The late George Young once said that the NFL salary cap was the first thing he thought of when he woke up and the last thing on his mind before going to sleep.
With good reason. Proper salary cap management can often mean the difference between building a sustainable winning program and ruining it.
The cap is like a household budget. You’re given a lump sum with which to work, and it’s up to you to decide how much you need for rent, groceries, utilities, etc. With some proper diligence, it is always possible to have enough money left in the pot to sign young talent to extensions or to make that occasional free agency splash.
But what a team wants to avoid at all costs is spending its available cap money like it’s going out of style in free agency.
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles “dream team” was a perfect example of why spending money like crazy in free agency is a bad idea—that club finished 8-8, a record it likely could have reached had it not blown its cap space.
Under Jerry Reese
Jerry Reese spent the 2011 off-season building up the Giants via the draft and with a few low-cost free-agent additions such as center David Baas (5 years, $27.5 million), punter Steve Weatherford (1 year, $700,000), cornerback Brian Williams (1-year, $810,000) and receiver Brandon Stokely (1-year, $910,000 salary). That Giants team ended up winning the Super Bowl.
But as the poor drafts began to pile up and deplete the talent, Reese turned to free agency not once but twice to fill in some of the gaping holes that had developed on the roster.
The first was in 2014 with signing guys such as OL Geoff Schwartz (4 years, $16.8 million), running back Rashad Jennings (4 years, $10 million), center J.D. Walton (2 years, $5 million), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (5 years, $35 million), and cornerback Walter Thurmond (1 year, $3 million).
Their record that season was 6-10, the free-agent acquisitions they spent big money on barely making a dent in the team’s forward progress. Part of the reason was in that season, the Giants had $34 million worth of contracts on injured reserve.
The following year, the Giants took the same path to make up for the growing whiffs from the drafts. They signed running back Shane Vereen (3 years, $12.35 million), receiver Dwayne Harris (5 years, $17.5 million), tackle Marshall Newhouse (2 years, $3 million), and linebackers J.T. Thomas (3 years, $10 million) and Jonathan Casillas (3 years, $8 million), among others.
The result? Another 6-10 record.
The Giants did it again in 2016, spending big money on defensive end Olivier Vernon (5 years, $85 million), defensive tackle Damon Harrison (5 years, $46.25 million), and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (5 years, $62.5 million).
While that spending did yield an 11-5 record in and the organization’s first playoff berth since 2011, that success proved to be a fluke that led to the team having to shed most of those contracts down the line, accompanied by some cap-choking dead money that hamstrung the team.
The moral of the story is that relying too heavily on free agency to build a roster rarely works. The Giants, under Reese, found that out twice, yet that didn’t stop history from eventually repeating itself.
Under Dave Gettleman
Ironically, when Gettleman first returned to the Giants as general manager, he mostly approached roster-building the correct way: leaning heavily on the draft while using free agency to fill in the holes that the draft couldn’t provide.
The problem, however, was two-fold. First, a case could be made that Gettleman overspent on specific free agents. Three examples that come to mind include running back Jonathan Stewart (2 years, $6.9 million), linebacker Kareem Martin (3 years, $15 million), and offensive guard Patrick Omameh (3 years, $15 million).
(Note: Some believe Gettleman overspent on offensive tackle Nate Solder, who received a four-year, $62 million deal. That spending was necessitated by the Ereck Flowers failure, which falls on both the player and the coaching staff. That said, the Solder contract became more of a problem as the Giants re-structured it at least twice, including last off-season, thereby continuing to push more money forward.)
The second part of the problem is the 2018 Giants draft. We’ve mentioned the decision to draft Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall instead of an offensive lineman in Part 1 of this analysis.
But that was only part of the problem. Out of that six-member draft class, only three remain on the roster (Barkley, guard Will Hernandez and linebacker Lorenzo Carter). And of those three, it would be surprising if anyone other than Barkley gets a second contract from the team.
The bottom line is the failure to get some long-term answers from that draft class set the Giants’ rebuild under Gettleman back. The 2019 class, while a bit better, currently projects to have four out of the ten original members–quarterback Daniel Jones, defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, safety Julian Love and receiver Darius Slayton– on the roster moving forward. (The good news is the 2020 and 2021 classes appear to be more solid at this point.)
With two questionable drafts, Gettleman and the Giant, under pressure to start producing wins, took the free agency shortcut in building the roster, going heavy on free agents perhaps with the hopes of increasing the number of wins.
This past off-season, they added WR Kenny Golladay (4 years, $72 million), RB Devontae Booker (2 years, $5.5 million), WR John Ross (1 year, $1,843,750), LB Ifeadi Odenigbo (1 year, $2.5 million), TE Kyle Rudolph (2 years, $12 million), CB Adoree’ Jackson (3 years, $39 million), and a bunch of other one-year deals each upward of $1 million.
Since going on a massive free-agent spending spree, they’ve had to re-structure other contracts such as those belonging to cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez. They also re-structured Logan Ryan and Graham Gano to ensure they have enough operating capital to get them through the rest of this season.
The problem with doing that is two-fold. First, they are 3-6, and unless they go on a winning streak the rest of the way, the playoffs will probably not be in the cards.
And if there are no playoffs, they will hurt themselves financially in 2022, a year in which assistant general manager Kevin Abrams expressed concerns about the salary cap and how the Giants would fit under it.
According to Over the Cap, the Giants are grossly top-heavy in 2022, the average salary of their top-10 highest cap figures being $14.899 million.
The Giants also project to be $7,641,538 over the cap in terms of functional space for next year. Given all these factors, the Giants need to shed some big contracts next year to have money to do the basics.
In short, the approach chosen by the Giants to bolster their roster always came with risks (and likely came with a lot of optimism that the coaching staff could work wonders). But realistically speaking, spending all that money on what now appears to be short-term solutions was probably not the best way to go about things.
Tomorrow: Part 3: Personnel Decisions
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