NFL free agency fun is about to begin. The “legal tampering” window begins at noon Monday, which means that by the time the signing period begins Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET we will probably already know where most of the big name players are heading.
What will the New York Giants do in free agency? Let’s look at the Giants primary needs and, through a mix of information and intuition, the players who seem like the most likely targets for GM Dave Gettleman.
Primary target — Daryl Williams, Carolina Panthers
After Friday’s trade for guard Kevin Zeitler and the re-signing of center Jon Halapio, the Giants likely have four-fifths of the 2019 starting offensive line in place. Chad Wheeler ranked 58th of 61 tackles who played 50 percent of their team’s snaps in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. The Giants can be expected to be aggressive in trying to find a veteran right tackle to replace Wheeler and complete that line.
That isn’t exactly breaking news. It shouldn’t, in fact, surprise anyone. Williams being the primary target shouldn’t be a surprise, either. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Williams was a 2015 fourth-round pick by Gettleman in Carolina. In 2017, he ranked 13th out of 56 tackles graded by Pro Football Focus.
Williams missed all but one game in 2018 due to a knee injury, but could still be headed for a nice pay day in free agency. The Giants went to the wall for left tackle Nate Solder a year ago. I’m told they will go hard after Williams and are “planning to win” if it comes down to a bidding war.
Spotrac estimates Williams’ market value to be four years, $31.3 million, which works out to $7.8 million annually. That would put Williams 10th among right tackle salaries. The guess here is that in the end it takes more than that to get Williams’ name on the dotted line.
Another top right tackle expected to hit the market is Ju’Wuan James of the Miami Dolphins.
Should the Giants not be able to reel in Williams, though, the player they might pivot to is Jermey Parnell, released a few days ago by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The eight-year veteran started for the Jaguars the past for seasons, but at 32 was let go in a salary cap move.
Parnell was ranked 49th of 61 qualifying tackles by PFF. He allowed career highs in sacks (5) and pressures (39) in 2018. Parnell would likely be more of a short-term solution for the Giants.
Primary target — Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals
A couple of weeks ago I wrote that “the Giants would seem to make sense as a suitor” for Golden if he reached free agency. That was before the Giants traded Olivier Vernon to the Cleveland Browns, which means Golden to the Giants makes even more sense now.
Here is an oddity. The Giants acquired Zeitler from Cleveland last Friday on his 29th birthday. Wednesday, the day the free agent signing period begins, is Golden’s 28th birthday.
What is really important, though, is that Golden appeared to be on the verge of stardom with the Cardinals in 2016. In a defense coordinated by current Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher, Golden had career bests in sacks (12.5), tackles (51) and quarterback hits (22).
Golden tore his ACL four games into the 2017 season, didn’t return until midway through 2018 and had just 2.5 sacks in 11 games as he played his way back. He said recently on Sirius XM NFL Radio that he expected to be completely healthy to begin 2019.
“I know who I am and I know what I can do,” Golden said. “I can play football and I can make plays. I’m a big-time player. I can help teams win big games, like I’ve been doing since I’ve been here. I’m going to get back to myself. I’ve just got to grind it out and get healthy.”
Another outside linebacker who could appeal to the Giants is Preston Smith of the Washington Redskins. The 26-year-old was a second-round pick by Washington in 2015. He had 24.5 sacks in his four seasons in Washington and could help the Giants on the edge. Smith was PFF’s 15-ranked EDGE player out of 65 who played more than 511 snaps.
Dan Pizzuta listed Smith in his look at potential replacements for Olivier Vernon, saying he “fits the responsibilities of a more traditional 3-4 outside linebacker.”
After the Giants moved on from Landon Collins, this is the position that has people fascinated. It seems as though the Giants, needing to make a choice on how best to spend the cap resources available, prioritized finding a true free safety rather than paying big for Collins, who is really a hybrid strong safety/linebacker.
Now, can they make that gambit pay off by landing the big-time free safety required in a Bettcher scheme that relies heavily on a single-high center fielder?
Amos seems like the big prize here. The 2015 fifth-round pick was a four-year starter in Chicago.
Pro Football Focus ranks Amos the No. 3 safety available in a robust safety market.
On an unquestionably elite Chicago Bears defense, Amos Jr. has been a stalwart. After allowing passer ratings when targeted of 115 or higher in his first two years, Amos Jr. has brought that mark down around 80 for the past two seasons and has subsequently become a top cover safety. And with Amos being just 25 years old coming off his rookie contract, suitors will be lined up for a chance to add him.
PFF might be right about Amos’s market, as that is said to be “robust.”
Amos had only three interceptions in four years, but is a solid back end defender. He missed only five tackles in 2018, and his 8.7 tackling efficiency rating was 15th among 31 safeties who played at least 80 percent of their team’s snaps.
In 2018, PFF had Amos playing 685 of 1,161 snaps at free safety. He played 106 at corner and 297 lined up as a box safety. So, the Bears only used him in the box 25.6 percent of the time and lined him as a deep safety on 59 percent of their defensive snaps.
In 2017, Amos played 344 of 817 snaps as a free safety and 265 lined up in the box. In 2016, 582 free and 252 box. In 2015, 844 free and 144 box.
Spotrac places Amos’s market value at six years, $48.4 million, or 8 million and change annually. That would put him among the top five safeties in terms of contract value, and if his market is as strong as anticipated might be conservative.
If Amos doesn’t become a Giant maybe Tyrann Mathieu will. Mathieu starred for Bettcher in Arizona, and the Giants’ need for a play-making safety makes it easy to connect the dots between the Honey Badger and the Giants.
After five seasons in Arizona, the last couple of which were impacted by injuries, Mathieu spent last season rebuilding his value with the Houston Texans. He has now been healthy for two full seasons and 2018 was his most productive years since his 2015 All-Pro year. He had two interceptions, eight passes defensed, a career-best three sacks and tied his career high with 89 tackles. A concern might be that his passer rating against of 112.4 was the second-worst of his career.
Mathieu at this point in his career is also not a full-time free safety. In 2019, he played 301 snaps at free safety, 352 in the slot and 419 in the box.
Spotrac estimates his value at five years, $43.9 million. That is $8.7 million annually.
Another former Cardinal, Deone Bucannon, might also make sense for the Giants as a Collins replacement.
Primary target — Bryce Callahan, Chicago Bears
The Giants appear serious about upgrading their pass coverage. The biggest “football” reason for allowing Collins to leave had to be related to pass coverage, which is not his strength.
The Giants’ defense was 25th in the NFL in yards allowed per pass attempt (7.2) and 28th in yards allowed per completion (11.2), but just ninth in passer rating against (89.8).
Among 22 cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of their team’s coverage snaps, Callahan ranked fourth, giving up a reception every 11.5 coverage snaps. His 78.9 passer rating against was third in that same group of corners.
Callahan is a pure slot corner. He played 610 of 689 snaps in the slot in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. In 2017, that numbers was 478 of 513.
Pro Football Focus ranks Callahan as the No. 2 cornerback available on the free agent market.
Once an afterthought, the importance of the slot cornerback has begun to come to light in recent seasons and Callahan was one of the best in 2018. He shut down the slot week in and week out, allowing just 0.69 receiving yards per coverage snap in the slot which was the fewest among the 30 cornerbacks who played at least 200 coverage snaps. Having increased his overall grade from 62.9 in 2016 to 77.7 in 2017 to 81.4 last season, Callahan is on the rise and will likely cash in on that improved play in the coming months.
Spotrac sets Callahan’s market value at four years, $25.5 million. That’s roughly $6.38 million annually, per Spotrac’s calculations.
Another defensive back who might interest the Giants is Kareem Jackson of the Houston Texans. Jackson turns 31 in April and has spent his entire nine-year career in Houston. He had two interceptions, tied a career-high with 17 passes defensed and set a career-high with 87 tackles last season. His versatility — and probably a lower, shorter-term price tag — might appeal to the Giants. In 2018, Jackson played 117 snaps in the box, 328 as a slot corner, 467 as an outside corner and 135 as a free safety.
Patricia Traina took a look at the Giants’ cap situation last week, prior to the Olivier Vernon-Kevin Zeitler trade. Most of what she wrote is still valuable, and you should read it if you haven’t already.
After the Vernon-Zeitler trade and the re-signing of center Jon Halapio, Spotrac now estimates the Giants to have $24.116 million in cap space. That puts them 20th in the league in cap space entering free agency.
Considering that the Giants are estimated to need $10.6 million to sign their rookie class and that Gettleman has said he would like to save at least $8 million for contingencies that doesn’t leave the Giants a lot of room. They can’t just go off willy-nilly and throw massive amounts of cash at every player they would like to have.
There are, however, always ways to maneuver the cap. I would expect the Giants to be aggressive in pursuing the top couple of players on their list, then look for bargains later. If they need cap space, tight end Rhett Ellison ($3.25 million cap savings, $2.5 million dead money) and Kareem Martin ($3.6 million savings, $2.3 million dead money) might be in jeopardy.