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A Giants general manager on the hot seat and his first-year head coach turned to free agency to rebuild a floundering defense.
Is that the prelude to the 2016 season or the 2020 season? Actually, it’s both. But, while the initial results have been as encouraging as they were four years ago, the process has been very different.
In 2016, Jerry Reese and Ben McAdoo handed out three of the 10 richest free-agent contracts — whether measured by overall base value, annual average or fully guaranteed money. Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison each signed a five-year contract, with those deals worth a total of $193 million, and they immediately boosted the Giants from No. 30 in scoring defense to No. 3.
Jenkins made the Pro Bowl, Harrison was a First-Team All-Pro, Vernon led the team with 8.5 sacks, and the Giants won 11 games and returned to the playoffs, for the first time since 2011. That level of team and individual success was not duplicated in subsequent years, however, and all three big egos were out of the locker room before finishing four seasons, ultimately earning a combined $118 million from the Giants.
Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge took a smarter approach to free agency this year, signing inside linebacker Blake Martinez, cornerback James Bradberry and safety Logan Ryan. For the cumulative sum of $80 million, they have been three of the best players on a resurgent defense, which is ranked No. 9 in scoring and has been responsible for the first four-game winning streak since — no coincidence — 2016.
“I thought we worked very well together,” Judge said. “I laid out the way I saw this team being built. We had a lot of conversations in terms of what the best way going about that was. I thought Dave and his staff did a great job in terms of identifying who’s available.
“To me, there was such a key element in bringing in the right kind of people. All the guys you named, they’re very capable players. But when you have guys who are good people in the locker room, who are good teammates, who are passionate about what they’re doing and work hard every day, you’re going to improve as a team.”
Other free agents, such as cornerback Byron Jones and inside linebackers Joe Schobert, Kyle Van Noy and Cory Littleton, landed bigger contracts with other teams. Martinez and Bradberry signed three-year deals that will not ruin the Giants’ salary cap if things unexpectedly sour quickly again (nobody saw the downfall coming for Vernon, Harrison and Jenkins), and also will allow both players another bite at free-agent money after putting themselves in a comfortable position for success.
Bradberry trusted Gettleman, who drafted him with the Panthers. It was the same with Martinez and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who was his position coach with the Packers, and with Ryan (whom the Giants waited out until his asking price was lower in August) and Judge, who were together with the Patriots.
Graham didn’t need specific players to fit his scheme. He fit his schemes when he saw which players were added.
“To me, the beauty of the system and the part that Joe is building here with Mr. Gettleman, we want good football players here with the New York Giants.” Graham said. “It’s our job to figure out how to deploy them.”
The Giants’ fourth biggest free-agent signing in 2016 was outside linebacker Keenan Robinson. In 2020, it was kicker Graham Gano, who reunited with special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey in August.
The performances of both Gano and Ryan show how the Giants shrewdly improved at a time when most rosters are set.
“Those guys are doing a tremendous job for us,” Judge said.
Gano is third in the NFL in field-goal percentage, Martinez is second in tackles and Bradberry is tied for first in passes defended. All could join Ryan — the NFC’s leading vote-getter at safety — in the Pro Bowl as first-year Giants.
If Ryan signs an extension (Gano already has), they will be seen as foundational pieces, not quick fixes. Camaraderie already has been established.
“If you have that person pushing you to be at a higher level than you were yesterday, you’re just going to keep getting better,” Martinez said. “Then the coaches, no matter what you’re doing … they’re going to point things out that you’re doing well, but also point things out that you can improve on.
“They’re never going to let it slide no matter if you are playing at a high level or not. I think that’s also what has allowed each of us to continue that consistency and perform at that high playing level throughout the season.”