Could Kony Ealy of Missouri be in play at No. 12? If not, there are quite a few defensive ends with second- and third-round draft grades.
The Locker Room
Tuck always seemed like a reluctant leader, and he certianly was never a vocal 'call out your teammates in the media' leader the way Antrel Rolle is. He was, however, a leader.
Tuck was always a spokesman, always a player media members went to for opinions on anything impacting the Giants. He was tie to both championships in the Tom Coughlin era. His 11.5-sack 2013 showed that he could still back up on the field anything he said in the media or the locker room. He was, undoubtedly, the leader in the Giants' defensive line meeting room.
Rolle has emerged as a leader, no doubt about that. Middle linebacker Jon Beason is a leader on the field and an eloquent, well-spoken locker room leader.
The issue is, who leads the defensive ends in those endless meetings and drills? Pierre-Paul is not a leader at this point, he is a still a young man with growing up to do. Kiwanuka? Well-spoken and respected, but you can't lead unless you can perform.
I don't blame the Giants -- or Tuck -- for moving on. The Giants, obviously, want to get younger and more athletic. Tuck, with one shot at free agency, wanted to get paid. From the Giants' perspective you have to be certain they weren't sure if Tuck could play as well the next couple of seasons as he did in 2013, and didn't want to overpay.
Ultimately, whether the Giants were right or wrong here will depend on what they do with the money they just saved, and how they replace one of the best defensive ends in franchise history.