Jason Pierre-Paul or Olivier Vernon? While the New York Giants are flush with cap space and might be able to reel in both free-agent pass rushers, realistically GM Jerry Reese and the Giants probably have to make a choice. Keep Pierre-Paul, damaged hand and all, or lavish big money on Vernon to pry him away from the Miami Dolphins.
So, Pierre-Paul or Vernon? I put that question to various NFL talent evaluators without asking about cost. My question was simply "if you could only choose one, which would you take?"
The unanimous answer? Vernon. Granted, it isn't a scientific or far-reaching survey. I received responses to that query from four respected evaluators. In my view, the unanimous vote for Vernon is telling.
One evaluator chose Vernon based on "consistency of production."
Another said he would "probably" take Vernon, with the pretty obvious reasoning that "JPP's hand worries me for his long term prospects at the price he is going to be seeking."
Let's break them down.
Tale of the tape
Weight: 261 pounds
Experience: Four years, 64 NFL games, 46 starts
2015 season: 7.5 sacks
Career-best season: 11.5 sacks in 2013
Last three seasons: 25.5 sacks combined
Weight: 270 pounds
Experience: Six seasons, 83 games, 57 starts
2015 season: One sack, eight games played
Career-best season: 16.5 sacks in 2011
Last three seasons: 15.5 sacks combined
Awards: Two-time Pro Bowl selection, one-time All-Pro
The case for/against Pierre-Paul
For: Pierre-Paul was still disruptive last season, even with a club on his damaged hand. He is motivated to prove that he can still be a top-flight player despite the permanent damage to his hand. The Giants know Pierre-Paul better than anyone else does, and better than any free agent they could bring in to replace him. As the saying goes, sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. Even if the Giants have to give him more than a one-year deal, he figures to be far less expensive than Vernon.
Against: The case against keeping JPP starts with his permanently damaged hand, but doesn't end there. Disruption is valuable, but Pierre-Paul's inability to grasp and tackle with his damaged hand hurt the Giants on a number of occasions last season. There is no way of knowing if that is going to change. That raises the issue of money. Pierre-Paul, according to reports, is still seeking a long-term mega-deal. That is virtually impossible to justify based on what the Giants know, and don't know. Pierre-Paul has also had back surgery. Since his All-Pro 2011 season, Pierre-Paul has not been productive, with the exception of a season-ending five-game stretch in 2014 where he racked up 9.5 sacks. It is hard to envision Pierre-Paul ever again being close to the player he was in 2011
The case for/against Vernon
For: At 25 he is two years younger than Pierre-Paul, and quite obviously much healthier. He has been far more productive than JPP the past three seasons, 25.5 sacks to 15.5, and has not missed a game in his four-year career. Vernon appears to be a player who could just be entering the prime of his career.
Against: The price tag. The Dolphins basically drew a $12.7 million line in the sand, using the transition tag on Vernon at that price and basically daring the other 31 teams to offer Vernon more. Is he really an elite player worthy of the $14 to $15 million annually it will probably take to get him?
Over the final eight games of 2015, Vernon performed better than any edge rusher other than Khalil Mack, per Pro Football Focus. Was that stretch truly indicative of the kind of player the team signing Vernon would get, or should it be taken as a sign of a player simply making a contract push?
In the narrow framework of the question I posed to the talent evaluators -- Vernon or Pierre-Paul? -- I'm hopping aboard the Vernon train.
If Pierre-Paul is willing to return on a one-year deal, or even a two- or three-year deal with only one year of guaranteed money I'm fine with the Giants bringing him back. In that scenario, maybe the Giants can even still make Vernon a big offer. If Pierre-Paul wants a long-term deal that pays him like an elite defensive end, which we clearly have no proof that he still is, I believe the Giants should pass.
Even before Pierre-Paul mangled his hand, there were questions about how good a player he really was. Quite honestly, he hasn't been a great player since 2011. A good one at times, but not a great one. There has always been something. A back injury that required surgery, a shoulder problem. In my view, he will never consistently be the dominant player he once was. The Giants need to look forward and stop trying to build their defense around a player who has shown in recent years he isn't up to carrying that load, and about whom there are so many physical questions.
The Giants are in a tremendous salary cap position. Vernon would come with a massive price tag and no one can guarantee he would be worth the money. Signing Vernon and moving on from Pierre-Paul offers the Giants, with the worst defense in the league last season and three straight losing years, an opportunity to hit the reset button. It offers them an opportunity to change the defensive line, to change the locker room, to change the structure of the defense, and to look toward the future instead of trying to hope they can turn the clock back to the past.