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Free agency guidelines and their implications for the Giants

Debating The Athletic’s steps to — maybe — having success in free agency

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Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks
Jadaveon Clowney.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Every year yours truly publishes an updated version of the ‘Big Blue View rules for draft success.’ That is coming, I promise. Free agency comes first, though, and today let’s discuss the idea that there could, or should, be a similar set of guidelines for NFL general managers to keep in mind during free agency.

Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic [subscription only] recently posted Nine guidelines to avoid disaster (and maybe find success) in NFL free agency. They are fascinating, sensible and worthy of discussion. So, let’s apply each of Kapadia’s nine guidelines to the Giants and do that.

1. Focus on age, injury and character

Kapadia writes that “age is obvious,” but he also addresses character and culture, something Giants GM Dave Gettleman has been focused on the past two years. Kapadia writes:

“The nature of free agency means that the organization is willing to pay money to an outside player that it could be spending on players already on the roster. That can create a tricky dynamic in the locker room and is another reason why character and fit are so important.”

Gettleman and coach Joe Judge say they don’t want to bring in veteran players to simply “mentor” younger ones. They want players who can, well, play.

At the Combine, Gettleman said that if the Giants are going to spend in free agency they have to “be extremely selective and bring in the right people.”

Which means looking at far more than just how talented a player is.

2. Don’t spend on RBs, two-down LBs or two-down DTs

Kapadia’s summary: “If you’re going to take a big swing, make sure it’s on a player who helps your passing game or helps stop the opponent’s passing game.”

I couldn’t agree more. Every down in the NFL can now be a passing down, and as much as I’m traditional enough to still believe running and stopping the run is important, the difference-making plays in games are usually made with the ball in the air or with quarterbacks attempting to put the ball in the air.

Free agency and running backs? You are getting guys on second contracts with a lot of wear and tear, and you are generally getting players who’s skills are only going to decline.

For the Giants in free agency, they need to find more defensive players who can impact opposing team’s passing attacks.

3. Don’t fall in love and convince yourself you have to have a player

Kapadia says teams should always have a “walk-away” number because no matter how much you think you need or want a specific player “a lack of discipline will lead to costly mistakes that can cripple a franchise.”

When I think about the Giants and free agency this time around, I think about two players where this applies — Leonard Williams and Jadaveon Clowney.

I like Williams as a player. I would like to have back with the Giants — at the right price. That price is not a multi-year deal that makes him one of the game’s highest-paid interior defenders. That price is a one-year “prove it” deal, a mid-level multi-year deal, or the franchise/transition tag. The tag lets the Giants reap some reward from the trade they made for Williams, and gives them another year to decide if they want him long term.

As for Clowney, it seems like he is the only premier pass rusher who is going to hit free agency. The Giants really need to upgrade their pass rush. That doesn’t mean they have to have Clowney at a price tag of $22 or $23 million for the next five or six years. That’s a ridiculous, desperate gamble on a talented player who has often been injured and has performed inconsistently throughout his career. That’s an easy “walk-away” number for me. Fix the pass rush another way.

4. Honestly assess the abilities of your own coaching staff

Kapadia says “It’s common for teams to look at a free agent and convince themselves that in a different scheme and environment, the player will flourish.” He adds that “the more honest organizations can be about their coaching abilities, the better off they’ll be with decisions about free agents.”

When it comes to the Giants, it is hard to judge this coaching staff because, with a couple or exceptions, this is a completely new one.

You see teams take fliers on guys all the time because they think they can succeed with them where other coaching staffs have failed. That might be fine for an established staff with a track record of success. It’s probably not fine for a new coaching staff trying to get a program off the ground.

It’s why you can expect the Giants to pursue players familiar to Joe Judge, Jason Garrett and Patrick Graham. It’s what new staffs do, and it is understandable.

5. Beware of signing a guy who previously played for a great coach or with a great QB

Kapadia specifically mentions wide receiver DeMarcus Robinson. That is interesting because there was a report that the Giants are interested in the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver.

Kapadia’s point is a good one. What would make the Giants think a four-year veteran who caught a career-best 32 passes with Patrick Mahomes throwing and Andy Reid calling plays could be more productive with Daniel Jones and Jason Garrett doing those things?

In short — buyer beware.

6. Don’t sign someone because he played well against your team

Kapadia writes: “Can it be valuable to assess the difficulties your team had in going up against a specific free agent? Sure, but don’t get carried away with that part of the evaluation. It’s a small sample and should not be the driving force behind signing someone.”

The example that leaps to mind for the Giants is linebacker J.T. Thomas. In a 2014 game against the Giants, Thomas, playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars, made a career-high 12 tackles. Thinking they were getting an impact linebacker, the Giants signed Thomas to a three-year, $12 million deal that offseason. Thomas played 15 games over three seasons and made 46 tackles, none of which came in the final two seasons of that contract.

Listen to your pro personnel people and study ALL of a guy’s film. Don’t base an impression, good or bad, off one game.

7. Don’t sign someone because you’re trying to hurt a division rival

Kapadia uses Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones, a potential Giants target as an example, and writes “teams should understand that they’re operating at an information deficit compared to the free agent’s previous team and guard against the idea that they can hurt a rival by “stealing” one of their players.”

The idea is that if a team is letting a guy who looks like a really good player go they might know something about the guy that you don’t.

When it comes to the Giants, I’m in favor of a run at Jones if the Giants feel they can’t significantly upgrade their pass rush talent and believe signing Jones is the best way to improve their defense. When it comes to Jones and Kapadia’s advice, the Giants do have the advantage of having former Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and former Dallas defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson, who worked with Jones in 2015, on staff. If they sign Jones, they should know what they’re getting.

8. Remember that you’re never one player away

Kapadia writes: “It’s important to have an honest assessment of the state of your franchise before jumping into free agency.”

He is correct. Are you a team ready to contend for a Super Bowl? Are you a building team, like the Giants, trying to re-establish some credibility after a stretch of losing seasons?

It’s why I come back to Clowney. If the Giants were one dominant edge rusher away from contending with the best teams in the NFC for a Super Bowl berth, I might be all in on whatever it would take to land that single player who might push the team over the top.

That, realistically, is not where the Giants are. Is a player who’s best Pro Football Focus ‘Wins Above Replacement’ score in the past three seasons is a 0.32 really going to give the Giants a quality return on investment for $22 million over five years ($110 million total)?

9. Don’t shy away from one-year commitments

Kapadia writes: “If you have cap flexibility and expect to field a contending team, one-year deals can be appealing ... The worst free-agent signings involve inflexible contracts for underachieving players that have financial implications in future years.”

When it comes to the Giants, this is the type of reasoning they used to sign right tackle Mike Remmers and edge rusher Markus Golden a year ago.

You can’t fill every need with the perfect draft pick or with an All-Pro free agent. Sometimes the short-term solution is the right one. At the very least it buys you time to find a longer-term solution without tying up financial resources for years to come.