“The best things in life are free
But you can give them to the birds and bees
I want money
That’s what I want
That’s what I want
That’s what I want...”
NFL free agency is less than a month away and across the NFL landscapes, pending unrestricted free agents will be no doubt be singing “Money,” the classic tune once covered by The Beatles.
There’s plenty of money out there to be had, though not necessarily from the New York Giants, who as of this writing, have an estimated $24,535,434 in cap space based on a projected $178 million cap figure.
The Giants are expected to clear some more space in the coming days, but whether it will be enough to re-sign any of the 19 unrestricted free agents that new general manager Dave Gettleman has identified as well as other teams’ free agents remains to be seen.
I’ve identified five pending Giants UFAs that I believe will draw the most attention in the opening days of free agency, either from the Giants or from other teams.
Before I break down the potential dollar value of each and if it makes sense for the Giants to re-sign any these guys, a couple of quick “FYIs.”
In my analysis, I use average dollar value per year to establish a base for what I believe the player might be worth on the open market.
Contracts are often structured to allow a team to get out of the deal at a certain point. Therefore, if I have proposed a four-year, $17 million deal that averages $4.25 million per year, that doesn’t mean that the player in question is going to get the full $4.25 million per year.
The average is calculated on the total dollar value of the deal, but in reality, the player often gets a low first-year base salary because he’s getting a signing bonus up front.
I’ll explain more about contracts and terminology in an upcoming article, but for now, try not to freak out when you see my proposed average salary per year for these five players because the average isn’t the true value of what they’re going to receive; rather it’s a starting point.
OL Justin Pugh
2017 Cap Figure: $8.821 million
Justin Pugh, the Giants 2013 first-round draft pick in 2013, is set to cash in after proving his versatility over the years as a guard and tackle. He’s coming off this fifth-year rookie option during a year where he began the season at left guard before moving back out to right tackle due to injuries at the position.
Unfortunately, Pugh dealt with a back issue that cost him eight games and which now makes him a bit of a risk to re-sign for what Spotrac is projecting will be a deal that averages $5.9 million per year.
Pugh, remember, did not need surgery for his ailment, which is kind of a double-edged sword for him because there could be legitimate concern that his back issue flares up again as it did during the season when he kept trying to rest it only to have it rear its ugly head.
When healthy, Pugh has been the Giants most consistent offensive lineman, hands down. But that’s a big “if” as he hasn’t made it through a 16-game season since his rookie year.
Pugh’s situation is going to have two main considerations. First, does he look to be paid as a tackle or as a guard? If it’s the former, currently the top earner per year is Lane Johnson of the Eagles, who comes in at $11.25 million per year.
If Pugh is willing to accept “guard” money, is his average annual value worth the same as top-paid left guards like Kelechi Osemele (Raiders, $11.7 million), Joel Bittonio (Browns, $10 million) and Mike Iupati (Cardinals, $8 million).
If Pugh is willing to be reasonable and accept a deal averaging around $6-$7 million per season, it makes sense to bring him back. But if he is eyeing a contract that pays him like a premier left tackle as in $10 million upward, then don’t look for him to be back in Giants blue.
C Weston Richburg
2017 Cap Figure: $1,551,884
After a shaky rookie season in which he was forced to play out of position at left guard because of injuries, Weston Richburg, the Giants’ second-round draft pick in 2014 looked like he found his niche at center.
But then things started to take a turn for the worse. Opposing defenses soon realized that if they put a defender face-on against Richburg, he didn’t quite have the base to anchor.
To add to that, Richburg suffered a hand injury early last year and then was knocked out of the 2017 season with a concussion.
Despite all this, there is going to be a market for Richburg, who is only 26 years old. He’s likely looking at a deal in the neighborhood of what Cleveland’s J.C. Tretter currently has, which is $5.83 million per season.
The next average highest paid per year is Jason Kelce of the Eagles, at $6.277 million, followed by Max Unger of the Saints ($7.416 million per year) and Eric Wood of the Bills ($8 million per year).
Kelce, Unger and Wood are all Pro Bowl players, so it’s unlikely that Richburg will score himself a deal averaging more per year than those guys.
With restricted free agent Brett Jones all but certain to be tendered after doing an admirable job stepping in for Richburg following his injury, the chances of Richburg returning are slim to none, especially since Jones is going to come cheaper for 2018.
Jones, originally an undrafted free agent signed from the CFL, will probably receive the second-round tender, $2.916 million, which ensure the Giants get an extra second-round draft pick if a center needy team were to try to lure him away.
OLB Devon Kennard
2017 Cap Figure: $1.797 million
There was a time I thought the Giants might move on from Kennard, but that was before they decided to hire James Bettcher as their defensive coordinator.
Bettcher’s defense, as I noted in this analysis, is going to be linebacker heavy. Kennard, remember, played in a 3-4 defense at USC.
In 2017, he lined up at linebacker on 110 of his 543 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, most of those snaps coming as an inside linebacker.
It will be interesting to see if Bettcher views Kennard (assuming he’s re-signed) as a potential inside linebacker to pair up with B.J. Goodson.
What about the money? Per Spotrac, Kennard is on par with Eric Walden of the Titans , who averages $3.25 million per year in his contract.
If Bettcher plans to use four linebackers as often as he did with the Cardinals—according to data provided by Pro Football Focus, Bettcher’s top two defensive alignments last year were 2-4-5 and 3-4-4 respectively — then Kennard, if re-signed, is likely looking at a deal that will average about $3.8-$4 million per year.
OL D.J. Fluker
2017 Cap Figure: $3 million
The Giants’ one-year experiment with Chargers cast-off D.J. Fluker was very much a success despite the big man’s season-ending toe injury, especially in the running game.
The Giants, who as a team rushed for at least 100 yards in seven games this season, achieved four of those 100+ yard performances with Fluker bulldozing people from his right guard spot.
If that kind of production qualified Fluker for Gettleman’s “hog molly” club — and it would be hard to imagine it won’t— Fluker, who told me at the end of the year that he wants to come back with the Giants if they’ll have him, is a “must” to re-sign.
So how much then are the Giants looking at? Well if John Jerry, who hasn’t really demonstrated that he can be the run blocker that Fluker is and who could be a potential salary cap cut, is worth $3.33 million per year, it sure would make sense for the Giants to pay Fluker in the same annual neighborhood.
He might have to wait for his new deal until the initial free-agent rush is over, but it would be a stunning development if Fluker isn’t a member of the Giants 2018 starting offensive line.
CB Ross Cockrell
2017 Cap Figure: $1.1 million
How good was Ross Cockrell, acquired via trade with the Steelers for a seventh-round pick, in 2017?
Per Pro Football Focus, Cockrell’s 70.3 NFL rating was the 14th best in 2017 among cornerbacks last season who took at least 60 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
Not bad for a guy who had no OTAs or training camp with the team he played for and who had to learn the complex defensive scheme on the fly.
Cockrell, whom you could argue lost his job when the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh (a Giant in 2016), is certainly worth a deal on par or better than the $1.3 million per year average Sensabaugh received in free agency.
A deal like what Gettleman once signed Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn—4 years, $17.5 million ($4.25 million per year) would make for a nice pay raise for the 26-year-old Cockrell, especially if the Giants plan to move on from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Janoris Jenkins after this season.
Cockrell, like Fluker, might have to wait until the initial free agency rush is over for his deal, but the Giants should make every effort to bring this valuable veteran player back.