Rebuilding the New York Giants' defense cost them a ton of money last offseason, and keeping it from falling apart again might cost a little more.
But it's the price they have to pay if they want to win another championship in the Eli Manning era. And that's why between now and the start of free agency in March, the Giants have to do their best to re-sign Johnathan Hankins and Jason Pierre-Paul.
It was obvious the Giants' $200 million spending spree on defense last offseason was an unqualified success. A historically bad defense a year earlier that ranked dead last in the NFL finished 10th in total yards against (339.7) in 2016, third in rushing defense (88.6) and second in scoring (17.8 points against). Even the pass rush, which did little in the first half of the season, came on strong right up until Pierre-Paul got hurt.
A lot of that was due to the best secondary the Giants had assembled in decades, but don't discount the impact of their best defensive line since the Super Bowls of 2007 and 2011. Pierre-Paul and Hankins played huge roles, and both are now scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March.
There are limits to how far the Giants can go to keep everything together, of course. They probably will have around $35 million in cap room after cuts and restructures, which will be near the middle of the NFL pack, and they do have obvious -- and potentially expensive -- needs on offense, especially along the offensive line.
But for a team in a narrowing win-now window, they need to get creative and they definitely have to at least try.
Pierre-Paul is the one with the most value, the one the Giants can least afford to lose and the one who'll be most difficult to re-sign (especially since the franchise tag will likely be more than $16 million, which could be about half of the Giants' available cap room). He's coming off a season in which he returned to near his old form with seven sacks in 12 games and was a constant disruptive presence in the pass rush, as well as an underrated player against the run.
While he added sports hernia/groin surgery to his previous career injuries of back surgery, a shoulder injury and his mangled right hand, Pierre-Paul is still only 28 and remains a one of the league's premier pass rushers near his prime, which usually isn't readily available.
His market could be deep, and he knows it. Remember, he feels he missed out twice on big paydays: one when he blew off his hand in the fireworks accident in 2015 and lost a shot at signing a long-term deal with the Giants, and again last March when he took a one-year, "prove-it" deal with the Giants.
"I'm not playing (again) on no one-year deal," he told reporters the day after the Giants' season ended. "I've proved it. I've showed it."
So yeah, he'll be expensive. According to a source familiar with his situation, he has his eyes set on at least the five-year, $85 million deal (with $52.5 million guaranteed) the Giants gave Olivier Vernon. Given the number of teams with cap space to spend who are likely to be looking for a pass rusher -- including the Cowboys -- he might end up with more.
Hankins' value is a little harder to quantify. He's not the pass rusher he seemed to be when he had seven sacks in his second NFL season (he had just three last year, in his fourth). And while he's a good run-stuffer, so much of the Giants' interior success was because of the all-pro season by defensive tackle Damon Harrison. The Giants like Hankins, who might be a relative bargain at 24 years old. He probably won't get near the five-year, $46.25 million deal (with $24 million guaranteed) that Harrison received, and the Giants might be able to keep him off the market entirely by acting quickly.
Regardless, it's going to be a lot of money. The Giants may end up with $250 million in contracts tied up in just their defensive line alone. That's a problem given the number of other needs they have and the fact that they might need two offensive linemen in a market where New York Jets guard Brian Winters -- hardly one of the top linemen available -- just got a four-year, $29 million deal with about $15 million guaranteed from the Jets.
Why spend it? Because each player's importance is amplified by the same thing: bad drafting. If those two are let go, the Giants have no replacement on the roster ready to step in. Once Pierre-Paul got hurt, the Giants were so thin on the defensive line they had to turn to undrafted rookie Romeo Okwara. And while the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder played reasonably well, showed promise and had a big first start against Dallas, he ended up with just one sack in his five starts. And behind Hankins is former third-round pick Jay Bromley, who has shown little in three games.
It's not like the Giants can let them go and be confident they can churn out an adequate replacement. They are in the same situation that led them to spend so much in free agency last offseason. When it comes to depth, their cupboard is relatively bare.
But that's the cycle the Giants are in now - and will be until their recent drafts begin bearing more fruit. They have to spend money in ways they haven't before because their pipeline of talent isn't overflowing. When they do have homegrown talent -- like Pierre-Paul and Hankins -- it's always a much better idea to spend money on them than to spend it on someone else.