Giants Take a Page from Sashi Brown

Dave Gettleman is not the most popular man in the greater New York area these days. After the Giants started his general manager tenure 1-7, ultimately finishing his first year 5-11, Gettleman began cleaning house, trading defensive end Olivier Vernon and superstar wideout Odell Beckham, Jr., in separate deals to the Cleveland Browns. The Beckham trade especially has drawn the ire of fans and national media alike, as Gettleman inked the star to a 5-year, $95 MM extension less than a year ago. The team also lost strong safety Landon Collins to free agency. It’s been an exodus of talent from the Big Apple.

I’ve gotta be honest though … I don’t hate the moves. I see logic at work. They look like coherent steps towards a rebuild that should have happened a few years ago. And while Gettleman is largely despised by the analytics community—he was the inaugural “Analytical Foil” on Kevin Cole’s excellent new “What Would Sashi Do?” analytics podcast—in many ways, Gettleman is taking a page out of Sashi Brown’s playbook. That’s right, analytics darling Sashi Brown, ex-GM of the Cleveland Browns.

Breaking Down the Vernon Trade

Vernon signed a five-year, $85 MM deal in the 2016 offseason, and he played well enough in the first three years of that deal, racking up 22 sacks in 39 games. But with Vernon turning 29 later this year and incurring cap hits of $19.5 MM in each of the last two years of his contract, Gettleman decided it was time to move on.

Trading Vernon cost $8 MM in dead money against the 2019 cap, but it saved the $31 MM that Vernon would have cost against the 2020 and 2021 caps. That might be reason enough to cut the veteran defensive end, but the Giants got right guard Kevin Zeitler in return. Zeiter is one of the game’s best guards—a position that the Giants have struggled to fill—and while his three years, $32 MM remaining isn’t exactly a bargain, it’s a fair contract that carries no guaranteed money after this year.

Trading Vernon is something Sashi would have done. And Sashi signed Zeitler to his contract originally. At this stage of the Giants rebuild, Brown might have preferred draft assets rather than a player, but this trade clues us in to Gettleman’s rebuilding plan: he’s not tanking. But rather than invest his resources in a handful of superstars, he’s spreading them out among several good players.

OBJ to CLE

There wasn’t too much outrage over the Vernon trade, but Beckham was a different story:

Let’s be clear up front: Odell Beckham, Jr. is awesome. In five seasons he’s racked up four 1,000-yard seasons and three Pro Bowl appearances. His 92.8 yards per game ranks second all-time behind only Julio Jones. His peers, in the NFL 100 voting, ranked him one of the ten best players in football twice. He’s a difference-marker; the Giants finished 28th in scoring in 2013, the year before drafting OBJ; in his rookie year, they jumped to 13th.

That said: he’s expensive. His five-year, $90 MM contract made stands as the most expensive wide receiver contract in history. His cap hit in 2019 was going to be north of $20 MM—and, more importantly, more than 11% of the salary cap. No team has ever won the Super Bowl with a receiver making more than 8.6% of the cap—and that was Jerry Rice, in the first year of the cap. Sidney Rice of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, ranked second with about 7.9%, and that hit was counteracted by a number of rookie deals, including 3rd-round quarterback Russell Wilson. The next-highest cap charges for WRs were in the low six percent. The average team’s top WR from 1994 to 2014 made 4.4% of the cap. Eleven percent of the cap is a ton to invest in one player at any non-quarterback position, no matter how amazing he is.

While the loss of Beckham will undoubtedly hurt, the Giants do get several benefits from the trade. They save $72.75 MM in salary from 2019 through 2023. They get back Jabrill Peppers, a talented young safety who can also contribute on special teams and who is on a cost-controlled rookie contract for two more seasons, three counting the fifth-year option. They also get a first-round pick at #17 and a third-round lottery ticket at #95. Even if the third-rounder doesn’t pan out, they likely net two starters out of the first-rounder and Peppers. Savvy spending of Beckham’s money could net another starter and a role player or two. It’s not unthinkable that they could turn Beckham into four or five contributors, none approaching OBJ’s superstar impact individually, but collectively improving the team.

Gettleman has also been heavily mocked for eating $16 MM of dead cap as part of the deal. Coincidentally, Sashi also ate $16 MM once in exchange for draft capital, taking on disappointing Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler in exchange for a second-rounder in a trade Albert Breer called “pure Moneyball.” The Giants don’t have as much cap space as Cleveland did, but similarly, they are in a position where trading some cap for picks makes sense.

Two more points that have drawn criticism. Just a few weeks before the deal, Gettleman said (in response to trade rumors), “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him.” You can judge whether this is technically a lie or not and adjust your opinion of Gettleman’s personal integrity accordingly; I don’t think it has any bearing on his performance as a GM. Second, Gettleman has drawn fire for trading Beckham so soon after his extension. My read on this is that the Giants wanted to compete in 2018, and they believed that OBJ would not play under his below-market fifth-year rookie option. That left an extension as the only real option. It is fair to say that Gettleman misjudged the ability of the Giants to compete in 2018 (more on that in a bit). In light of that mistake, his actions were reasonable: they had to extend Beckham last year to keep him, but trading him now for picks and cap space could benefit the team.

2018 Was a Disaster

Gettleman did not have a good 2018 offseason. Ultimately, this stemmed from the misunderstanding of how competitive the team could be. The Giants had finished 11-5 in 2016, bolstered by the emergence of some young players and some quality free agent signings. The wheels fell off in 2017, as the team limped to 3-13, prompting owner John Mara to fire both head coach Ben McAdoo and Gettleman’s predecessor Jerry Reese. With a coaching change and improved injury luck—Beckham played only four games in 2017, and he was hardly the only malady they suffered—the team could contend for the NFC East once again.

They could not; they were dead wrong.

Virtually every move they made in the 2018 offseason reflected this incorrect assessment of their current squad. Aside from extending Beckham, they traded a fourth rounder (and swapped late-round picks) for high-priced linebacker Alec Ogletree. They made Nate Solder the highest-paid left tackle in the league, and paid significant money to guard Patrick Omameh. They did trade away longtime pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, saving money, replacing him with Kareem Martin, a better fit in their new 3-4 scheme.

The decision that drew the most scorn, particularly from the analytics community, was selecting Penn State running back Saquon Barkley at #2 overall. The running backs don’t matter” crowd pooh-poohs any decision to take a back that high, even one as talented as Barkley, but much of the criticism focused on what they didn’t do: draft an heir apparent to then-37-year-old quarterback Eli Manning. Signal-callers Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson were all on the board at #2; each wound up getting drafted in the first round. But the Giants went with Barkley instead, not addressing quarterback until day three. The team was in an ideal position to draft a QB, and had a need in the near future at the very least, and instead they tabbed Barkley.

Ultimately, the 2018 team was a flop, and Gettleman deserves a lot of the blame. Overall the offensive performance improved to 16th in scoring, their best finish since 2015, but the offensive line moves failed to fix the unit. The defense finished 23rd in scoring, much closer to the disastrous 27th 2017 ranking than the 2nd they ranked in 2016. Ogletree ranked as the team’s worst defensive player per Pro Football Focus. They never did replace JPP, as the defense’s 30 sacks ranked second-lowest in the NFL.

Shifting Gears

Some of the criticism has centered around the inconsistency in the Giants’ plan. How could they make so many win-now moves last offseason while apparently building for the future now? To me it’s obvious: they realized that they were wrong, that they misjudged how close they were to competing, so they have changed strategies. Partway through the season they started cutting bait, dealing away defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Eli Apple while finally cutting bait on perennially-disappointing tackle Ereck Flowers.

This offseason has continued that. They let Collins walk and dealt away Beckham and Vernon. Beckham and Vernon were two of their highest-priced contracts and Collins would have been.

These moves were inconsistent with the previous offseason’s—obviously so. That’s because they were making short-terms moves to try to compete in 2018, and now they recognize that they have work to do. The moves in 2018 were largely mistakes. Being inconsistent is much better than continuing those mistakes for consistency’s sake.

On the Bright Side

While the Giants are being dismissed as a laughingstock, they are putting some pieces together. Lost in the debate of Barkley-vs-a-quarterback is that New York netted three starters out of the 2018 draft—Barkley, guard Will Hernandez, and defensive tackle B.J. Hill—and Lorenzo Carter, a role player as a rookie who figures to take on a starting role soon. Add to that a ton of ammunition in the 2019 draft: a whopping 12 picks, including two first-rounders. Some good drafting next month to go with last year’s class, and they’ll have a promising core to build around.

They’ll also have money. Their current obligations leave them almost $89 MM under the projected $200 MM cap for 2020. Clearing Beckham’s and Vernon’s big salaries are a major factor in this big number. With disappointing past drafts, the team has relatively few extensions on the horizon—Apple and third-round safety Darian Thompson are already gone from the 2015 class, leaving second-round receiver Sterling Shepard and fourth-round linebacker B.J. Goodson the only potential targets.

Restructure vs Rebuild

As much as this is a rebuilding effort, it’s a restructuring effort, too. In an article for Forbes earlier this year (prior to the recent moves), Patricia Traina estimated the Giants’ top five players as consuming a whopping 49% of the salary cap; most recent Super Bowl winners are under 30%. The recent moves get them down to just over 40%; still high, but more manageable. New acquisitions Peppers, Golden Tate, and Markus Golden won’t replicate the production of the players they’re replacing (Collins, Beckham, and Vernon respectively), but they do come much cheaper, letting the team add veterans Zeitler and safety Antoine Bethea at other positions of need. The team will have less star power, but the talent base should be more broad, both in 2019 and beyond.

The Eli in the Room

Of course, there are those who will argue, not without justification, that the Giants had a simpler, better road towards talent redistribution: jettisoning 38-year old two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and his $23.2 MM cap hit. As previously noted, the ideal time to move on would have been last year when they had the #2 pick in the draft, but they didn’t. The question is: what should the Giants do now?

The draft hasn’t happened yet, so the options are basically a) ride with Eli b) cut Eli (saving $17 MM) and ride with some more budget-conscious option, potentially a rookie, in what would be at least a pseudo-tanking effort. While Gettleman has assembled draft capital and cap space like rebuilding teams do, he clearly is not going in the tank for a high pick next year. Zeitler, Peppers, Tate, Bethea, and Golden are all veteran players that help them now.

The case for tanking is simple: a high pick helps acquire premium talent, especially superstar quarterbacks. In the NBA, very few teams become champions or even serious contenders without a top-tier superstar (LeBron, Durant, Duncan, Shaq, etc.). The NFL is different, but the quarterback position has a similar outsized effect on wins and losses. Still, tanking advocates see losing into a high pick as a way to secure a premium quarterback.

Recent history suggests tanking for the top pick isn’t the only way to get a quarterback. The Rams (Jared Goff), Eagles (Carson Wentz), Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), and Texans (Deshaun Watson), despite not having high picks, all dealt two first-rounders to get their franchise quarterbacks. All four teams made the playoffs in 2018. Not every team at the top of the draft is interested in a quarterback or likes the quarterbacks available, so there are opportunities to move up. Such a move does come at a price, of course, though it is a matter of philosophy whether the price is higher or low than punting on an entire season (or two in Cleveland’s case).

It’s also worth noting that, with 53 roster spots and 22 starters, any one player is less important in football than in basketball (where teams have 12-man rosters and five starters). Behavioral economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler studied the surplus value of draft picks in 2006 and found high picks are some of the worst values in the draft. The economics have changed somewhat under the new CBA adopted in 2011, but analytics pioneer Brian Burke took another look in 2016 and found substantially the same patterns. High picks bust, too, and they come at a higher cost than lower picks.

There are also “soft” cases to be made against tanking. A team that starts a lot of bad players could find them frustrated by losing. It may be hard to motivate and develop them. It may be hard to evaluate them when the group as a whole is outmatched. A losing organization can burn out coaches and players and make it hard to attract talent, both on-field and off.

Manning’s no world-beater at this stage of his career, but he is arguably better than any of the alternatives on the free agent market. His presence does not preclude the Giants from finding a young signal-caller of the future, even as soon as next month’s draft. Given that the analytics case for tanking is unclear—and sure, there’s some sentiment behind riding with Super Bowl hero Eli—I think it’s defensible to keep running him out there. But there is clearly a long term need at the position, and Gettleman will need to fill it for the Giants to return to their winning ways.

Accidental Analytics

Gettleman will never be an analytics darling. While virtually every numerical study has found the running game relatively unimportant in the modern NFL, Gettleman called the devaluing of running backs “a crock” and used back-to-back top-10 picks on the position (Christian McCaffrey at #8 in his final Carolina season, followed by Barkley). He has never traded back in any of his drafts as GM, despite studies showing trading back is optimal. He gave perennially-underachieving left tackle Matt Kalil an odious contract before his final Carolina season, one the Panthers just moved on from at a cost of $15 MM in dead money. As a GM, he’s far from perfect.

That said, Gettleman has his strengths and some of his actions are in line with what an analytics-minded GM would do. The cap discipline he’s brought to the Meadowlands was in full force in Carolina, where he inherited a slew of big, painful contracts that left the team in a bad salary cap situation. He was able to crawl out from under those deals and stay fiscally sound—sometimes by making painful choices, as when he rescinded Josh Norman’s $16 MM franchise tag. His plan to build from the middle of the field out and invest in depth rather than star power mirrors what the New England Patriots do.

It is hard to see a star like Beckham leave and Giants fans are understandably disappointed. But Gettleman, like Sashi did in Cleveland, has positioned the Giants with copious draft capital in the 2019 draft and boatloads of 2020 cap space to build moving forward. How he turns those assets into talent, especially finding a successor to Manning at the quarterback position, will determine whether he can bring glory back to the Meadowlands. Despite actions and statements that put him at loggerheads with the analytics community, Gettleman put together some winners in Carolina, particularly the 15-1 NFC champions in 2015. If he can build on his moves this offseason, he’ll have a chance to do the same in New York.

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