Now that the Giants have finally conceded they really are rebuilding, new head coach Joe Judge faces what John Mara called "a daunting task." And that's not just because he's a 38-year-old, first-time head coach, either.
It's because the Giants went 9-23 over the last two years and could look very different by the time they hit the field for the start of next season. They do have a few good, young pieces to build around, but the reality is they still have plenty of holes.
To fill them, both Judge and GM Dave Gettleman swear it'll be a "collaborative" effort -- that they'll work together, and that their philosophy on how to build an "old school" team is already perfectly aligned. That remains to be seen, of course. But in case they need any help in getting started, here's a blueprint for them to quickly make the Giants a contender again:
Load up on Hog Mollies … for real this time
Gettleman swore that offensive line was his priority when he took the job, but in two drafts he's taken just two offensive linemen in his 16 picks, and one was a seventh-rounder who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. That's no way to build an offensive line, and he knows it. He needs to add a couple of "Hog Mollies" in this year's draft because the cupboard is still as bare as the one he inherited. There's no depth and there's no youth.
The smart play, in fact, would be to use the fourth overall pick in the draft on a tackle. And though it's hard to predict the draft this early, a lot of scouts think Andrew Thomas, Georgia's 6-5, 320-pound left tackle, is a Top 5 talent. Chances are the Giants aren't going to luck into Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young at 4, and it might be a reach to take the next best pass rusher.
So they should go offensive line first, and then consider adding another offensive lineman on Day 2 of the draft. Good teams can't have too many good offensive linemen. Over the past decade, the Giants have learned a hard lesson about what happens when they don't.
Spend money on a pass-rushing stud
Mara rightfully said that the Giants will be cautious in free agency, understanding that you build a team through the draft, and that free agency is a risk. That's true. But years of bad drafting and ignoring their pass rush has left them in a desperate situation.
So if they're going to spend big on one thing, with their $70-90 million in salary cap space, this is where they should do it. There are several strong pass rushers available on the market (for now), including defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and linebacker Shaq Barrett. And there's even a second, still-expensive tier of players like Bud Dupree, Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue or Robert Quinn.
Whichever one they think is the best, whichever one fits their new defensive scheme, they should go hard after him. Yes, they have to be careful. Olivier Vernon was never worth the five-year, $85 million deal the Giants gave him. But they can't continue to operate a defense without someone who can really disrupt the opposing quarterback.
Finding that guy is worth the risk and the price.
Try and re-sign Markus Golden and Leonard Williams to reasonable deals
Golden has earned it, with 10 sacks after coming to the Giants on a one-year, $3.75 million deal (plus a $1 million bonus for those 10 sacks). He has been Gettleman's best free-agent acquisition, by far. The question is how high the Giants should go for him. He likely won't be one of the most sought-after pass rushers on the market. He's not a dominating presence on defense. He gets a lot of his sacks on "hustle" plays where he gets pressure and doesn't give up on the play. That's valuable, but it's different from a game-wrecker like, say, Clowney or Barrett.
Those guys are going to get up near $20 million per year, maybe more. The Giants should be able to keep Golden's deal under $15 million per year, and hopefully not more than three years.
The Giants are in a tougher spot with Williams. They have to sign him, or they need to be prepared to deal with the fallout of why they threw away a third- and a fifth-round pick just to rent him for two months in an already lost season. It will go down as the worst trade in Giants history if they don't bring him back.
But at what cost? Williams has indicated he wants the big, pass-rusher money, and if someone is willing to give him that - think $18-20 million per year -- then the Giants should let him go and take the heat. He's a better player and more disruptive than he's generally given credit for, but with just a half sack this past season and only 7 1/2 in the last three years … well, teams don't generally spend big money on production like that.
But at a more reasonable deal -- say, four years, $65 million with $30 million guaranteed -- could be worth it. Williams has value because of his ability to rotate at multiple positions on the defensive line, and his ability to play the run and at least get near the quarterback. And who knows, if the Giants can add a pass-rusher to the other side who can take some of the double teams away from him, maybe those sack numbers will go up, too.
Don't cut LT Nate Solder
It's become almost cliché to bash the four-year, $62 million deal the Giants gave Solder in 2018, forgetting how desperate they were then and that Solder was by far the best tackle on the market. And it's easy to suggest they should cut him now, even though he'd leave $13 million in dead money behind.
First of all, that's a lot of dead cap space, and that's not smart business. Second, and most importantly, it's not like the Giants have good linemen to spare. They are almost certainly going to draft their left tackle of the future this year. Keeping Solder, who is not as terrible as everyone seems to think, gives them options. The rookie doesn't have to start. Or he can start on the right side.
Think of it this way: The Giants right now have two, maybe three "keeper" linemen -- left guard Will Hernandez, right guard Kevin Zeitler, and Nick Gates, an undrafted rookie the Giants like who could end up at right tackle in the future. Keeping Solder and drafting a tackle gives them three tackles, which they'll probably need. And it means Gates doesn't have to be thrust into a job he might not be ready to have.
Sign a center in free agency
They have guards, need tackles, but there's a real big hole in the middle of the line, too. The Giants do like Jon Halapio, and he's only 28, but with the torn Achilles he suffered in the season finale, he's now coming off the second major injury he's suffered in the last 16 months.
Even if his health didn't make him a question mark, the Giants still could use an upgrade. And the position is too important to turn over to a rookie. The good news is, centers can often be found at a bargain in free agency and there could be a few good ones available in March. The market isn't great, but they should consider Denver's Connor McGovern or even New England's Ted Karras, whom Judge surely knows well.
Offer LB Alec Ogletree a pay cut to stay
This won't be popular and he might not take it, but if they can reduce Ogletree's salary significantly from the $10 million he's owed (and his cap hit from $11.75 million), then it's worth keeping him around.
No, he's not the player the Giants expected when they sent a fourth- and a sixth-round pick to the Rams to get him in 2018. But he's still a decent player and a leader, who can be good for what figures to be a very young linebacking corps.
He could also be a good mentor for Ryan Connelly, a fifth-round pick whom the Giants were very high on before he tore his ACL in Week 4 of his rookie season. Ogletree could start until Connelly is ready and be part of a rotation that includes Lorenzo Carter and, if he can be re-signed, Golden.
It has to be at a reduced rate, though. Ogletree isn't worth $10 million anymore. But this Giants defense is very, very young. They're going to need some experienced voices on the field, especially early. But if he won't take a pay cut, they can cut him, clear $8.25 million in cap room and find another veteran linebacker to do the job.
Switch back to a 4-3 defense
New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham ran multiple looks with his young Miami defense last year, and the best guess is he'll try to do the same in New York. But if he and Judge, both former Patriots assistants, learned anything from their time in New England, it's that they should adjust their plan to fit their personnel.
And let's face it: The Giants' strength is not at linebacker.
So minimize that deficiency by going back to a 4-3, at least predominantly. The Giants were at their most recent best when they rotated a heavy front of versatile defensive linemen, not when they tried to squeeze production out of a thin linebacking corps. They haven't developed the linebackers to do that. And meanwhile, they have the makings of an imposing front with Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, and maybe Williams, too.
Yes, those are all defensive tackles, and they'll need to sign or draft a defensive end or two, but Williams and Hill can rotate outside. A good defensive coordinator will figure out ways to use them. But they have more NFL-caliber men up front. Better to have more of them on the field and limit their defense to three (or sometimes two) linebackers at a time.