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Giants’ 2021 free agents: Who to keep, bring back

Let’s look at the pending free agents the Giants need to make decisions about

New York Giants v Seattle Seahawks
Wayne Gallman
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

We are into the beginning stages of the 2021 roster-building season. GM Dave Gettleman acknowledged Wednesday that “there is more work to do” to build the New York Giants. The first major step in that work is to look at your own free agents and determine which players you really want to go forward with, and which ones you can move ahead without.

So, let’s look at all of the Giants’ pending 2021 free agents and see which Gettleman and coach Joe Judge should keep, and which they should let go.

DL Leonard Williams

2020 average annual salary ($16.126M)

Perhaps the most impressive things about the best season of Leonard Williams’ six-year NFL career is that his two best games came in the Giants’ two biggest victories of the season. Williams had 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits in an upset victory over the Seattle Seahawks, and a career high 3.0 sacks to go with a season-high 7 tackles (3 for loss) and 5 more quarterback hits in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys. Big-time players make big-time plays in big games, and that’s what Williams did for the Giants.

Verdict: Keep. It’s going to be expensive. The $16.126 million franchise tag Williams played on in 2020 is only going to be a starting point. Off a career year, Williams, who will be 27 next season, is going to command a salary that will likely push him into the top 10 highest-paid defensive linemen in the league. That means $17.5 million or more. Considering that Trey Flowers of the Detroit Lions makes $18 million annually and has never statistically put up a season close to what Williams just accomplished it seems likely a Williams’ deal will have to be north of that number. Still, Williams fills a ton of roles on the defensive line, makes a ton of plays and even with him the Giants don’t have enough front seven play makers. If they lose him in free agency that’s a big hole to fill.

OLB Kyler Fackrell

2020 AAV ($4.6M)

Signed to a one-year “prove-it” contract, Fackrell was an excellent addition to the Giants’ defense. His 4.0 sacks were the second-highest total of his career and tied with Dexter Lawrence for second on the Giants. Fackrell’s 34 tackles were also the second-highest total of his five-year career.

Fackrell played 607 defensive snaps (57 percent) in 12 games, more than expected after injuries to Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines. The former Green Bay Packer is also an adequate edge-setting run defender, though he can get exposed in space.

Verdict: Let go. The Giants have already re-signed Logan Ryan. They will try and find the money to sign Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson, far more important defenders than Fackrell. Carter and Ximines are coming back, as well as Cam Brown, Carter Coughlin and Niko Lalos. The Giants have an entire offseason to search for another game-changing edge defender. With the salary cap going down something has to give. In my view, Fackrell becomes a casualty of the cap and of the Giants having other options.

OT Cameron Fleming

2020 AAV ($3.5M)

Fleming started all 16 games for the Giants at right tackle in 2020, the first time in his seven-year career he started more than seven games. I’m conflicted about Fleming. In those 16 starts, Fleming’s Pro Football Focus grade was 53rd among 59 qualifying offensive tackles, he surrendered the sixth-most sacks of any tackle (6) and only 12 tackles gave more pressures than Fleming (35).

Over the second half of the season, though, Fleming’s play improved. He allowed only one sack and 11 pressures over the final eight games and his four highest-graded games as a run blocker came in the season’s final six weeks.

Verdict: Keep. I will be honest. I would really prefer that Matt Peart develop into the starter on the right side. Or, that the Giants find a higher-upside option than Fleming. Still, he’s a good Plan B. He is also the type of veteran every team needs as a backup — a guy who can play either side at least adequately when necessary and can even fill in at guard in a pinch.

New York Giants v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

QB Colt McCoy

2020 AAV ($2.25M)

McCoy is really the classic definition of the backup quarterback. A 34-year-old with 10 NFL seasons and 30 NFL starts who can still do the job in spot duty. He is also an incredibly smart player and quality teammate who understands the role and provided behind-the-scenes help to Daniel Jones.

Verdict: Keep. Maybe a better option will be available, an Andy Dalton or a Marcus Mariota type. I don’t know. I know I’m fine with McCoy.

S/ST Nate Ebner

2020 AAV ($2M)

If there was a pure ‘Joe Judge guy’ on the Giants’ 2020 roster, Ebner was it. Ebner spent his entire NFL career, which began in 2012, with Judge as one of his special teams coaches in New England before coming to the Giants. Rather than keep Michael Thomas, an equally adept special teams player and more useful defensive back, the Giants brought in Ebner. That, likely, was as much about the locker room and helping Judge establish the culture he desired as it was anything on the field.

Verdict: Let go. Honestly, I think Judge will push to keep him and will probably win that fight. I would rather see the Giants move on to someone who at least has a chance to be a useful player on offense or defense if needed.

RB Dion Lewis

2020 AAV ($1.55M)

Lewis, like Ebner, is another former Patriot who has Judge’s trust. Lewis was brought in to be a veteran backup for Saquon Barkley, but ended up being surpassed by Devonta Freeman, Wayne Gallman and Alfred Morris. Lewis ended up in a third-down back and kickoff return role, and was not all that effective in either role. He gained only 115 yards rushing on the season and averaged only 7.9 yards per game receiving. Pass-blocking, supposedly a Lewis strength, was also a problem. He had a 37.4 pass blocking grade from PFF and was charged with allowing 3 sacks and 9 pressures. Lewis’s 48 touches and 242 total yards from scrimmage were his worst numbers since 2012. As a kickoff returner, he averaged a pedestrian 22.4 yards on 24 returns.

Verdict: Let go. The Giants need an upgrade at kickoff returner. If they are going to take Saquon Barkley off the field in 2021 and use a third-down back, that back needs to make more plays and be a more reliable blocker than Lewis.

DT Austin Johnson

2020 AAV ($1.5M)

Johnson, 27, was for the Giants in 2020 what he had been for the Tennessee Titans for four seasons before that. He was solid rotational defensive line depth. Johnson played 231 snaps, or roughly 14.4 per game. That seems like the right amount for him.

Verdict: I’m fine if the Giants bring Johnson back on another one-year deal. I might even consider re-signing Johnson important should the Giants be unable to keep Dalvin Tomlinson.

RB Devonta Freeman

2020 AAV ($1.35M)

Freeman was brought in to be the Giants’ primary running back after Barkley was hurt. He was working toward that, with 35 total carries in the two previous games, when he was injured Week 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He never played another snap, with ankle and hamstring injuries keeping him on IR.

Verdict: Keep. To be honest, that’s a conclusion I’m surprised to arrive at. I still think there is gas in the tank for Freeman, who will be 29 next season. He’s an upgrade, in my mind, from Alfred Morris. He’s a good pass receiver with 264 receptions for 2,073 career yards and a willing blocker. He could slide into the third-down role occupied by Lewis and be a more dangerous option. Also, if the Giants can’t bring Wayne Gallman back I think Freeman is the best option they currently have as a No. 2 back.

DT Dalvin Tomlinson

2020 AAV

Tomlinson is coming off a second straight 3.5 sack, 49 tackle season. He is an excellent run defender. Tomlinson is part of a big, physical defensive line that is at the core of a good defensive unit. He is a respected team captain and leader. He is also a Giants’ former second-round pick.

Verdict: Keep. If they can. As Gettleman said Wednesday, the Giants don’t know yet what the salary cap for 2021 will be and that is “a problem.” I have said before that I want the Giants to keep both Tomlinson and Leonard Williams. I think they would like to do that. I feel strongly, though, that if push comes to shove and they can only keep one it has to be Williams. He simply does more things and impacts the game in more ways — and more often — than Tomlinson.

EDGE Jabaal Sheard

2020 AAV ($1.05M)

The Giants probably got more out of the 31-year-old Sheard than they expected when they plucked the 10-year veteran off the Jacksonville Jaguras’ practice squad. He had a game-saving strip sack against the Cincinnati Bengals and finished the season with 1.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in nine games. He was a good veteran presence who helped when Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines went down.

Verdict: Let go. Nothing against Sheard, but this is the Fackrell argument again. Carter, Ximines, Brown, Coughlin, Lalos and whoever else the Giants bring in will be vying for spots. There probably isn’t room.

RB Alfred Morris

2020 AAV ($1.05M)

Giants fans got annoyed whenever the 32-year-old Morris was in the game replacing Wayne Gallman. Morris, though, did an excellent job. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry, finishing with 238 yards on 55 rushing attempts.

Verdict: Let go. Morris, as I said, did an excellent job. Still, he was an emergency fill-in. I would prefer to see the Giants go in another direction for a backup to Saquon Barkley, perhaps find a player with more home run-hitting ability.

LS Casey Kreiter

2020 AAV ($1.047M)

I don’t think we really had occasion to talk about the veteran long-snapper much at all during the season. That’s a good thing. It means he snapped the ball well and never made himself noticed, which is exactly what you want from that position.

Verdict: Keep. He’s good at his job, and there’s no reason to mess with that.

FS Adrian Colbert

2020 AAV ($825K)

Nicknamed ‘The Punisher,’ Colbert played in six games. He started two at safety, but really wasn’t part of the defensive rotation when he came back from a shoulder injury in Week 15. He played only six defensive snaps the final three weeks.

Colbert, though, was an excellent special teams contributor. He was excellent as a punt gunner and on kickoff coverage. The Giants were much better in punt coverage with Colbert than without him.

Verdict: Keep. The Giants are deep at safety, but I would rather have Colbert as an emergency option than Nate Ebner. Besides which I think you could consider Colbert a core special teams player, and good teams need a couple of those guys.

RB Wayne Gallman

2020 AAV ($704.9K)

Injuries first to Saquon Barkley and then to Devonta Freeman forced the Giants to finally give Gallman an opportunity to be a featured back. Gallman ran with that opportuity and had an outstanding season. He finished with a 4.6 yards per carry average (147 caries, 682 yards). He scored 6 rushing touchdowns. He caught 21 passes. He pushed piles and inspired by fighting for every inch of yardage he could get. He made the Pat Shurmur coaching staff look silly for burying him and giving him only 105 touches over the last two seasons.

Verdict: Keep. If they can. This is the same deal as Dalvin Tomlinson. The Giants already have Barkley. They can’t give Gallman a big-money contract. If someone offers Gallman starting running back money and a chance to be their primary ball carrier I won’t blame him if he jumps at the chance.

WR Da’Mari Scott

2020 AAV (opted out)
Restricted free agent

Scott did not play in 2020. Averaged 5.3 yards on six punt returns and 27.5 yards on four kickoff returns in 2019 while also catching a pair of passes.

Verdict: Let him go. I doubt there is a place for Scott on the 2021 Giants. The receiving group is likely to get a makeover, and there are young players the coaching staff is already invested in who are probably higher on the pecking order.

CB Ryan Lewis

2020 AAV ($615K)
Restricted free agent

Lewis played in five games, starting three, at cornerback before landing on IR. Lewis is a guy Patrick Graham obviously likes, since Lewis played for Graham in Miami in 2019 and New York in 2020. The Giants were Lewis’s eighth NFL organization since 2017.

Verdict: Let go. Graham has an affinity for him and Lewis is probably adequate depth, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a chance to compete for a job in 2021. I’m fine either way, since it wouldn’t cost the Giants much to give him an opportunity.

CB Madre Harper

2020 AAV ($610K)
Exclusive Rights free agent

Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said many times during the 2020 season that he loves cornerbacks with size, speed and long arms. Harper has all of those things. He is 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, runs a 4.48 40-yard dash (67th percentile) and has 33 7/8-inch arms (99th percentile for cornerbacks). He is just 23 and the Giants are clearly intrigued after plucking the former undrafted free agent off the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad.

Verdict: Keep. Harper may never develop into more than a bit player on defense and core special teamer, but if he does the Giants will kick themselves if he’s doing that for some other team.

New York Giants v Washington Football Team
Austin Mack
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

WR Austin Mack

2020 AAV ($610K)
Exclusive Rights free agent

Worked his way on to the 53-man roster after signing as an undrafted free agent and beginning the year on the practice squad. Earned a reputation for toughness and reliability, with wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert calling him an “enforcer” as a blocker in the run game. Mack ended up with seven catches while playing 192 offensive snaps.

Verdict: Bring him back. Coach Joe Judge indicated during the season that Mack is one of those players who just keeps doing things that make you want to keep him around. I think the Giants will do just that, and they should.

WR C.J. Board

2020 AAV ($540K)
Exclusive Rights free agent

Board caught 11 passes for 101 yards, contributed on special teams coverage units and was a backup kickoff and punt returner.

Verdict: Let him go. I know the Giants like his speed, but he is really just a guy. I think the Giants need to try and do better.

WR David Sills

2020 AAV ($540K)
Exclusive Rights free agent

As good as Sills was in training camp, he might have made the 53-man roster if he hadn’t fractured his foot shortly before the start of the regular season.

Verdict: Bring him back and let him compete. No harm seeing if last summer’s success was a mirage, or something he can repeat.