Last March, when Giants general manager Jerry Reese started shelling out money like he was an oil baron, his decisions reeked of desperation. Following a 2015 season in which New York had missed the playoffs — the fourth consecutive year that the Giants had fallen short of the postseason, and the third straight that they’d finished with seven or fewer wins — Reese’s seat was glowing hot, and his recent draft history was so bad that even picking Odell Beckham Jr. couldn’t salvage it.
So Reese chose to do something drastic. The franchise spent a staggering $106.3 million in guaranteed money on free agents, nearly $32 million more than its closest competitor. Almost all of that cash went to three players the Giants believed could breathe life into a unit that ranked an embarrassing 30th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2015: defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Each went for the sticker price, inking deals that initially seemed likely to provide fodder for free-agency horror stories.
Harrison had long been an object of football-nerd affection during his previous four-year stint with the Jets. Along with having a top-five NFL nickname — this man is called “Snacks” — Harrison was an integral defensive presence, even if he didn’t stuff the stat sheet. While limited as a pass rusher (1.5 sacks in four years), he was a monster against the run. Those players tend to be undervalued; Harrison was anything but after getting a five-year, $46.3 million deal with $24 million guaranteed.
Jenkins, meanwhile, was spectacular while with the Rams from 2012 to 2015 — in ways both good and bad. He recorded 10 interceptions and five pick-sixes during his time in St. Louis, but his tendency to go hunting for picks led to plenty of brutal misses and huge gains. Despite his Jekyll and Hyde act, the Giants handed him a five-year, $62.5 million contract with $28.8 million in guarantees, the sixth-highest total in the league among cornerbacks.
For most teams, that would’ve been the blockbuster signing of the offseason, but the Giants weren’t done yet. Over the second half of the 2015 campaign, Vernon was the most productive edge rusher in the entire NFL; as a member of the Dolphins, he notched a baffling 64 pass pressures over the final eight weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. It was a level of destruction he had never approached in the past, but that didn’t deter the Giants from paying top dollar to land him. Reese gave Vernon a five-year, $85 million deal with $52.5 million in guarantees — second most among defensive ends and almost $700,000 more than J.J. Watt received from the Texans.
When the moves were announced, it was difficult to imagine the trio outplaying the contracts they’d just signed, typically an indication that risk outpaced reward. Still, with the Giants reeling, Reese put his future on the line with a string of dangerous, low-floor moves that carried potentially catastrophic consequences.
Guess what? It fucking worked.
Behind a suffocating defense, New York won nine of its last 11 games, went 11–5, and clinched an NFC wild-card berth. The Giants went from having a unit that scraped the bottom of the barrel to one that deserves mention among the best in the league. A year after ranking 30th in scoring defense (27.6 points per game), New York finished second (17.8), and its jump in defensive DVOA — from 30th to second — amounts to the biggest ratings leap in the history of the stat, according to Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz. As the playoffs begin, the Giants have the best unit remaining in the field, especially with the Seahawks missing star safety Earl Thomas (who’s out with a broken leg).
There are numerous factors that have made such a leap possible. After playing like one of the worst safeties in the NFL in his rookie season in 2015, Landon Collins has a legitimate chance to win Defensive Player of the Year honors. First-rounder Eli Apple and 2014 signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have helped round out what might be the league’s best group of cornerbacks this side of Denver. And then there’s Reese’s high-priced trio of 2016 additions, who have played critical roles in what’s been nothing short of a franchise-altering turnaround.
Jenkins delivered the best season of his career, peaking with a nationally televised smothering of Dez Bryant in the Giants’ 10–7 upset of the Cowboys in Week 14. Harrison has been every bit as advertised as a run-stuffing solution. A season after allowing 4.4 yards per carry, New York let up 3.6 yards per rush in 2016, tied for the second-best mark in the league. Vernon faced the toughest task in living up to his lucrative deal; somehow, he’s been up to it. The 6-foot-2, 275-pounder tallied 8.5 sacks on the season, and that total doesn’t reflect his overall impact as a pass rusher and the considerable work he did against the run.
The Giants’ defensive makeover — and the hand all three newcomers had in shaping it — represents a perfect free-agency strategy the likes of which the league has rarely seen. If groups like the 2011 Dream Team Eagles serve as cautionary tales about excessive spending, then what the Giants did this spring is a symbol of possibility. Entering New York’s wild-card matchup in Green Bay on Sunday, it’s worth considering: Is this the best free-agent class the league has ever had?
Any discussions about the triumphs of free agency usually start with the single best moves that have been made since the current system replaced the prior Plan B free-agent format on the heels of a federal court ruling in 1992. For the most part, the best classes are extensions of those signings.
Reggie White is often held up as a paragon of free agency’s ultimate prize, with his 1993 move from the Eagles to the Packers shaking up the hierarchy of the league. At this point, though, it’s impossible to argue that Drew Brees going to the Saints in 2006 and Peyton Manning shipping off to Denver in 2012 aren’t the most important free-agent signings of all time.
Upon adding Brees and head coach Sean Payton in 2006, the Saints went from 31st in scoring offense (14.7 points per game) to fifth (25.8), with a huge leap in offensive DVOA as well (25th to eighth). No signing has ever done more to alter the long-term trajectory of a franchise; New Orleans went from 3–13 to 10–6 and a playoff berth in its first campaign with Brees. The Broncos were a (surprise) playoff team in the year before Manning got to town, but in his first season they went from 25th in scoring offense (19.3 points per game) to second (30.1), and from 23rd to second in DVOA.
In a way, though, including Brees and Manning in this conversation is unfair. They’re the only two seismic quarterback signings ever, and by single-handedly changing the complexion of their teams, neither gets to the heart of the question we’re trying to answer. (The Raiders’ 1999 signing of Rich Gannon also fits into this category.) Digging through the past 20-plus years of free-agent history, I landed on three groups that fit the classwide criteria. Two are from the first handful of seasons in the free-agent era and feature some of the biggest splashes of the past few decades. In 1996, the Panthers (and GM Bill Polian) landed a monster haul with quarterback Steve Beuerlein, cornerback Eric Davis, tight end Wesley Walls, and pass rusher Kevin Greene. Even without getting into the impact that Beuerlein had, the production Carolina got from this crew was astonishing. Greene finished with a league-leading 14.5 sacks. Walls made 61 catches for 713 yards with 10 scores on his way to being named second-team All-Pro, and Davis earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. A year after the franchise was founded, the Panthers went 12–4 and lost to Brett Favre’s Packers in the NFC title game.
That the 1994 49ers can top that speaks to how ridiculous their free-agent class was. San Francisco added three new starters in its front seven: former Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer, Hall of Fame pass rusher Rickey Jackson, and linebacker Ken Norton. Then the Niners signed Deion Sanders. Prime Time’s 1994 campaign, made possible by that year’s MLB strike, still doesn’t seem real. In 12 starts, he picked off six passes (eight including the playoffs) and returned three of them for touchdowns. In all, San Francisco went from 19th to seventh in passing defense DVOA, and it made all the difference as the team raced to a Super Bowl romp over the Chargers.
Both of those classes were probably the best — top to bottom — in the history of free agency before the Broncos went on their absurd spending spree in 2014. In looking at this season’s Giants, it’s hard not to think about John Elway’s tour de force from that year. Denver landed DeMarcus Ware (cut by Dallas), Aqib Talib (coming off his short stint in New England), and T.J. Ward (escaping from the Cleveland wasteland). If that wasn’t enough, the Broncos also signed Emmanuel Sanders to a three-year, $15 million deal that was hilariously great for the franchise in retrospect. Denver lost in the divisional round that season before winning the Super Bowl a year later.
The Giants are hoping a similar recipe can produce a similar result. The Broncos used free agency as a way to supplement in-house talent with a collection of pieces that could turn their defense from a solid group to one capable of carrying a roster to a championship. New York’s blueprint is a little bit different, but the parallels are striking. Due to the ability this New York unit has on every level, it is equally adept at stopping the run and the pass, and it can accomplish the latter even when its pass-rush engines aren’t firing. With Aaron Rodgers lighting every defense in his path aflame, that will be tested come Sunday. Right now, though, if Rodgers is Drogon, then the Giants defense could be the White Walkers.
With Eli Manning and Beckham capable of hooking up for a score at any moment, these Giants have more firepower than the 2015 Broncos could muster, yet the defense has to carry them if they’re going to win the Super Bowl. New York’s group has morphed from one of the league’s worst to one of its best in the span of a year. Whether this free-agent class is actually the best in NFL history remains to be seen, but the fact that it’s in the discussion says plenty about how the Giants came to be a legitimate playoff threat.