By Ernie Palladino
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The Giants have never used the franchise tag extensively, even in their best years. So it’s almost a no-brainer that new general manager Dave Gettleman will probably pass on it this year, too.
Think about it this way: After 3-13, there’s not a single name among the team’s 19 unrestricted free agents that Gettleman should consider indispensable for next season. With only about $24.5 million of salary cap space to refurbish a team that in 2017 laid the biggest egg in franchise history, devoting the average of the top five salaries at any position would not only be financially irresponsible, but close to downright suicide.
And when perusing the list, who, really, is worth it? Shane Vereen? The Giants never really knew how to use the former Patriots scatback in the first place, and there’s no reason to think new head coach Pat Shurmur will have much use for him now. Jonathan Casillas? Nice linebacker, but at 30, they could probably get him back at a reasonable number.
Twenty-seven-year-old Justin Pugh was the best offensive lineman of a terrible offensive line last year, but he comes off a back injury. Same with Weston Richburg, a solid center when healthy. And D.J. Fluker provided a boost to the running game on the right side but was less than impressive as a pass blocker. To spend the projected positional salary of $14.2 million for any of those guys is likely far outside Gettleman’s price range.
Those linemen probably wouldn’t make a huge impact, anyway. Though Pugh and Richburg had nice seasons in 2016, the offense still underachieved despite the 11-5 record. Unless left tackle Ereck Flowers undergoes a total transformation, perhaps on the right side, there’s no reason to think Eli Manning’s protection will improve markedly even if Gettleman locks up one of the three linemen.
Besides, the Giants will need that money for a variety of other needs. With the focus on the No. 2 overall pick, the assumption is that Gettleman will draft a quarterback. But in his just-released second mock draft, ESPN guru Mel Kiper had them taking Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, a wonderful pick considering the Giants need a running game and Barkley is a can’t-miss prospect.
That would mean signing a veteran behind Manning, unless management is completely sold that second-year backup Davis Webb can handle those duties. If they go the veteran route, that will chew up a significant piece of the cap. And one can only hope they won’t try for Minnesota’s Sam Bradford, a prime candidate for at least one local media outlet.
Bradford is a good quarterback when healthy. Problem is he hasn’t exactly enjoyed a hearty career due to an uncanny inability to stay on the field. Since becoming the last of the big-money rookies with the Rams in 2010, the year before the league and the players association agreed to lock the newbies into a pay scale, he has played 80 games, missed the entire 2014 season, played just two games last year for Minnesota and has sat at least six games in two other seasons.
As a free agent this year, he might draw a flock of offers from other quarterback-needy teams as well as the Vikings. The last thing the Giants can afford is to get into a bidding war for a backup, especially for one who has grown used to large paychecks from career earnings of $114 million.
In other words, he won’t come cheap. And cheap is what the Giants need. Geno Smith cheap — $775,000 base salary — would fit perfectly, as long as Smith isn’t the guy.
But there seems little danger of that happening.
As for the rest of the team, Gettleman will have to pick carefully in the draft and be frugal in free agency.
That means eschewing the franchise tag. But that is nothing new. Since it came into existence in 1993, the Giants have used it only five times on four players — tackle Jumbo Elliott, running back Brandon Jacobs, punter Steve Weatherford and twice on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. And the only reason they tagged Pierre-Paul twice was because they needed a “show-me” year in 2016 after a July 4 fireworks accident blew off part of his right hand the year before. They tagged him again in 2017, but eventually negotiated a long-term contract.
However, the Giants appeared on the way up then. With the team at its nadir after last year’s face-plant, they can ill afford to spend exorbitantly on one player.
And really, after a year like that, nobody is worth it.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino