As the New York Giants transition into building their team for 2008 and a potential Super Bowl repeat, they are faced with an unusual question: Does Jeremy Shockey still have a place on the club?
Super Bowl champions generally wouldn't think twice about welcoming back a star tight end who missed the team's dramatic run to the title because of a season-ending injury (fractured fibula). If a team without Shockey could win it all, a club with him would seemingly increase its chances.
Yet Shockey's return figures to be one of the most important questions facing the Giants. Some, such as former backup quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, believe the Giants' late-season success was due in part to Shockey being eliminated from the mix, thus allowing quarterback Eli Manning to thrive.
General manager Jerry Reese insisted otherwise in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, saying the Giants would have enjoyed the same dramatic rise with Shockey. He called it a coincidence that the team's surge came after Shockey got hurt.
Soon enough, it will be learned whether Reese really means it.
Shockey is signed through 2011, but he hasn't always endeared himself to teammates. He didn't attend the championship parade last Tuesday. He also watched the Super Bowl from a luxury suite instead of the sideline. Those kinds of things, while more likely tied to his comfort with the broken leg, fuel the perception that he's not fully on board. And that's not to mention his offseason routine of training in Miami.
So as the Giants begin the process of formulating their 2008 roster - Reese led his first draft meeting Friday - the Shockey situation figures to draw significant attention. If Reese is inclined to pull the plug on Shockey, now is the time, because his standing as New York's top decision-maker might never be better after his shrewd moves helped the team capture its unexpected championship.
Other issues facing the Giants?
After flirting with the idea before the season, defensive end Michael Strahan might yet retire. Strahan deflected such questions immediately after the Super Bowl, saying that if the game marked the close of his career, he couldn't think of a better ending. Strahan enjoyed playing for first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and with Spagnuolo taking himself out of the running for the Redskins' head coaching job to return, that could factor into Strahan's decision.
Elsewhere on the coaching front, a contract extension for head coach Tom Coughlin (likely four years) is expected to be completed soon, which is yet another reminder of how quickly things can change in the NFL. At this time last year, Coughlin had narrowly avoided being fired.
Personnelwise, the Giants don't have a major free agent class. Starting safety Gibril Wilson headlines a group of eight unrestricted free agents, a crop that also includes backup linebacker Reggie Torbor (he stepped in for injured starter Mathias Kiwanuka), backup running back Derrick Ward, punter Jeff Feagles, and kicker Lawrence Tynes. Starting safety James Butler is a restricted free agent.
The Giants are projected to be about $20 million under the $116 million salary cap, so they won't be strapped in that regard.
"We'll have more money than we had last year," Reese said.
Reese said the focus starts within, as the Giants would like to lock up players on the roster. As for possible spots to add new talent, safety, linebacker, and receiver are three areas of need.
As Super Bowl champs, the Giants will select last in every round in April's draft, which will make Reese's job more challenging than in 2007, when he scored what now looks like a bumper crop: cornerback Aaron Ross (first round), receiver Steve Smith (second), defensive lineman Jay Alford (third), linebacker Zak DeOssie (fourth), tight end Kevin Boss (fifth), offensive lineman Adam Koets (sixth), defensive back Michael Johnson (seventh), and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (seventh). Each player made the roster, with most making meaningful contributions.
The building blocks are in place so the Giants won't have to knock things down and rebuild. Regardless, Reese is approaching the offseason with urgency.
"You can't just go to the Super Bowl and then relax," he said. "We're working harder than ever because we want to be in this situation every year."
To market, to market: Samuel in prime spot among free agent cornerbacks
While the picture could be altered over the next 2-3 weeks as teams assign franchise tags, reach extensions with would-be free agents, or cut players, here is a snapshot look at how the unrestricted free agent market is shaping up at each position:
QUARTERBACK: Teams looking for a solid backup who could challenge for the top job will find help, as Todd Collins (Redskins), Daunte Culpepper (Raiders), Rex Grossman (Bears), and Billy Volek (Chargers) are set to hit the market.
RUNNING BACK: Michael Turner (Chargers), who drew interest as a restricted free agent last offseason, is the headliner of a strong crop that also includes Jamal Lewis (Browns), Chris Brown (Titans), Justin Fargas (Raiders), Ron Dayne (Texans), and Mewelde Moore (Vikings).
WIDE RECEIVER: The big question is whether the Patriots and Randy Moss reach an extension or the team franchises him. Others who figure to draw attention include D.J. Hackett (Seahawks), Bernard Berrian (Bears), Bryant Johnson (Cardinals), Ernest Wilford (Jaguars), and Jabar Gaffney (Patriots). Add Donté Stallworth to the list if the Patriots don't pick up $8 million in option bonuses, as expected.
TIGHT ENDS: The Eagles acted fast in placing the franchise tag on L.J. Smith, perhaps realizing there wasn't much else out there. Eric Johnson (Saints) and Ben Troupe (Titans) should draw interest.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Panthers are expected to keep tackle Jordan Gross off the market, but as usual, there will be plenty to choose from. Flozell Adams (Cowboys), Max Starks (Steelers), Sean Locklear (Seahawks), and Travelle Wharton (Panthers) are top tackles. Alan Faneca (Steelers), Jamar Nesbit (Saints), Stacy Andrews (Bengals), Jacob Bell (Titans), Justin Smiley (49ers), Jake Scott (Colts), Ryan Lilja (Colts), and Rex Hadnot (Dolphins) headline the exploding guard market, and Casey Wiegmann (Chiefs) leads the center charge.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Jared Allen (Chiefs) would boost any pass rush, but it's hard to imagine Kansas City would let him get away. Albert Haynesworth (Titans) is also expected to get franchised. Justin Smith (Bengals) and Antwan Odom (Titans) are pass rushers who could help, while teams looking for more bulk might eye Corey Williams (Packers), Tommy Kelly (Raiders), and Marques Douglas (49ers). Clubs running the 3-4 in need of a nose tackle will have Isaac Sopoaga (49ers) and Ethan Kelley (Browns) on their radar.
LINEBACKER: The Cardinals aren't likely to let Karlos Dansby slip away, but he would be a top target if he's available. Terrell Suggs (Ravens), Calvin Pace (Cardinals), Victor Hobson (Jets), and Clark Haggans (Steelers) should draw attention among pass-rush, edge-setting teams that run the 3-4, while Lance Briggs (Bears), Landon Johnson (Bengals), and Demorrio Williams (Falcons) are more 4-3 types in that they are a bit lighter and quicker.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Asante Samuel (Patriots) headlines a weak cornerback crop (assuming Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha and Seattle's Marcus Trufant get the franchise tag), which puts him in a position of considerable leverage. Nickel backs like Drayton Florence (Chargers) and Randall Gay (Patriots) are in a nice spot because of the lack of quality corners on the market. Chris Crocker (Falcons), Madieu Williams (Bengals), and Ken Hamlin (Cowboys) are safeties who should draw interest.
SPECIALISTS: Josh Brown (Seahawks) and Jason Elam (Broncos) are top kickers, for those looking to address that area.
Titans top league in cap size
Which teams will be most aggressive in free agency this year? The early candidates - those with the most salary-cap space - are the Tennessee Titans ($36 million), Cincinnati Bengals ($31 million), and Jacksonville Jaguars ($30 million).
The Patriots' rivals in the AFC East all have flexibility, as the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets project to have $20 million-$30 million in space. At the end of last week, the Patriots' $8.365 million in space ranked 25th out of the league's 32 teams.
Current salary-cap tabulations account for the top 51 players per team under contract, and are fluid because they don't include players who might be franchise tagged or space that the team will create by releasing players.
But the numbers do provide a general idea of which teams will be in position to be most aggressive and which ones will let the market pass by.
Take the Redskins, for example. They will have to make some adjustments before the league year begins Feb. 29, as they were $16 million over the cap as of late last week. The Colts traditionally aren't aggressive in free agency, and this year should be no different. They are $1.3 million over the cap, and while it won't be a problem for general manager Bill Polian to get things in order, there won't be an abundance of space with which to work.
Free agency officially opens Feb. 29, and with the salary cap jumping from $109 million to $116 million, plenty of teams have space at their disposal.
Here is the breakdown, as of late last week:
$30 million and higher - three teams.
$20 million-$30 million - 10 teams.
$10 million-$20 million - 11 teams.
Less than $10 million - six teams.
Over the cap - two teams.
Flaws in the system
When Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell earns more than Tom Brady even before he has thrown a pass in the NFL, something is out of whack. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged as much last week at the Super Bowl, saying he is concerned with escalating salaries for top picks in the draft. In a perfect world, he would like to see that money going to veterans. "We're not trying, in this case, to pay players less money," said Goodell. "What we're trying to do is make sure that the money that is allocated to the salary cap goes to the players that have earned that, that have done it over a period of time. So I think we want to talk about the impact of the rookie pool, what it should be, how it should provide opportunities for players that come into the league and be paid appropriately and be paid fairly, but also make sure that that money goes to the players that really have performed on an incredible level. I think that's something that we'll continue to engage in with the Players Association." Don't expect any changes in the next year or two, as it's the type of issue that likely won't be hammered out until owners and players return to the negotiating table to extend the collective bargaining agreement. Owners are expected to opt out of the current CBA in November, which should spark a new round of negotiations.
In anticipation of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth being assigned the franchise tag by the Titans, the Tennessean newspaper broke down the history of the tag over the last four years. From 2004-07, 30 franchise tags were used on 24 players (six players were tagged twice). Of that group, 10 signed long-term deals with the team that tagged them (five before playing under the tag); seven signed elsewhere; four will be free agents Feb. 29; two were traded; and one had the tag withdrawn and became a free agent.
Line's work lost in landslide
The Giants' defensive line was the story of the Super Bowl, but one wouldn't know by dissecting the voting for Most Valuable Player. Eli Manning got 16 1/2 of a possible 20 votes, with Patriots receiver Wes Welker (1 1/2) and Giants defensive linemen Michael Strahan (1) and Justin Tuck (1) rounding out the ballot. While Manning was excellent in leading the Giants' final drive, he shouldn't have been 15 1/2 votes better than members of the defensive line.
Shuffle out of Buffalo?
With the Bills finalizing plans to play one regular-season game in Toronto over each of the next five seasons, some are wondering whether that is the first step toward the club ultimately relocating there. The Bills have a stadium lease through 2012, and while 89-year-old owner Ralph Wilson said he has no plans to sell before his death, he also hasn't sugar-coated the uncertain future of the team in Western New York. As is the case in most professional sports these days, it comes down to revenue generated from luxury suites. There simply aren't enough companies and corporations in Western New York.
Realigning the stars
The Pro Bowl will be played today in Hawaii, but according to NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, the league would like to change the location in future years. Upshaw is against moving the game, and also noted that the NFL has talked about potentially switching the Pro Bowl to the Wednesday or Saturday before the Super Bowl, which would mean all-stars competing in the Super Bowl couldn't participate. "How can we promote an all-star game without our stars?" Upshaw wrote on the NFLPA's website.
Oakland defensive end/linebacker Tyler Brayton voided the final year of his contract last week, making him an unrestricted free agent. A hybrid-type defender, Brayton was a first-round pick in 2003, and innovative defensive teams will take a hard look at him . . . The Browns made an initial three-year contact offer to restricted free agent quarterback Derek Anderson that was worth $15 million-$20 million, but it hardly sparked further negotiations, as Anderson is seeking Tony Romo money ($30 million in bonuses/guarantees).
Did you know?
In their first eight years after returning to the NFL, the Browns had one Pro Bowl player (linebacker Jamir Miller, 2001). This year, six Browns were voted to the Pro Bowl.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.