When the NFL free-agent signing period began, almost everyone assumed that Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins was about to strike it rich. The only question seemed to be how close he'd get to the five-year, $46.25 million contract the Giants gave defensive tackle Damon Harrison last season, or whether he had a shot to exceed it.
A bit over a week after the market opened, though, the 24-year-old Hankins remains unsigned and the market for defensive tackles has collapsed around him. So now, as free-agency begins its second, far-less-lucrative wave, the big, unanswered question about Hankins is this:
What the heck happened?
There may be no simple answer, even as he surely is preparing himself for the likelihood that he won't be getting a lucrative, long-term contract from anyone and might even need to sign a one-year, "prove-it" contract so he can try again next year. That can still be fairly lucrative -- fellow defensive tackle Dontari Poe signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Falcons on Thursday that includes an additional $2 million in incentives -- but it won't contain the kind of big-money guarantee Hankins seemed so likely to receive.
So far, the only really huge deal for a defensive tackle was given to Brandon Williams by the Ravens -- a five-year, $52.5 million contract with $33.75 million guaranteed. That he was the first top DT to sign a huge deal wasn't surprising, since many did consider him the best on the market. It was a bit of a shock that his deal exceeded Harrison's, but given the fact that teams had over $1 billion in salary cap space to play with, that's just how free agency works.
It seemed logical then that Poe and Hankins would be next. Instead, the money flowed elsewhere. Nick Fairley signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Saints with $13 million guaranteed. Alan Branch got a two-year, $12 million deal from the Patriots. Neither of those were in the ballpark of what Poe or Hankins were looking for, according to league sources, so as far as the big money was concerned, they still figured to be next.
So Poe began a free agency tour where, according to league sources, he found out teams were not willing to meet his price. Hankins' game plan has been less clear since his agents have chosen not to divulge much information. It's not known if he's drawn much interest at all.
How is that possible for a player of his abilities -- a 6-2, 320-pounder who has been a three-year starter, a strong run-stuffer, and a someone who responded with seven sacks when he was turned loose in 2014? There are two basic reasons that come up in conversations with various NFL sources:
1.) Hankins may be good, but some don't consider him an impact player. True, he was a strong pass-rusher in 2014. But in 2015 -- a season shortened to nine games by a torn pectoral muscle -- he didn't have a single sack, and last season he had only three. Yes, he was good against the run. But his teammate, Harrison, was the true dominant force in the Giants' run defense. Some question how good Hankins really is on his own.
2.) Hankins and his representatives are holding firm to their desire for a big-money deal, even though it seems increasingly unrealistic. Multiple sources said early in the free-agent signing period that Hankins' price was too high, that he was looking for a deal at least equal to what Harrison got. The Miami Herald reported on Thursday that the Dolphins were interested in Hankins as a rotational player, not necessarily a starter, but were told he was looking for a long-term deal worth $8 million per year.
There seems to be no chance that Hankins will end up with anything close to a five-year, $40 million deal now, and if that's what his agents are telling him he'll get he's going to be in for a very long wait.
Meanwhile, the Giants haven't signed a replacement. They definitely had interest in bringing Hankins back, according to a team source, but weren't going to give him the kind of big money he was looking for. The Dolphins, according to the Miami Herald, were looking to sign a DT for one year and no more than $4 million.
Would the Giants sign up for that with Hankins right now? Probably. He might even be able to add more to the value of the deal in incentives. But with the Giants up against the cap -- they had less than $4 million in available cap space as of Thursday, according to league records -- they're not likely to offer anything more than that.
And that puts the ball back in Hankins' court. He can hold to his demands and keep waiting, knowing teams still have cap room to spend -- even if they don't seem to be willing to spend it on him. Or he can drop his demands and try to reset with a "prove it" deal, the way many other players are often forced to do.
For now, though, he remains one of the best available free agents on the market, as well as one of the market's biggest mysteries. Just how long that goes on, though, is entirely up to him.