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Giants’ free agency 2018: Offensive line first, then other needs

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It’s time to go hunting for hog mollies ... and a few other things

NFL: New York Giants-GM Dave Gettleman Press Conference
Dave Gettleman
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Window shopping season for the New York Giants and the NFL’s 31 other teams officially begins on Monday at noon ET as the legal tampering period of free agency opens. Signings cannot be made official until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 14.

Let’s take a look at several of the key areas where the Giants need help, and break down how they might find it.

Follow all of the news and rumors in our constantly updated Giants Free Agency Tracker. Check our Free Agency Hub for more, including profiles of players the Giants might target and a look at the potential market value of some of the Giants top free agents.

It’s about the offensive line

Dave Gettleman made that crystal clear the day he was introduced as Giants’ GM.

“We’ve got to fix the o-line, let’s be honest. Let’s not kid each other,” Gettleman said. “Big men allow you to compete and that’s what we’ve got to fix.”

The odd part of that fix is that it will begin by most likely letting go of the two best offensive linemen the team has — Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg. With a checkered injury history, Pugh is likely to find more lucrative offers elsewhere than the Giants would be willing to make. The presence of Brett Jones, a cheaper alternative at center, makes Richburg expendable.

Bobby Hart is already gone. Free agent D.J. Fluker is expected to sign elsewhere, and there are indications starting guard John Jerry is also not in the Giants’ plans.

So, who is in their plans?

Andrew Norwell, All-Pro left guard from the Carolina Panthers, that’s who. Gettleman signed Norwell as an undrafted free agent before the 2014 season, and now he and the Giants are expected to go all in to bring Norwell to New York. The 26-year-old is likely to command more than the five-year, $60 million Kevin Zeitler got from the Cleveland Browns a year ago, the current top salary for a guard, and the belief is Gettleman won’t bat an eye in giving it to him.

Another player the Giants could pursue is Baltimore Ravens center Ryan Jensen, who is believed to be an ascending player with the flexibility to play guard.

There isn’t much on the market at tackle. The Giants aren’t expected to be major players for left tackle Nate Solder, whom Spotrac estimates could receive $26.5 million over two years.

In his look at the best available offensive free agents, our Dan Pizzuta mentioned Chris Hubbard of the Pittsburgh Steelers as a potential target. Dan wrote:

Hubbard might be the best chance for a team to come away from free agency with a competent starting tackle. Hubbard was a backup before playing 70.5 percent of the offensive snaps for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 as the starter at right tackle. He was a solid pass blocker — five QB hits allowed, per PFF — which should be considered more important than run blocking for a tackle. He’ll turn 27 years old in April, which also makes him one of the younger available tackles on the market.

Hubbard started 10 games for the Steelers in 2017.

Running back

Leading rusher Orleans Darkwa is a free agent and might not fit Pat Shurmur’s desire for all-around running backs. He caught only 19 passes last season and didn’t seem sure-handed catching the ball. Shane Vereen caught 44 passes, but averaged only 5.8 yards per reception and 3.6 yards per carry rushing the ball. Vereen isn’t expected back.

Paul Perkins had a disappointing sophomore season. Wayne Gallman had a good rookie season, gaining 476 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and catching 34 passes. He appears to be in the all-around back mold the Giants would like.

Which free agents fit?

The obvious candidate is Jerick McKinnon of the Minnesota Vikings. Shurmur knows him well from their time in Minnesota, and McKinnon has said he is looking for a bigger role after posting career bests in rushing yards (570) and receptions 51 last season. During an appearance on the ‘Locked on Giants’ podcast, former NFL quarterback and current ‘Locked on Vikings’ podcast co-host Sage Rosenfels told us Minnesota is expecting the Giants to pursue McKinnon.

Spotrac estimates McKinnon’s market value at four years, $16.25 million

In its 2018 free agency guide, Pro Football Focus wrote:

“McKinnon had flashed his potential at various points in his career, but he did a fine job maximizing what was given to him by his run blocking in 2017. The numbers weren’t great overall, but he posted a career-high with 2.6 yards after contact per rush, and he made defenders miss better than he had in previous seasons and added great value as a receiver. He may never escape the “change-of-pace” label, but McKinnon adds a versatile threat to any team’s backfield.”

Other free agents who fit the description of a multi-purpose back might include Carlos Hyde, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis.

Linebacker

The Giants already made a big splash at linebacker with last week’s trade for Alec Ogletree. There is, however, still much work to be done at this position.

Devon Kennard, Kennan Robinson, Mark Herzlich, Jonathan Casillas, Kelvin Sheppard, and Akeem Ayers are all unrestricted free agents. On the current roster, only Ogletree and B.J. Goodson appear to be players who could play significant snaps in the multiple defense James Bettcher is expected to run, one which should rely heavily on linebackers.

Nigel Bradham [profile] and Avery Williamson [profile] are among the few relatively big free-agent fish available at linebacker. The Giants, though, might not be looking to play in the deep [expensive] end of the pool after the Ogletree deal.

Edge rusher Connor Barwin is a name to keep an eye on. Arizona Cardinals DE/OLB Kareem Martin and Tahir Whitehead of the Detroit Lions could be other names to be aware of. Pat Traina has suggested pursuing Anthony Hitchens of the Dallas Cowboys.

Secondary

The Giants’ secondary has more holes in it than they can be comfortable with. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is now an ex-Giant, freeing up $6.5 million in salary cap space but leaving big shoes to fill as a slot corner and veteran presence. Ross Cockrell, better than advertised last season, is an unrestricted free agent. Eli Apple? The Giants say he has a clean slate, but who really knows for sure? Even if he is back, what kind of player will he be? Will Janoris Jenkins buy in and return to his 2016 form?

There are questions at safety, too. Landon Collins is a tremendous player, but who mans the free safety spot? Darian Thompson wasn’t very good in 2017, and Andrew Adams probably didn’t play as much as he should have.

There have been reports that the Giants have some level of interest in slot corner Patrick Robinson, an eight-year veteran who spent last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. There is a report, however, that Robinson could soon re-sign with Philadelphia.

Another name to watch is Robert McClain. A seven-year veteran, McClain played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He played three games for the Carolina Panthers in 2016 and 11 in 2016 when Dave Gettleman was GM there.

A wild-card? Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger carries a $14.1 million cap hit and has been asked by the team to take a pay cut. If he refuses, like DRC, he could be looking for a new team. Even though he probably isn’t the dynamic player he used to be after tearing the ACLs in both knees, he and Bettcher know each other well and at the right price he could be an intriguing option for the Giants.

Other corners on the market include Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson, E.J. Gaines, and ex-Giant Prince Amukamara.

Re-signing Cockrell would be a good start, but the Giants figure to need to add some pieces here.

Wide receiver

This is an underrated area of need for the Giants. Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris still seem likely to be cut before the league season opens on March 14, just a couple of days from now. Beyond Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, that would leave the Giants with a collection of players — Roger Lewis Jr., Tavarres King, Darius Powe, Travis Rudolph, a handful of others, who really aren’t full-time options as a third wide receiver.

A name to watch? Marqise Lee of the Jacksonville Jaguars. A 2014 second-round pick by the Jaguars, Lee has been productive the past two seasons (63 and 56 receptions) despite Blake Bortles’ struggles throwing the ball. Lee isn’t a breakaway threat, with a career-long catch of 51 yards and a per-catch average of 12.7 yards, but that isn’t what the Giants need. A reliable route-runner who could be an option to help move the chains would be helpful.

Paul Richardson, a 6-foot, 175-pound receiver who caught 44 passes for the Seattle Seahawks last season, is another intriguing name.

Andre Roberts, a seven-year veteran, caught only one pass for the Atlanta Falcons last season. He is, however, accomplished as both a punt and kickoff returner and could be a replacement for Harris.