Giants keep eye on future with practical approach in free agency

Saquon shows off squats, continues to stay in shape (0:49)

Saquon Barkley shows off his workout routines as he continues to stay in shape during the NFL offseason. (0:49)

The days of wondering what the heck the New York Giants are doing might be over. They appear to have finally found the path to respectability, at least from the look of NFL free agency.

General manager Dave Gettleman is no longer trying to make patchwork roster fixes for the upcoming season while simultaneously looking toward the future. He has admitted he incorrectly tried to win while rebuilding the past few years.

"I thought we could do both at the same time," he said this offseason in a radio interview. "I was wrong."

The Giants could have easily loaded their roster with notable free agents this year. They were roughly $75 million under the salary cap when the new league year began last week and could have embarked on a shopping spree that exceeded the 2016 offseason when they landed pass-rusher Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

Except the Giants, with coach Joe Judge in the fold and quarterback Eli Manning out, realize that would have been a flawed plan. Building a team through free agency rarely works. They barely had one of the top available pass-rushers -- Jadeveon Clowney -- on their radar for a variety of reasons (such as price, injury history and motivational concerns). They didn't go after tackle Jack Conklin or any of the other top offensive linemen.

Instead, the Giants located two top-of-the-market players at cornerback and inside linebacker (their plan all along) and filled the gaps around them with mid-to-lower-end signings. This ate up gobs of cap space with just a few moves, because rather than offering long-term contracts to spread out the signing bonuses and lower the cap hits -- an approach the Giants (like most teams) have used for years -- the Giants absorbed much of the pain right away with shorter-than-normal three-year deals. They're remaining flexible moving forward, understanding they will soon have to give big contracts to running back Saquon Barkley, quarterback Daniel Jones and their first-round pick this year.

"It's kind of like a short-term hit for a long-term gain in a sense ... not trying to maximize the cap space this year with longer deals," said a source with knowledge of the salary cap. "With those three guys, just envisioning these are your new three-headed monster -- Daniel Jones, Saquon [Barkley] and [this year's No. 4 pick], you're trying to preserve [cap space] for down the line."

New cornerback James Bradberry received a $12 million signing bonus and counts $16 million against this year's cap. New middle linebacker Blake Martinez received a $10 million roster bonus and counts $14 million against this year's cap. Throw in Leonard Williams at the franchise tag for defensive tackles ($16.1 million) and the Giants' cap space disappeared quickly.

They were committed to this approach because they were never going to be able to fill all their holes this offseason. They want to, correctly, build their team through the draft and supplement it via free agency.

It's fair to debate whether the Giants are actually much better right now -- aside from at middle linebacker, where Martinez replaces Alec Ogletree, who was a well-below-average player the past few years. Bradberry takes Jenkins' spot as the top cornerback. New tight end Levin Toilolo replaces Rhett Ellison (recently retired). Cameron Fleming replaces Mike Remmers at right tackle. And the Giants can only hope new outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell can be as effective as departed pass-rusher Markus Golden or that new special-teams ace Nate Ebner has an impact similar to Mike Thomas'. There will likely be another pass-rusher and a center added, but none of this year's signings are going to create a race to the ticket window.

The Giants are making a commitment to allow their young players to grow. Last year they stripped the defense to bare bones, then signed 30-year-old receiver Golden Tate to a deal worth more than $9 million annually. It's a move that looks worse now given the state of the wide receiver market, as there has been little movement at the position in free agency because of a 2020 draft class loaded with wideouts.

This year, instead of spending big for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $10 million with the Los Angeles Rams, the Giants will give those snaps to their 2018 third-round pick Lorenzo Carter. He already fills that role of promising, yet average, former University of Georgia pass-rushing linebacker. And rather than risking even bigger money on an edge rusher they have concerns about (like Clowney) for the defensive line, the Giants will temporarily fill that position by committee until they can find that difference-maker at a later date.

Another philosophical shift: Judge was adamant at the combine about the Giants not signing mentors or culture-builders who can no longer play. Gettleman has not done that this year after flushing money away the past couple of offseasons trying to get the locker room right with veterans who made minimal contributions, such as running back Jonathan Stewart, defensive back William Gay and safety Antoine Bethea.

This offseason plan makes sense for a franchise that wasn't going to seriously compete for the Super Bowl no matter how many top-of-the-market free agents were signed.

Perhaps it's an overall shift in philosophy, or maybe it's Judge's influence nudging them in the right direction. Whatever it is, it appears the Giants finally have found the right approach after having the league's worst record over the past three seasons.