PHOENIX -- When J.T. Thomas racked up 12 tackles and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in the Jaguars' Week 13 victory over the New York Giants, he likely didn't realize the extent to which he was trying out.
"Thomas played very well against us," Giants coach Tom Coughlin recalled Wednesday. "And a lot of times, quite frankly, there's no better information as you get looking into free agency than people who've done well against you."
The Giants use a lot of advanced stats and rely heavily on their scouts when deciding which players to pursue in free agency, but they also do this thing Coughlin's talking about, where they kind of over-inflate a player's performance in a game against them when making their evaluation. Running back Rashad Jennings, who had 107 yards from scrimmage in a 2013 game against the Giants and signed a four-year contract with them last offseason, is a recent example.
So Thomas got a three-year, $10 million contract from the Giants on the first day of free agency this year, and Coughlin foresees a big role for him in the defense -- possibly as the starting weakside linebacker.
"We think Thomas could be a Will 'backer," Coughlin said. "[Fellow free-agent signee Jonathan] Casillas is basically the same kind of guy. Both are outstanding special-teamers. They'll make contributions in both ways. They'll both get plenty of opportunities. I just say that there's more information about Thomas in normal down-and-distance situations than Casillas."
Thomas played all three linebacker spots in Jacksonville and, as Coughlin intimated, has more experience on defense than Casillas has. So if you want to call him the favorite to start on the weak side, I'm not going to stop you. The Giants hope their linebacker lineup features a healthy Jon Beason in the middle with Thomas or Casillas on the weak side and some combination of Devon Kennard and Jameel McClain on the strong side. If Beason's healthy, McClain likely becomes a Swiss-army-knife backup at all three spots. If Beason once again struggles to see the field, either McClain or Kennard would play in the middle.
But assuming they can do what they want with Kennard, Coughlin also has some ideas about how new defensive coordinator can use him.
"A lot," Coughlin said. "If Jon comes back and Jon's healthy and Jon can play, then you've got Kennard maybe in a stronger position, rushing the passer more, the whole deal that way, and that's going to make you better."
Kennard had 4.5 sacks in the Giants' final five games and is hoping to build on a strong rookie season. Coughlin was asked if they might even be able to spot him in at defensive end if need be.
"You can. You can," Coughlin said. "That depends on who the other defensive ends are."
And that's a different blog post for a different time.
PHOENIX -- It began innocuously enough, with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin answering a question about Odell Beckham Jr. by saying his team had done a study on the behavior of "Millennials" in an effort to better understand and communicate with their young players. Coughlin said one of the things they learned was about the ability of people in that generation to multi-task and divide their attention between multiple devices and activities.
Then the 68-year-old Coughlin began telling a story about his own experiences with modern technology, in particular the GPS guidance offered by the Siri feature on his iPhone. I'll just let it roll from here:
"Two weeks ago I'm trying to get to my grandson's roller hockey game. So [Giants VP of player evaluation] Marc Ross had showed me how to talk to this phone. I don't trust the lady in GPS. I don't trust her, because they don't send you the right way. I hit the button and I say, 'Park Ridge, N.J.' And she comes back on, she's giving me directions. So now I figure out where I am. I hit the thing and I say 'Thank you very much, I know exactly where I am now.' And she comes back and says, 'You don't have to thank me.' I swear to god that's what she said. And then I couldn't get her to shut up. Every turn, 'Take a right here.' I know where I am. I know where I am. I'm a block away from my house and she's telling me where to go. I said 'I know where I'm going.'"
Ah, those disembodied whippersnappers. Just can't get em to shut up.
Anyway, cute story and all, but I don't know how much I buy it. I mean, Coughlin is the oldest head coach in the league, but this is still a man who coaches an NFL team. He designs game plans, runs meetings, organizes weeks' and months' worth of schedules for players and coaches and staff. He's as meticulous and detail-oriented as anyone I've ever met. I'm inclined to believe he can work his iPhone, and that he's well past the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer phase of marveling at every little bit of modern technology. Fun to play up the old-guy Coughlin angle, but my guess is he's laughing at the rest of us laughing at him.
PHOENIX -- At this point in the offseason, the New York Giants have nothing but question marks at the safety position. All three players who started games for them at safety in 2014 became free agents. One of those three, Antrel Rolle, has signed with the Chicago Bears. The Giants have not re-signed Stevie Brown, Quintin Demps or any other safety on the market, and at this point the only safeties on their roster are their two most recent fifth-round draft picks -- Nat Berhe and Cooper Taylor.
"That's an issue, no doubt," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said at the NFL owners meetings Wednesday. "We do have one more access to bringing in personnel, obviously, the draft. And we have a couple of guys in the program including Berhe, who we really liked as a rookie and a special-teamer. We have injured players coming back that can help. But there's concern, no doubt."
Taylor played only on special teams as a rookie in 2013 and then missed the entire 2014 season due to a foot injury that required surgery, so they don't know what they have in him. Berhe played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie in 2014 but got a couple of late looks as a free safety.
"I think he can come down in the box, too," Coughlin said of Berhe. "His special-teams play would lead you to believe that. We threw him into a lot of responsibility on special teams and I thought he handled it well. So he's adaptable, he's smart, he's anxious and he's eager for the opportunity, for sure."
It remains possible that the Giants could re-sign Brown and/or Demps, but to this point there has been little movement on those fronts as both players are still hunting for better offers. Coughlin also raised the possibility of converting one of the Giants' cornerbacks to safety. Candidates for that would include Chykie Brown and 2014 sixth-round pick Bennett Jackson, who also is recovering from injury.
The top safety in the draft is Alabama's Landon Collins, though most projections seem to consider him a reach at No. 9 overall, which is the Giants' pick in the first round.
PHOENIX -- New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is making positive strides in his recovery from a torn patellar tendon, coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday. But Coughlin is reluctant to predict a timetable for Cruz's return to the field.
During the NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings here, Coughlin said the team was hoping to have Cruz back in time for training camp, but that even if they did that wouldn't necessarily mean a full return to action.
"I shouldn't say this, because medically I really don't have a definite answer, but by training camp hopefully, even if it's just to bring him," Coughlin said. "We're not going to just throw him to the wind. He'll work his way through. But I hope that would be the target."
Cruz tore his patellar tendon in the team's Week 6 loss in Philadelphia, had surgery a couple of days later and missed the rest of the 2014 season. Coughlin said Cruz has begun running and that he saw him working out with trainers in the field house in East Rutherford, New Jersey, recently. But he indicated that Cruz's recovery could stretch into the season and compared it to the delayed start Odell Beckham Jr. got last year off of his training camp hamstring pull.
"I think he'll be the player that he was, and hopefully better," Coughlin said of Cruz. "But as far as when, I would be careful of what I would say there. Hopefully it's the first game. But if it isn't, you know we've done that one before. We just went through it. But I'm hoping it would be."
ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano says the team's decision-makers want Eli Manning to spend the rest of his career as a Giant -- they just don't feel it's to their advantage to extend his contract at this point in time.
The New York Giants have eight selections in the 2015 NFL draft, which will be held April 30 to May 2 in Chicago. (They picked up an extra seventh-rounder from Denver in the Brandon McManus trade last August.) Here's a breakdown of the Giants' selections:
First round: 9th overall selection
Second round: 40th overall selection
Third round: 74th overall selection
Fourth round: 108th overall selection
Fifth round: 144th overall selection
Sixth round: 186th overall selection
Seventh round: 226th overall selection
Seventh round: 245th overall selection
(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)
PHOENIX -- NFL head coaches meet with the lead referee a few hours before kickoff of every game. In his first season with the Houston Texans, Bill O'Brien brought a special assistant to each meeting. Jim Bernhardt's title is director of football research, but one of his key responsibilities, O'Brien recounted Tuesday, is knowing the monstrous NFL rule book.
"He'll advise me on things that are challengeable," O'Brien said. "He's got a rule book right next to him [in the press box during games]. I don't know if he ever uses it, but he has it there for a crutch. That's what I did. I hired somebody to help with that. He's involved in a lot of things, from situations to clock management and things like that. But one of the parts of his job is the rule book."
The NFL rule book may be the most complex set of rules in American sports. The 97-page document is full of exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, vexing fans who want simply to understand what they see on the field. If it makes you feel any better, here's a dirty little secret: Not even the coaches know all of the rules. On Tuesday, in the relaxed environment of the NFL owners meetings, a few of them admitted it.
More importantly, the half-dozen I queried supported a long-term effort to streamline and simplify the rule book -- a project headed by NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent.
"I'm all for making the rule book more coach-friendly and more user friendly," O'Brien said. "... I don't even know the challenge rules. I mean, I should. I kind of know them, but the referees will come over. They do a great job. They won't [let you make a mistake]. They're good about that, and they'll come over and say, you can challenge this, you can't challenge that. But I just think that we're all in the business of trying to get it right. If we can just get to a system where we're all on the same page with that goal, I think that will help our league and it will help the officials.
"I think the officials in this league do a really good job," he added. "I really enjoy working with the officials. But I don't know how they do it. My wife is a lawyer, and I can remember her studying for the bar, and I would equate [learning NFL rules] to studying for the bar."
The nature of football makes some complexity unavoidable, according to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. When I mentioned Vincent's project, Tomlin smiled and said: "Good luck with that."
Tomlin added: "I think we all search for clarity and simplicity, but I don't know that that describes our game in today's time, particularly with the inclusion of some of the technological advances that have become very much part of our game. I think what we're looking for is clarity and as much as we can find that, I think that's what we aspire to. I don't know that that ends up with simplicity, and that's just the reality of it."
Tomlin said he started studying the rule book in 2001, his first year as an NFL assistant coach.
"It's been a 15-, 16-year journey for me to gain a real understanding," he said. "I'm not going to pretend that I know every crevice of the rule book. We were talking in the coaches' meeting here the other day, and the reality is that we continually have discussions during the course of games about the specifics of the rules. It's difficult to have a detailed understanding of it at all times."
Indeed, O'Brien and Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak all joined Tomlin in saying they routinely ask officials for rule clarifications during games. Occasionally, of course, even the referee must hustle to keep up.
"The officials have the tough job," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They're asked to do more and more every single year with the nuance. That's why anything we can do to keep it simpler for them, make it easier for them to identify formations and things like that, so they can do their job effectively and carry out their responsibilities, would be helpful. I know the officials want that. We should never be trying to make their job tougher."
Harbaugh's team fell victim to an unusual implementation of rules in the AFC divisional playoffs; the New England Patriots had an eligible player report as ineligible to confuse the Ravens' coverage assignments. Referee Bill Vinovich handled the twist the best he could, as we discussed at the time, but ultimately Harbaugh took a penalty to stop the game and draw Vinovich to the sideline for further discussion.
The Patriots' Bill Belichick isn't the only coach to dip into the nuances of the rule book for a potential competitive advantage. In 2008, then-Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt called for a "fair catch kick" in a game against the New York Giants.
Stay with me for a moment: If a team executes a fair catch, Rule 11, Section 4, Article 3 provides the option to attempt a free kick immediately afterward. The arrangement of players looks roughly like a kickoff with the exception of the holder. Because the defense is not on the line of scrimmage, the place-kicker presumably can line up a lower and longer kick.
Neil Rackers' 68-yard attempt was short, but there was no harm done as the half expired.
"When you're around it a long time, you understand some of the rules," said Whisenhunt, now the Tennessee Titans' coach. "There is always going to be something that comes up. Like the free kick. There's a lot of people that don't understand what a free kick is. It's a very seldom-used rule. We used it once in Arizona when I was there. Things like that are going to come up. You learn as you're in it, I guess."
Based on what Vincent has said, reorganizing NFL rules is a multiyear project. But when successful coaches acknowledge their own limited grasp of them, well, it seems pretty important. Kubiak has been an NFL player or coach for 32 years. His response to Vincent's idea? "I think it's a great idea."
Our latest calculations here at ESPN show the New York Giants with $9,296,988 in salary cap space for 2015. That gives them more than enough room to sign their draft picks (they'll likely need between $3.5 million and $4 million to do that) and still add a free-agent safety and offensive lineman if they find ones they like.
More than that, though, it gives the Giants leverage in their potential long-term contract negotiations with key players Eli Manning, Jason Pierre-Paul and Prince Amukamara, each of whom is only signed through 2015.
The Giants have reached this point in the offseason with plenty of cap space in spite of having two players -- Manning and Pierre-Paul -- whose cap hits project in the top 20 league-wide. Manning's $19.75 million cap hit would be the sixth-highest in the league at this point, while Pierre-Paul's $14.813 million number would rank No. 20. Amukamara's one-year salary of $6.898 million equates to his cap hit.
The Giants could lower any of those numbers by extending those players' contracts beyond 2015, but to this point they've found no reason to do so. They franchised Pierre-Paul because they wanted to see one more year of health and consistent production before committing to him long term. They consider Amukamara's salary more than reasonable for a starting cornerback and want to see him healthy as well before making the long-term commitment. And as we discussed Sunday night here, they don't feel the need to do Manning's extension at this point unless they trip over a sudden and unexpected need for more cap room or unless he comes to them willing to discuss a deal closer to their preferred price than his.
And that's the key here. Because there's no one left on the market worthy of a major cap space commitment, the Giants have no pressing need to do these deals at the high-end prices the players would command and can wait to see how they perform in 2015 before making their long-term decisions about them. Should one or more of them come to the Giants with a reduced demand, the Giants surely would engage in dialogue and possibly get a deal done. But because they have more than enough cap room with which to operate the rest of their offseason, the Giants have some degree of leverage in their ongoing discussions with these players.
PHOENIX -- Expanded NFL playoffs, once thought to be a near certainty for 2015, appear headed for the back burner once again.
As NFL owners gather here this week for their annual meeting, the consensus seems to be that an expansion of the current 12-team playoff format will happen at some point, but not this year.
"We're going to discuss the expanded playoffs, but I don't think there is a proposal out there to make any changes," New York Giants owner John Mara said Sunday. "I think it's going to happen at some point. It just doesn't look like it's going to happen next year."
Mara said a number of factors are complicating the potential implementation of an expanded playoff field, including the days of the week available for playoff games. The league is trying not to create a conflict between its playoffs and college football's playoffs, and as Mara pointed out, there are weather concerns at that time of year as well.
"It's going to happen at some point," Mara said. "I prefer it the way it is, but I don't feel as strongly about it really maybe as I once did. Because [expansion] is going to happen. One of my concerns about it was when are you going to play those extra games? One of the proposals was playing it on a Monday night. I just think playing on a Monday night in January in northern climates is not the ideal. However, Saturday would be a possibility, and that to me is much more palatable."
PHOENIX -- The New York Giants recently had another conversation with the representatives for quarterback Eli Manning, but the two sides are no closer to agreement on a contract extension and the Giants are comfortable letting Manning play out the final year of his contract, two sources close to the situation told ESPN.com on Sunday.
According to the sources, the Giants had been keeping a close eye on the contract extension talks between the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had only one year left on his contract before he agreed to a five-year, $99 million deal last week. The Giants believe Manning will ask for more than Roethlisberger got, and at this point they don't appear ready to make that kind of commitment.
The Giants still believe in Manning as their quarterback, and their primary goal is to keep him a Giant for the remainder of his career. But there's no advantage to them in moving on this deal right now. They could save as much as $11 million in 2015 salary cap space if they did an extension now. But given what little is left on the free-agent market, they're not going to need that cap space unless they make a trade for a high-salary player, or unless a player they like gets released and they have to outbid other teams for him.
You guys have New York Giants questions, and you asked them with the #nygmail hashtag on Twitter. So here's my attempt to answer some of them:
@DanGrazianoESPN #nygmail is Reese making sure he has flexibility for a new coach next year, there are no extensions and 1 year contracts
- Ibleedbigblue (@tmerritt51) March 19, 2015
@DanGrazianoESPN: Anyone who reads me regularly knows I'm very tough on Giants GM Jerry Reese. I don't think his record as a drafter and a roster-builder matches up with the mythology that the Super Bowl titles have bestowed upon him. However, it's important to note that I consider Reese a man of high character and believe tat he makes his decisions with the best interests of the franchise in mind. There has been a lot of talk this offseason that 2015 will be a "win or else" year for those who run the Giants -- that coach Tom Coughlin and his staff are out if they miss the playoffs again (which is likely) or even that Reese himself could be in danger of losing his job (far less likely). But I think it's a mistake to assume that Reese or Coughlin will operate any differently just because that might be the case. Reese's job is to make the best decisions for the Giants' franchise, factoring in its short-term and long-term health. He might not always make the right decisions, but his decisions are governed by his sense of responsibility to his job and his employer. I don't think anything he's doing right now is being done in an effort to save his own skin or position himself to replace Coughlin. Likewise, I'd be stunned if Coughlin coached any differently in 2015 just because there was supposedly more pressure on him. The one-year extensions for Coughlin and the coaching staff are the result of the failures of the past few years -- put simply, Coughlin hasn't done anything since his last contract extension to justify another long-term deal. So they keep going year-to-year because they like him and hope he can turn it around and give them reason to allow an all-time franchise coach to go out on his own terms. Could they eventually lose patience? Sure. Could it be this year? Yup. But I don't think they're operating in that frame of mind.
@DanGrazianoESPN: I actually think the odds-on favorite to play right guard is Geoff Schwartz, who was signed last year to play left guard because that's where the hole was and Chris Snee hadn't yet retired. Schwartz has played more on the right side in his career, and with both spots open, my guess is he moves over there, assuming he comes back healthy from his 2014 injury problems. But then your question would become "Who in the world is playing left guard next year? Jerry?" And yes, at this point, if they do nothing else, John Jerry would be a candidate. So would Marshall Newhouse, a bench lineman they signed last week. And if Canadian center Brett Jones were to beat out Weston Richburg for the starting center job in camp (I doubt it, but it's not impossible), then Richburg would be a candidate to go back to left guard as well. It's an uninspiring list of candidates, I grant you that. And if I were a Giants fan, I'd surely be hoping there's another viable starter on the horizon in the draft or in free agency. But as of now, given the state of the roster, Jerry looks like a candidate to start at guard again, yes.
- Ben Rosenberg (@BenRNJ) March 20, 2015
@DanGrazianoESPN: I see your point, but let's not forget how far behind Dallas and Philadelphia the Giants were in 2014. They finished six games worse than the Cowboys and four games worse than the Eagles, and they went a combined 0-4 against those teams. That's a lot of ground to make up. Dallas still has the division's best offensive line, best wide receiver and best quarterback. (Yes, I know about the Super Bowls, but Tony Romo is playing the best at this point in time.) I don't know how many games Greg Hardy will be allowed to play, but the last time the Giants saw him he was helping Carolina's front four sack Eli Manning six times in the first 17 minutes of a Week 3 game in 2013. Dallas will find a running back in the draft and be favored to repeat as division champ, and justifiably so. And the Eagles... well, I think Chip Kelly knows what he's doing. He just needs to keep all of those guys healthy, which he thinks he can do, and the Eagles should be a strong contender to once again win the 10 games they've won in each of Kelly's first two years. If you want to believe the Giants will improve and contend, that's fine, and you could be right. But don't overlook how far they have to go from where they were last year in order to do that. This division is not the weakling it was two, three and four years ago.
@DanGrazianoESPN: That's a good question, and not an easy one. They obviously have a lot of depth at linebacker now, but I question the overall quality and a lot depends on Jon Beason's ability to stay healthy (which history says is no sure thing). They like their running backs a lot, assuming a healthy year from Rashad Jennings, continued development from Andre Williams and a dynamic contribution from Shane Vereen as a pass-catcher. So running back might be the answer. I'd probably say wide receiver if I knew Victor Cruz was going to come all the way back from his serious knee injury, but we don't know that. So I guess you can pick Beason, Jennings or Cruz, tell me which one you feel most confident about, and then their position group is your answer. Still a lot of question marks on this roster.
Thanks for all of your questions, and enjoy the rest of your Saturday. I'll catch up with you early next week from Phoenix and the NFL owners meetings.
The New York Giants are signing defensive end George Selvie, a pass-rusher who had seven sacks two years ago and three last season for the Dallas Cowboys, and who played his college football with Jason Pierre-Paul at South Florida. Our man Adam Schefter reports that it's a one-year, $1.4 million contract with a $200,000 signing bonus.
The Giants will be Selvie's fifth NFL team since he entered the league in 2010. He didn't start a single game for the Rams, Panthers or Jaguars from 2010 to 2012, but he blossomed a bit under Rod Marinelli in Dallas, starting all 16 games in 2013 and 13 games in 2014. He just turned 28 two weeks ago, so it's possible he's a late bloomer.
And yes, the Giants still need a starting safety. But this addition is a reminder of where their current priorities lie. The Giants have brought back Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator, and you know that means they are determined to be as strong and fearsome as possible up front. They franchised Pierre-Paul to start at one of the defensive end spots, and the other starting spot could go to Damontre Moore, Robert Ayers or maybe even Selvie at this point. The idea is to stack volume on the defensive line, and to be able to put as many pass-rushers on the field as possible when the situation calls for it.
The Giants really like Moore and hope this is a big developmental year for him. They see Ayers as a good rotational piece and likely see Selvie the same way. They like what Kerry Wynn flashed in limited action at the end of 2014. They signed run-stuffing defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis this week to play on the early downs and help Johnathan Hankins focus more on penetrating and rushing the passer. They know they can move Ayers, Wynn or Pierre-Paul inside to defensive tackle when they want to load up with four pass-rushers on passing downs, and Selvie gives them another piece to use in a creative rotation of pass-rushers. It wouldn't be shocking to see them add another one in free agency or the draft. They do not want to run out of pass-rushers.
So that's what this move is -- a volume move to help the depth of the pass rush. They couldn't get in on top-end guys like Jerry Hughes or Pernell McPhee at the start of free agency. So for what they're looking to spend, Selvie seems like a decent fit.