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Breaking down Dave Gettleman’s ultimate plan for Giants

Ralph Vacchiano | Facebook | Twitter | Archive

The decision to let safety Landon Collins walk away for nothing sent shockwaves through a Giants fan base that still seems to be trying to figure GM Dave Gettleman out. One minute acts like the Giants are close to being a contender. The next he sounds like he’s rebuilding. Then he’s cutting costs on players like Collins, while not blinking at the $23.2 million cap hit for aging quarterback Eli Manning.

Trying to decipher his moves the last 15 months has been like riding the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney. Just as the franchise seems to turn one direction, it lurches towards the other. Meanwhile, everyone is nauseous and wondering: Is there any real direction at all?

The answer to that is, like many things, complicated and not often clear. There’s no doubt the mess Gettleman inherited – on the field, in the locker room, and to a smaller extent under the salary cap – was significant when he was hired in December, 2017. Even Gettleman may have underestimated how extensive the problems were, though he adamantly denies he did.

But based on conversations with the GM, those who know him, and others in the organization, there’s no doubt he has a plan to get the Giants’ once-sinking ship back above water. Here’s a look at what that plan is, and how the Collins’ decision – and everything else Gettleman has done – fits in:

It’s about asset allocation

This is a simple philosophy that was also followed by Gettleman’s mentor, Ernie Accorsi, and even his predecessor, Jerry Reese, to an extent. Positions have a certain worth, and paying for more than that is how teams get into trouble. Offensive and defensive linemen, to Gettleman, are just more valuable than safeties – especially “box” safeties like Collins, whom the Giants believe wasn’t always adequate in coverage.

“The Giants always used to say, ‘This is what we think your player is worth,’ and if you got a dollar over that they’d walk away,” one NFL agent said. “Sounds like they’re back to that again.”

It’s actually not just a hard financial line either. It’s all in relation to the salary cap. Gettleman estimated he has about $27 million in cap space and wants to hold $8 million or so for use during the season. That leaves him around $19 million to use. Was Collins – or any safety — worth nearly 60 percent of the Giants’ available cap space? And the percentage is even higher when you figure the Giants just tendered restricted free agent receiver Corey Coleman, backup quarterback Alex Tanney, may sign a handful of their own unrestricted free agents, and probably need about $10 million to sign this year’s draft class.

It was the same justification for the trade Gettleman completed on Friday, sending his best pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, to the Cleveland Browns for guard Kevin Zeitler. The cap hits for Vernon ($11.5 million) and Zeitler ($10 million) were almost the same. Gettleman felt using that money on a starting offensive linemen was better than using it on an under-achieving linebacker with injury issues.

Clearing out the bad contracts 

Gettleman believes in building through the draft and developing his own players, not spending wildly in free agency. He’d rather spend that money to keep the good players he has. But he inherited a roster that had deteriorated from years of bad drafting and was filled with players who were clearly not performing up to their deals. That’s at least part of why he traded DE Jason Pierre-Paul (in the middle of a four-year, $62 million deal), DT Damon Harrison (five years, $46 million and traded Vernon (five years, $85 million).

The idea is to take a short-term cap hit in terms of dead money to help clear cap space in the future. And he wants to avoid restructuring contracts too, the way he did last summer with CB Janoris Jenkins. “You don’t want to do that,” Gettleman said last week. “You do not want to do that. Because that’s kicking the can, kicking the can, kicking the can …”

That also explains why they won’t restructure Manning’s contract, since that would involve extending it beyond 2019, too.

Clearing out the bad guys and rebuild the culture

One of the biggest issues for Gettleman was changing the “culture” – a word he uses constantly – after seeing what a disaster the Giants’ locker room was in 2017. He talked to coaches, team officials, players and anyone he could about who the good guys and bad guys were in the room. He wanted to clear any problems out.

That was part of the reason the Giants traded Pierre-Paul, who one team source said at the time wasn’t considered to be a good locker room guy. That also factored in with Harrison, who often seemed aloof to many of his teammates. It was obviously the motivation behind letting CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie go and trading CB Eli Apple, who had both been suspended the previous season. Same for cutting tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, who had long been considered attitude problems.

“Listen, I harp on it and I know you guys are tired of hearing it,” Gettleman said last week. “I’ve been to seven of these things (Super Bowls) and every single team had a great locker room. (And) part of the responsibility of a general manager is to eliminate distractions.”

To put it another way, Gettleman discussed what he called “The a-hole quotient” – “The bigger the a–hole you are, the better the player you had to be. Plain and simple,” he said. “It’s funny, it’s true. Think of the great players that you’ve seen around the league who have been just complete jerks. At the end of the day, what was the sum total of their career and their effect on their teams?”

Of course, none of that seems to apply to Collins, who is genuinely liked and respected by his teammates and coaches. His one misstep as a Giant came when he famously went on the radio and called his teammate, Apple, “a cancer.” Still, his release was more about allocation of assets than attitude.

Find the next Eli Manning

Gettleman called doing this “a dream” and he knows he has to keep the Giants out of “quarterback hell.” Some in the organization are convinced that Gettleman feels he needs to do this now. That seems obvious since Manning is 38 and entering the final year of contract. Then again, it seemed obvious last year too.

That doesn’t mean he’ll take a quarterback at 6. Several sources said it’s far too early to know if Gettleman will fall for a quarterback – Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins being the most likely one – the way he fell for Saquon Barkley or how Accorsi fell for Manning 15 years ago. But he’s looking and considering all options – trades, this year’s draft, next year’s draft, wherever he can find one.

And he made some conditions clear: He’s looking for a first-round quarterback, not a second-day guy he hopes will develop. He wants a premier talent. And when he spoke about using “the Kansas City model” he made it clear he wants the rookie to sit for a year, preferably behind Manning.

“I’m very serious about what I said,” he added. “I would love to drop a franchise quarterback in this place, and then watch him from Cape Cod and enjoy the hell out of it. OK? That’s a gift.”

In the meantime, Gettleman is reluctantly sticking with Manning, who remains his best option to keep the team afloat. He genuinely seems to think Manning can still play. He even lashed out as Manning’s critics at the combine saying “The narrative around Eli for the past four years, five years … was really negative. And I don’t think it’s been fair.”

But his words are usually more lukewarm than glowing, even in private. He gets that the post-Manning Era is nearly here.

Rebuild the trenches

This was his stated priority a year ago and it hasn’t changed. It’s why he overpaid for LT Nate Solder (four years, $62 million) last year and swung (and missed) at since-released guard Patrick Omameh (three years, $15 million). One team source said Gettleman understood the offensive line alone was likely a multiple-year project.

He took another step on Friday, trading for Zeitler, a 29-year-old, 6-4, 315-pound guard. He will almost certainly sign a right tackle in free agency. So keep an eye on free agents like Carolina’s Daryl Williams, a former fourth-round pick by Gettleman. And you can bet at least two of the Giants’ 10 draft picks will be used on “Hog Mollies” too.

“We’re going to constantly look to improve that unit,” Shurmur said. “I believe you have a chance to win it all when you can say the strength of your team is the offensive line.”

Don’t say ‘rebuild’ — even if that’s what they’re doing

When Gettleman took over the Giants he never said they were in win-now mode, but he certainly acted that way (see the big contract to Solder, the trade for LB Alec Ogletree, and the disastrous signing of RB Jonathan Stewart). Those that know and work with him thought he believed they could be a playoff contender, but as time went on he realized the roster presented more problems than he thought.

He disagrees with that, of course. “I didn’t misjudge it at all,” Gettleman said back in January. “That’s been asked before and I’ve thought about that. I had no illusions of what we were. None.”

So what are they? They are a team trying to rebuild on the fly – to restock and reshape their roster while staying just good enough to compete. In hindsight, they think they were close last season. They were 5-11, yes, but they lost eight games by a touchdown or less (they also won four). They believe they could have won three or four of those games if their line had blocked better for Manning or if their defense had a pass rush that didn’t wear down in the fourth quarter.

And that’s the difference between an 8- or 9-win playoff contender and a 5-win mess. Gettleman sees that and believes there’s no reason the Giants can’t fix the roster and win some games at the same time, too.

“I just hate the word ‘rebuild.'” Gettleman said in January. “You just keep going. You just keep building. It’s really what we’re doing here. We’re doing our best to accumulate the talent that fits our schemes, and that understands how to play the game, and hates to flippin’ lose. That’s what it’s really all about.”

So he wants to build for the future, without sacrificing a season (or two). It’s why he keeps a $23 million quarterback while searching for his successor, but lets a 25-year-old safety walk away. And it’s why he’s facing a choice with the No. 6 pick that he admits is “a tough one”: Draft the Giants’ Quarterback of the Future or a player who can help right now.

“I’m on that tight rope — and me in a tutu on a tightrope ain’t pretty,” Gettleman said back in January. “It’s the tight rope of: You want to win now because you’ve got a coaching staff whose fannies are on the line every Sunday. And you want to set the team up, the franchise up, for sustained success.”

And he wants to do it all simultaneously, all while resisting the urge to look down.

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