EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – He hasn't had an opportunity to see them in person, but Dave Gettleman is confident his free agent acquisitions have improved a Giants defense that struggled the past three seasons.
The new Giants include cornerback James Bradberry, whom Gettleman drafted when he was the Carolina Panthers' general manager, and linebackers Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell, both of whom previously worked with defensive coordinator Patrick Graham in Green Bay.
"There is still more work to be done, but we are thrilled with those three guys," Gettleman said on a conference call today. "We also signed Austin Johnson, another defensive lineman. We are very pleased with where we are at. Martinez gives us a guy that has played in the system for Pat Graham and will get us lined up. I think that this scheme is going to fit him better. Everybody knows I drafted James when I was in Carolina. He gives you a big, long body that has played against number ones (receivers). He has the mindset, he's not shy and the moment is not too big for him. Fackrell, two years ago, had double digit (10.5) sacks and Green Bay went out and bought two high sack guys (Preston and Za'Darius Smith) and he became a rotational part-time player. We feel good about that. You have to keep building, we are excited about the draft, there are some good players there. We are just going to continue to get better. Nothing is ever done."
The Giants entered free agency with a clear need to reinforce their defense. Since the unit was ranked 10th in the NFL in 2016, it has finished 31st, 24th and 25th the last three seasons. The 2019 defense surrendered 377.3 yards a game and the Giants allowed 451 points, the league's third-highest total.
Like many executives seeking an improvement that is both rapid and long-lasting, Gettleman focused not just on talent, desire and intelligence, but familiarity. Of the 11 players signed by the Giants who wore a different uniform in 2019, eight previously played for Gettleman, Joe Judge and/or one of the assistant coaches. In addition to the players mentioned above, Cam Fleming was in New England when Judge was on the Patriots staff and in Dallas under Jason Garrett and Marc Columbo; Dion Lewis and Nate Ebner were New England special teams standouts under Judge; Johnson played for defensive line coach Sean Spencer at Penn State; and tight end Eric Tomlinson spent three weeks with the Giants last season.
The exceptions are quarterback Colt McCoy, tight end Levine Toilolo and long snapper Casey Kreiter.
"There is a little bit of a lean toward people you know in free agency," Gettleman said. "Times have changed. I know back in the day in free agency you had time to bring a guy in. You could spend a day with him to get to know him. Now we are speed dating and the decision happens before you can get a guy in in the building, before you can get a physical, and that's even before COVID-19.
"I don't think it's any more sensitive, but I do know for us a big concern was the medical piece. We are making decisions and you are building your roster. Just think about what happens if you sign a high dollar guy and he doesn't pass his physical, now where are you? Now you have spent in free agency and now the draft and you think you have your team set and you put together what you think is a good roster. Then, all of the sudden, a guy doesn't pass his physical. The guys we signed, we felt we got good value and we are very pleased with the group."
View photos of the New York Giants free agent signings.
One position under scrutiny is pass rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Markus Golden, who led the Giants with 10.0 sacks last season, remains an unsigned free agent. The top returnees are Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, who had 4.5 sacks apiece. The Giants believe a newcomer who will consistently harass is Fackrell, whose decline in sack production was due primarily to a reduction in playing time – he was on the field for 208 fewer plays in 2019 than he was the previous season.
Gettleman's decisions were based on both strategy and finances.
"A lot of people were raised with the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl teams, where we could consistently apply pressure with four," Gettleman said. "That is the goal, that's what you want. You can't manufacture it and you can't overpay for it. What it really comes down to is it doesn't matter who gets the sacks, it's about how many sacks you actually get. It really is about how much pressure you apply. Some of this is going to have to come through scheme. Obviously, we haven't gone through the draft yet. With where we're at, would I not want two defensive ends that are 25 sacks a year guys? Who doesn't? We are not in that position right now so we will just keep building it."
Prominent pass rushers remain available, including Jadeveon Clowney and Golden. But adding either of them could reduce the Giants' flexibility in retaining some of the team's most productive players when their contracts expire.
"Part of the tight rope that I walk on is short-term and long-term," Gettleman said. "Part of the long-term is we have some good, young players right now. We've got Dalvin Tomlinson, (Evan) Engram and (Jabrill) Peppers. We have to make decisions on them. They're some good, young players. After another year, you guys are going to be banging on me about Saquon (Barkley). As I used to tell the guys down in Charlotte, when you wouldn't spend all your money in free agency, I'd say, 'Listen, you're going to kill me about this? Well, you're going to double kill me when we don't have money to extend Luke Kuechly or Cam Newton or whomever.' It's a collaborative decision we make as we talk about how we're moving forward. Right now, this is the decision we made. We're just going to move forward the way we are now."