By Ernie Palladino
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Just because we’ve moved a couple of days closer to Sunday’s 6:30 p.m. kickoff doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a bit of Giants news hanging over Super Bowl week. And no, we’re not talking about the nebulous and often dishonest world of game-worn memorabilia, a web in which Eli Manning is either rightfully or wrongfully trapped right now, depending on his explanation.
We’re talking about the pending free agency of Justin Tuck.
That’s pretty sad, though totally understandable. Tuck, a locker room favorite among players and media alike, told the New York Post he’ll definitely test the waters once the starting gun to the NFL’s annual veteran flesh-grab goes off March 11.
The Giants will meet with him next month to see where his head is at, and perhaps even match their current needs to the 30-year-old defensive end via a reasonable contract. But Tuck said he’s almost sure he’ll at least see what’s out there.
That’s a good move for him. After a couple of injury-riddled seasons and a late resurgence this year, Tuck’s place on the team turned from rock-solid secure to uncertain. Even huge fans of Tuck, the very definition of a hard-working warrior, have questioned whether the Giants should spend an exorbitant amount of money to keep him around.
For all his wisdom and influence in the locker room, and all his guts on the field, the answer is probably no. If he is to realize his prior wish of retiring as a Giant, he’ll have to come back here at a reasonable salary. And even that depends on whether Jerry Reese believes that the 9 ½ sacks over the last five games this year will carry to the beginning of next season.
If he doesn’t, then it means he believes Tuck is on the back-nine of his career. There are no gigantic contracts for veterans like that, especially ones that have suffered through shoulder and neck issues the two previous seasons.
Recall, too, that Tuck finished with a more-than-respectable 11 sacks. But going into Game 12 against Dallas, he had just 1 ½. He was shut out completely in Games 2-6.
Still, whatever consistency Tuck may now lack in the pass rush — remember, he wasn’t the only one slow to the quarterback — he still has an abundance of locker room equity. Players listen to him. He’s a guiding light for the young guys. Given the changes due for this aging, injured roster after a thoroughly disappointing season, it might be smart to keep a leader like Tuck around.
On the flip side, Tuck is right when he says he owes it to himself to look around. There might just be a team out there who wants a wily vet who won’t leave the field unless he’s basically paralyzed. Tuck has always set the example for toughness, from his willingness to play through a shoulder destroyed by Flozell Adams’ trip, to the neck injury that nagged him throughout 2012.
Unless Reese wants to leave the stewardship of the defensive line in the hands of Mathias Kiwanuka, who is 30 himself, and 25-year-old Jason Pierre-Paul, who has experienced a disturbing, injury-related slide down the sack column since his 16 ½ in 2011, Reese should probably make Tuck a salary cap-friendly offer he can’t refuse.
If he doesn’t, Tuck will know he’ll have to earn his paycheck elsewhere next season.
And that would be sad. Understandable, but a shame.
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