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John Mara and Joe Schoen illuminate the Giants’ free agency strategy at the NFL Owners’ Meetings

Comments from the Giants’ owner and GM help piece together how the team approached free agency

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have had a very active off-season so far in 2023.

They signed Daniel Jones to a 4-year, $160 million extension, acquired DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches (aka: Nacho), LB Bobby Okereke, WR Parris Cambell, and TE Darren Waller. They also retained receivers Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, and Sterling Shepard among a flurry of smaller moves.

The biggest and most complicated situation remaining for the Giants is probably the one regarding star running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley wants a long-term contract with the Giants, but is currently on the Franchise Tag.

Mara said, “We’d love to have him. He provides leadership. He’s a great player. We’d like to get something done with him at some point.”

“My dream is that he plays his whole career as a Giant like Eli (Manning) did, like (Michael) Strahan did, like Tiki (Barber) did,” Mara said. Mara has also used the magnitude of the New York media market to appeal to Barkley, saying, “I mentioned to him, ‘Look what they’re doing off the field now.’ I think he would like that as well.”

The Giants might need to lean on the extracurricular value of playing in the New York spotlight as an added incentive in their negotiations with Barkley. The running back market seems to have peaked back in 2020 with Dalvin Cook’s contract — just before Barkley tore his ACL. The market has since cooled off considerably, with Ezekiel Elliott becoming a cap casualty while Tony Pollard and Josh Jacobs (two of the most productive backs in the NFL) were also given the Franchise Tag.

“You certainly are aware of that [the cooling running back market], but he adds a lot to our team - not just as a running back,” Mara said. “So, he is somebody that we want back. But there is a limit as to what we can do.

He added “I don’t think he’s thrilled about being tagged. But he’s a professional. He understands the business. … You just go through these negotiations with your better players. It’s not the first time we’ve been through it. I’m still hopeful at some point we’ll be able to get something done.”

The job of getting something done falls to general manager Joe Schoen. Schoen and Barkley’s camp have been in negotiations since before the 2022 bye week, but nothing appears imminent at the moment.

“There’s no outstanding offer right now,” Schoen said. “Once we put the franchise tag on him, we stepped back. We knew that throughout the negotiation that if there was a time that we can’t come to an agreement, we’re going to go to the franchise tag. And that’s what we did.

“Essentially when you’re building a team, and I’ll say this to everybody, there’s 53 players. You can’t look at everybody in a silo. As you’re going through negotiations and you can’t come to an agreement on what the value of a player is, then you have to shift to plan B. And we knew we had the franchise tag as a tool. And we’ll utilize that - see if anything happens down the road.”

“I’ve been in constant contact with her [Kim Miale, Barkley’s agent],” Schoen said. “Right now, he’s on the franchise tag. Until we come to some sort of agreement down the road, then that’s what it is.”

Schoen later added, “Where we are with him on the franchise tag, we’re fine with that (in terms of managing the salary cap).”

“Our message to him is still very much, ‘We want you back. I want you to be one of the leaders of this team. I want you to be one of the faces of this franchise,’” Mara said. “But there’s a limit as to how far we can go. We have to build a team around you. We’ve gone just about as far as we can.”

The Leonard Williams situation

Part of the reason for the Giants having to walk a fine line with their roster construction is Leonard Williams’ contract. Williams signed a 3-year, $63 million contract in 2021 following a career year in 2020 and currently counts for $36.26 million against the salary cap in 2023. John Mara isn’t concerned about Williams sizable cap hit and certainly seems happy to have him in Giants blue.

“I think Leonard’s been a terrific player for us, and he’s been terrific off the field,” Mara said. “And he’s been a really good guy. In terms of working out the cap numbers, that’s up to Joe.”

And Joe seems content to eat Williams’ massive cap hit — much the same as he was with Kenny Golladay a year ago.

“If his cap number is high, his cash, if he doesn’t miss any games, I don’t think it’s out of whack,” Schoen said. “We’ll try to figure it out. But to go to one of your better players and say, ‘Take a pay cut,’ and you don’t have any leverage, we’re probably not going to. We like Leonard. We haven’t had any conversations with him. I know he made that comment (about taking a pay cut). We kind of joke about it, but we haven’t approached him about anything.”

Continuing to build the offensive line

Schoen mentioned that the Giants have to build a complete team. They need to focus on all 53 players and how they fit together as a cohesive whole. One of the more persistent and pressing matters in building that roster is the offensive line. The Giants expect that their tackle positions are set for the foreseeable future. However, they lost their top two prospective centers (Jon Feliciano and Nick Gates) to free agency.

“We had contingency plans in place,” Schoen said. “We claimed Jack Anderson; he was with us in Buffalo. He does good work at center. Ben Bredeson is a guy that we feel very comfortable with playing center. And then Shane Lemieux was playing it as well last year before the (toe) injury.”

The Giants still have avenues to address the center position if upgrades over Bredeson, Lemieux, or Anderson become available.

Schoen said “We still have the draft. We still have some sufficient guys on the street that we can consider as well. We don’t play until September. We’re in camp until August. Guys may be cut post-camp. There could be cap casualties. So, we’ll be patient. We’ll continue to look. We have confidence in Jack Anderson, Ben Bredeson and Shane that they can snap the ball and play center for us.”

Acquiring Darren Waller

A big reason why the Giants wanted to at least keep Barkley on the roster for 2022 is that he was the engine of their offense. The Giants had 5,676 total offensive yards and 38 total touchdowns. Barkley personally accounted for 1,650 of those yards and 10 of the touchdowns — roughly 30 percent of the Giant’s yardage and 25 percent of their touchdowns.

While the rest of the Giants’ regular skill position players (Matt Breida, Daniel Bellinger, Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James, and Darius Slayton) are better than they’re given credit for, it was still apparent that the Giants needed to add players who could take some of the load off of Barkley.

Enter the trade for tight end Darren Waller.

“I’ve known (Raiders general manager) David Ziegler for a long time, so we had been in contact at Senior Bowl,” Schoen said. “And at the Combine, we just had some general conversations like, ‘Hey, anybody on your team that may be available?’ Just had those general conversations with all the GMs at the combine. That’s part of it. And Waller was a name that came up that we were interested in, and we continued those talks when we came back. After doing a little bit of research and coming to an agreement on his value, we went ahead and pulled the trigger.”

Waller is one of the more dynamic players in the NFL when healthy. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2019 and 2020, and he was most productive when asked to play in a short-range offense like the one with which the Giants found success in 2022.

Of course, the “when healthy” is the sticking point. Waller has missed 14 games in the last two seasons, and only played 9 in 2022. He suffered pair of ankle sprains and a strained IT band in 2021, as well as a pair of Grade 2 hamstring sprains in 2022.

The willingness to add a player with a significant injury history would seem to be a bit odd for a team that has struggled with injuries. The Giants ranked 26th in the NFL in games lost to injury (22nd on offense, 30th on defense) according to Football Outsiders.

Schoen, however, touted the Giants’ training staff and trusts them to keep injuries at bay and available.

“We did a lot of research on that as well,” Schoen said. “Our training staff was the Ed Block training staff of the year this year. Our soft tissue injuries were down over 200 percent if you take out a couple of players that had multiple soft tissues, we were in really good shape. The soft tissue stuff, I have a lot of confidence in the training staff, the strength staff, the sports science. Dabs spends a lot of time with those groups of people, as well as myself, mapping out the practice schedule, training camp, how we’re going to do things at the start and end of the season. We felt comfortable with the information that we had and the staff that we have in place to get him on the field and keep him healthy.”