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2018 NFL Draft: NFC will get a huge break if the Giants select Saquon Barkley

Washington Redskins v New York Giants Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

On Thursday, the New York Giants made a surprising move when they traded defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, essentially getting a third round pick in return. That compensation was much better than what the Seahawks got for Michael Bennett, but Pierre-Paul is younger (29) and he’s just a more high-profile edge rusher than Bennett because of draft position (15th overall in 2010) and having some big sack seasons like 16.5 in 2011.

That being said, Bennett has 48 sacks since 2012, compared to 37.5 for JPP, albeit in 12 additional games.

However, this post is not about the Pierre-Paul trade or a comparison between the return on him and Bennett. It’s just about how the Giants, the worst team in the NFC last season at 3-13, are starting to prepare for their future after their spend-big, win-big plan in free agency in 2016 failed terribly. New York went 11-5 after signing Pierre-Paul, Janoris Jenkins, Damon Harrison, and Olivier Vernon, adding $106.3 million in guaranteed money on free agents, $32 million more than second place.

Vernon was way better than I expected him to be, even if he was never really going to live up to an $85 million contract. He had an NFL-high 61 individual pressures (per FootballOutsiders) in 16 games. In 2017, Vernon had 25 pressures in 12 games. His cap hit for 2018 is $17 million. The only non-QBs, non-franchised players to make more per year than Vernon are Von Miller and Fletcher Cox.

Pierre-Paul signed a one-year, $10 million to return to the Giants after his infamous fireworks accident put his future in jeopardy. He came in to have seven sacks and 27 pressures in 12 games, so the Giants rewarded him with a four-year, $62 million contract in 2017. He played pretty much just the same (8.5 sacks, 36 pressures) but New York traded him, still leaving a $15 million cap hit to them in 2018 while he’s playing for the Buccaneers.

Harrison was one of the best run-stoppers in the NFL in 2016, getting a first-team All-Pro selection with the Giants. He may still be that good and as the seventh-highest paid DT in the NFL, he’ll need to be, but run-stopping is also not very correlative to success in today’s league. A $9.6 million cap hit to a defensive tackle is a little less easy to manage when you are trading good edge rushers to save money and are pushing up against any cap space you may have for next season.

The LA Rams chose Trumaine Johnson over Janoris Jenkins in 2016, which should be somewhat telling, but he signed $62.5 million deal with the Giants and was named as a Pro Bowler that season. He was considered a bit of a disturbance and annoyance by some in the league and that didn’t really manifest during his first season in New York, but last Halloween the team suspended him for one game. He missed another six games with injury. Jenkins will make $13 million next season, sixth-most among all cornerbacks.

All told, the Giants went 6-10 in 2015, ranked 32nd in yards allowed, and fired Tom Coughlin.

The Giants spent over $100 million guaranteed money in 2016, went 11-5, made the playoffs as a wild card, finished 10th in yards allowed, 2nd in points allowed, and got blown out by 25 points in Green Bay.

Then, New York hamstrung from their 2016 spending and unable to make many changes in 2017, flopped to 3-13 and were 31st in yards allowed. Basically, the Giants are worse than they were two years ago but with significantly less cap space and room to improve. Not only is New York a perfect example of why you don’t do what New York did in free agency to try and get better, but how those moves can make you demonstratively worse in the long run.

Now sitting with the second overall pick in the draft, the Giants may be able to serve as an example of what you do — or to the benefit of the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC — or don’t do in the NFL draft.

Since trading Pierre-Paul, there’s been a lot of talk about New York being linked to NC State edge rusher Bradley Chubb.

This would make some sense and would not be the worst move that the Giants could do. Though I think the only smart thing for them to do is to choose a quarterback, at least Chubb does provide adequate value and cost effectiveness if he becomes an above-average edge rusher. Something that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley could never do.

With all due respect to Barkley, who could come out and become the next Walter Payton or Adrian Peterson, he simply isn’t playing the right position to ever equate to the value of being a top-10 pick. It just can’t be possible in 2018.

Looking at the Giants salary cap situation ($7.6 million under per OvertheCap, but they need to account for things like practice squad, rookies, IR), New York has little choice but to look for savings. Thanks to their Nic Cage-like spending habits in 2016, there is little margin for error as they move forward, so the only thing to do while working under the umbrella of common sense is to find players who will save you money in the short and long-term. Barkley can simply never do that.

When Saquon Barkley signs his first NFL contract, he will become one of the highest paid backs in the league. The current 2018 leaders are:

Le’Veon Bell, $14.5 million (franchise tag)

Jerick McKinnon, $10.5 million (again, woof)

LeSean McCoy, $8.9 million

Ezekiel Elliott, $6.8 million

Lamar Miller, $6.75 million

Mark Ingram, $6.2 million

Leonard Fournette, $6.1 million

As you can see, a 2016 draft pick (Elliott) ranks fourth and a 2017 draft pick (Fournette) ranks seventh. When looking at APY, Fournette ranks even higher, at fifth. So with another year of increased pay for rookies, Barkley will be even above Fournette for annual salary, and I’m not sure how much longer guys like Miller, McCoy, and Devonta Freeman ($8.25m APY) can continued to get paid as they are. By 2020, it would not be surprising if Barkley, on his rookie deal, is still a top-five paid running back.

The Giants, or whatever team takes Barkley, will be paying him as an elite running back already so the only acceptable return from Barkley is elite production. That is simply not the case with any other position, unless a team decided to take a punter or kicker in the first round.

It’s certainly not the case with defensive end, and Chubb could provide adequate savings on the edge. Myles Garrett, the first overall pick in 2017, is ranked 15th in APY ($7.6m) among 4-3 defensive ends. Expand that out to all edge rushers, and Garrett ranks 24th. Look just at 2018, and Garrett ranks 33rd in cap hit for all edge rushers next season. And yet because of his skills on display as a rookie, there’s a reasonable chance that Garrett will be one of the top-five edge rushers in the NFL next season. It’s already happened with Joey Bosa, and Bosa’s $7 million cap hit in his third season next year will likely be one of the best bargains of any player on any team.

A Defensive Player of the Year candidate who will make less than half as much as Jurrell Casey ($14.9m), the highest-paid 3-4 DE in the NFL. Because of the savings on Bosa and Garrett, the Chargers and Browns have more financial freedom to extend other players or reach out on the trade and free agent market for help for next season.

This is something a team will be less able to do if they’re getting zero savings at running back and in fact are paying a player on a rookie deal almost as much as they would (or in many cases, more) than what he’ll get on his second contract. That’s also why the only reasonable thing for the Giants to do is to draft a quarterback, even at the risk that a quarterback, unlike many running backs and edge rushers, will end up doing nothing in his professional career.

The reward just far, far exceeds the risk. And why in the hell would the Giants be considering anyone other than Eli Manning’s replacement?

Benched in 2017 by Ben McAdoo (failed to mention that New York in fact fired a head coach less than a year after they “won free agency”), Manning posted 6.1 yards per attempt, his lowest Y/A since his rookie season in 2004. Manning is also 37 and the team almost certainly needs to release him before 2019, saving $17 million by doing so. Their only “future” at the position right now is Davis Webb, a third round pick in 2017, but they’d have to really be enamored with Webb in order to avoid taking one during the rare opportunity of drafting a QB in a class with so many intriguing options.

They were not apparently enamored enough with Webb to make him Eli’s backup, instead starting Geno Smith when Eli was benched.

Whether it’s Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, or Lamar Jackson, the Giants would be bigger fools than I thought if they avoided a quarterback at all at the top of the draft. Barkley would be the worst move, Chubb would make sense in many regards, but the only reasonable thing to do is to take a shot at finding a quarterback who can lead you to wins from 2019-2022, while he’s still playing on a rookie deal. Teams to benefit from rookie contracts in recent years include Super Bowl winners:

2017 Eagles

2013 Seahawks

2012 Ravens

2010 Packers

There’s also the Patriots, who pay Tom Brady like a fifth-year quarterback. The 2017 Jaguars, who made the AFC Championship with a bad QB on a rookie deal. The 2014 Seahawks, who made the Super Bowl again with Russell Wilson. The 2012-2013 49ers with Colin Kaepernick.

The savings on a good QB on a rookie contract are tremendous.

Jameis Winston ranks 24th in 2018 salary.

Marcus Mariota is 25th.

Jared Goff is 26th.

Carson Wentz is 28th.

Mitchell Trubisky is 29th.

Pat Mahomes is 32nd.

Deshaun Watson is 35th.

Paxton Lynch is 38th.

Oh, Lynch isn’t good? Oh well, he’s 38th in 2018 salary. Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t good though? He makes $37 million next season. Derek Carr isn’t good? $25 million. The risk to taking a quarterback early is that you have a player who brings nothing to the table, but the cost is simply $6-9 million per year. The risk to taking an edge rusher is the same, and the reward is considerably lower than a good QB. The risk to taking a running back is again that he does nothing (Trent Richardson) but the reward is barely higher than the expectation. The expectation is that Barkley is going to “change the game” and is “transcendent” and “the best of a generation.”

There’s little that Barkley can actually do beyond playing like what he’s been paid to play. The value of a quarterback who performs though far outweighs what he’s actually being paid.

Right now, the NFC is far ahead of the AFC. That’s largely due to the talent disparity at QB. Look around the two conferences and you’ll see that while the AFC has the near-retired Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers, with the second tier consisting of Carr, Case Keenum, Andrew Luck, Mariota, Watson, Joe Flacco, the NFC’s worst QBs are actually Manning, Sam Bradford, and Trubisky. The worst in the NFC are two former number one overall picks and a player who was third overall a year ago.

The biggest potential change to that would be the Giants selecting a QB, and they’re the only NFC team picking in the top six. That means that the Browns, Jets, and Broncos could all select quarterbacks and give the AFC hope for the future, while the Dolphins and Bills wait at 11 and 12, respectively. If the top four or five QB prospects go to the AFC, odds say that 2-3 of them will turn out. That gives that conference something to look forward to perhaps. If the Giants bow out completely, the NFC may have their most glaring hole at the position coming from the country’s biggest market.

That’s if the New York Giants opt to not select a QB. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll take Barkley. Maybe I hope they do.