NFC East: New York Giants

We have spent -- and will continue to spend -- a great deal of time talking about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's contract. At $19.75 million, Manning's is by far the largest salary cap hit on the Giants' 2015 roster at this point, and they'd be wise to extend his contract beyond 2015 to get some relief from that.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
William Perlman/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Victor Cruz is a special guy, and the Giants know this, and because of that they have some tough decisions to make on a possible salary cut.
But on a separate note, I'm curious to see whether the Giants feel the need to do anything about the second-highest cap hit on their roster -- the $8.125 million number that belongs to wide receiver Victor Cruz.

Cruz signed his long-term deal prior to the 2013 season. He has four years left on that deal at an average salary of $7.5 million per year and an average cap hit of $9 million per year. This year's salary is a palatable $6.15 million. Next year's is a more exorbitant $7.9 million. None of the remaining salary in his deal is guaranteed.

Now, if Cruz produces the way he produced in the two years before he signed the deal -- two years in which he averaged 84 catches, 1,314 yards and 9.5 touchdowns -- these numbers are no problem. However, his production dropped in 2013 (73 catches, 998 yards, 4 touchdowns and missed the final two games due to injury). And in the sixth game of the 2014 season, he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and had to have major surgery that ended his season.

There is no guarantee Cruz comes all the way back from the injury, or that he's the same kind of explosive player he was before it happened. The Giants hope he makes a full recovery, and he and they are optimistic he will. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has some creative ways to use Cruz that he didn't get to show much in 2014 before the injury. The team's preference would be to have Cruz all the way back and earning his contract in their new offense for the next four years.

But this is a cold business, this NFL contract business. And with Odell Beckham Jr. having exploded onto the scene as a superstar talent and producer in Cruz's absence, the Giants may well have the leverage they need to seek a reduction in Cruz's salary over the remaining four years of the deal. And it may be in their best salary-cap interest to seek that reduction. They can point out the 12 missed games over the past two years and use Beckham's emergence to help their case and maybe shave a couple of million bucks off of that cap number this year.

Doing this would run the risk of alienating one of the team's best and favorite players. Cruz is a selfless, team-first guy who showed up in 2014 training camp after signing the deal and told the coaches he wanted to work on becoming a better downfield blocker in the run game. He's a special guy, and the Giants know this, and because of that they may decide this isn't a road they want to travel. That contract definitely means something to him, and it may well hurt his pride if they come to him and threaten him with a release while telling him Beckham has passed him -- even if it's just a negotiating tactic.

Cutting Cruz would only save the Giants $2.425 million cap space this year, so assuming they believe he's going to make it all the way back that's not a worthwhile way to go. But given the way things have gone since Cruz signed that deal a year and a half ago, it's not crazy to at least look at making some changes to it.
It's a headline world, and very few people seem to read beyond them, so all day Monday it was, "Did you hear Odell Beckham Jr. played the whole season with TWO tears in his hamstrings???? OH MY GOD!!!!!!" Someone even asked me on Twitter what New York Giants fans should think of Beckham "playing hurt in the Pro Bowl."

No.

Grimes
Beckham
That's not what happened. None of that is what happened. And while I know my plea is likely to fall on deaf ears, I think everybody needs to relax.

One of the most important rules about interviewing professional athletes is to remember that they are not doctors. Beckham can tell the New York Post, if he likes, that he played the whole season with two tears in his hamstrings. He may even technically be correct, because any kind of muscle pull or strain is, in point of fact, a tear of the soft tissue. But all he's doing is using a different word to describe an injury about which everyone already knew. If you go out in the backyard and throw the football around with your kids and you pull your calf or your quad or your hamstring, you will go to work the next day with at least one tear in your muscle. Congrats on toughing that out.

Now, of course, Beckham's job requires him to use his hamstrings to a much more spectacular extent than you or I use them, so the fact that his preseason hamstring injury never fully healed is interesting. But what you have to remember is this: After Beckham pulled his hamstring in the first practice of training camp last summer, and after he pulled it again in a partial practice a couple of weeks later, the Giants sat Beckham out until they were completely sure he could play without risk of reinjuring that muscle. He likely could have played in Week 4 against Washington, but they waited until Week 5 against Atlanta for his debut simply because they wanted to make sure. (And because, if you remember, they only needed Larry Donnell to beat Washington.)

During the season, Beckham would occasionally discuss the hamstring. Once in a while, he would be discussing a particular play or route and say that was one where he felt he might not be able to go full speed because of his hamstring. Wisely, on these occasions, he slowed down so that he might continue playing in the rest of the game. That is the extent to which Beckham's hamstrings affected him after Week 4, and it's possible he could have stretched it out on any or all of those plays and not been affected.

Beckham was absolutely dazzling this season. His 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in only 12 games are likely to be rewarded Saturday night with the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Might he be even better next season if his hamstring is fully healed after an offseason's worth of rest? Sure. A full offseason program, training camp and slate of preseason games are likely to help him as well, as could the return from injury of fellow star wideout Victor Cruz.

But Beckham's accomplishments and ability require no embellishment. They are great enough on their own, and the words he chose to discuss his hamstring issues Sunday night don't mean anything in the big picture of what this young man did or can continue to do going forward.
The New York Giants right now project to have about $14 million in salary cap space for 2015. That assumes a $140 million cap (which I think is a conservative projection) and accounts for the $1.3 million reduction once David Wilson's retirement becomes official. It does not take into account the additional $4.825 million they can save by cutting Mathias Kiwanuka (which I expect they will) or the additional $3.53 million they can save by cutting Jon Beason (which is possible).

So at this point assume something close to $19 million in cap room and expect them to push it over $20 million with roster cuts, pay cuts or other contract adjustments. That would give the Giants enough cap room to operate their offseason even if they don't extend the contract of quarterback Eli Manning.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsThe Giants could extend Eli Maning's contract to gain cap space in the short term and keep the QB around for the long term.
But extending Manning would help make things even looser for the Giants under the cap this offseason. He has one year left on his deal at a salary of $17 million and a cap number of $19.75 million. By not extending him now, they run the risk of having to pay him more (or franchise him) in 2016 and beyond, or of losing him in free agency and having to start over with a new, likely far less reliable quarterback option.

If the Giants do extend Manning this offseason, what would that deal look like? He has averaged $16.25 million a year on the six-year, $97.5 million deal he signed just prior to the 2009 season. Given his production in recent years, it's easy to say they should just extend him for the same money. But given the way quarterback contracts have gone since then, with guys such as Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco averaging more than $20 million a year on new deals and Jay Cutler, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford coming in around $18 million a year, it's legitimate for Manning to ask for more.

For the sake of argument (JUST AS AN EXAMPLE), let's give him Romo's deal -- six years, $108 million with a $25 million signing bonus. Takes him to age 40 if he plays it out, but we all know those last couple of years aren't guaranteed. If they structured it the way Dallas structured Romo's deal, they'd knock another $11 million off this year's cap by rolling this year's salary into the new deal and giving Manning a low base salary in 2015 in exchange for the signing bonus. They'd be on the hook for big guaranteed salaries in 2016 and 2017 but nothing after that, and the length of the deal would allow them to restructure that big guarantee in Year Two if they wanted to do it.

I don't know what the Giants' plans are for this. I know they're considering all options, and I know they'd like to keep Manning around for the rest of his career. I know the options on the market aren't any better than Manning, and I believe an extension for Manning is the right way for the Giants to go -- whether now or a year from now. As for the timing: Yes, they can operate their offseason with a fair amount of flexibility if they don't extend Manning this year. But they could have a much more effective and helpful offseason if they do.
Former New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck made a little bit of a headline last week when he said on ESPN Radio in New York that the Patriots' Tom Brady would be "no question" the best quarterback in NFL history but for the Giants beating him in two Super Bowls. And with the Super Bowl (and the Patriots) returning this year to the site of the Giants' Super Bowl XLII upset of an undefeated New England team, that game is going to be revisited a lot in the next two weeks.

Tedy Bruschi, the former Patriots linebacker who's now an NFL analyst for ESPN, has no trouble remembering the game, painful though it may be for a member of that year's Patriots to recall.

"I can't think of a game in Super Bowl history with more on the line than there was that day," Bruschi said Monday in a phone interview. "This was THE SUPER BOWL, all caps. The one that would trump all the others. A chance to go 19-0, be the only team that ever did that, call ourselves the greatest team of all time? No question about it. But the better team won. They were definitely the better team."

[+] EnlargeDavid Tyree
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe breaks the Patriots got during a 16-0 season seemed to go the Giants' way in Super Bowl XLII.
That's something of a startling admission by a member of that Patriots team, which set NFL records on offense and rolled into the Super Bowl with an 18-0 record. That season's Giants were a 10-6 wild-card team that lost to New England in Week 17. It was a surprise to everyone that they even got to the Super Bowl. Their winning it was among the biggest upsets in sports history. But Bruschi sticks to his story.

"I definitely feel the right team won," Bruschi said. "The way we played, the way they played, they should have won. And that's just the respect I have for the NFL game. To sit here and say we were the better team, or we'd have beaten them nine out of 10 times, come on. What a slap in the face it would be for me to say that."

Bruschi can recall several moments from the game that made him think things weren't going to go the Patriots' way -- the David Tyree helmet catch, of course, but also a dropped interception by Asante Samuel, another pass that went off Brandon Meriweather's hands, an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble that Bradshaw improbably recovered, etc. The kinds of things, Bruschi said, that used to go the Patriots' way when they started winning Super Bowls. But he says it would be a mistake to lay that loss on a few bad bounces.

"They came at us with that power running game with [Brandon] Jacobs and Bradshaw and the fullback, [Madison] Hedgecock," Bruschi said. "Physical offensive line, they had a defensive line, powerful. It validates what really wins football games. We had the highest-scoring offense in the history of the NFL, and we ran into a more physical team that day and lost."

Truly believing the other team was better doesn't help Bruschi deal with the loss, though. What the Patriots lost that day went well beyond one game or even one title. They lost the chance to lay claim to the title of greatest team in NFL history. Bruschi took it so hard, he put off retirement plans.

"I couldn't finish my career with that taste in my mouth," he said. "If we had won that game, I would have retired. No doubt in my mind. But after we lost, I had to come back and play another season."

Bruschi is a Patriot for life, and he recognizes that people will say Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have a chance to go exorcise some demons in the desert in a couple of weeks. But he doesn't think that's really the case.

"I know Tom wants to go out there and right the wrong," Bruschi said. "But if they go out there and win that Super Bowl, it doesn't fix anything for me. I'll be ecstatic and I'll be proud of the organization, but the big one was lost. Nothing's going to change that."

 
We can go around and around about the New York Giants' decision to bring back Steve Spagnuolo as their defensive coordinator. But the fact at the bottom of the discussion is that the coordinator is only going to be as good as his players. And now that Spagnuolo is back in the fold, the Giants have to answer a lot of questions about their personnel on his side of the ball. Let's take a quick look at those questions by category:

Pass rush

This is Spagnuolo's supposed bread-and-butter -- a defense built around the idea of the front four getting pressure on the quarterback and allowing him to drop seven into coverage. It's possible that what Tom Coughlin said in Thursday's news release about Spagnuolo evolving as a coach and learning how to defend spread offenses changes the focus, but the pass rush is going to be paramount regardless.

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsThe Giants' approach to the free agency of Jason Pierre-Paul could be biggest key to their offseason.
Pending free agent Jason Pierre-Paul is the key to the whole thing. I don't personally think I would give Pierre-Paul a long-term deal at this point, but the Giants seem willing to at least consider designating him their franchise player (for what could be close to $15 million) and keeping him in the fold for another year. If they do, they could conceivably get by with Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers (assuming a return to full health), Damontre Moore and Kerry Wynn at defensive end. But with Moore and Wynn still major question marks, I think they would at least try to find some kind of veteran upgrade there. Mathias Kiwanuka looks like the most likely cap cut on the team. If Pierre-Paul doesn't come back, then they need to go after the defensive end position hard in free agency and/or the draft.

Run defense

Obviously there is overlap here with the first category, but if we keep this focused on defensive tackle, Johnathan Hankins and 2014 third-rounder Jay Bromley are the only surefire keepers. They could bring back Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson and Markus Kuhn if they liked, but they can also find upgrades relatively cheaply for any and all of them. They'd save $2.25 million against the cap if they cut Jenkins, and doing that in a continued effort to get younger on the interior of the defensive line isn't out of the question.

Linebacker

Jon Beason's contract doesn't seem sustainable to me. They like him and would bring him back, but his $7.36 million cap number is out of line with his performance (especially given his injury history and the fact that he barely played in 2014). If they really are happy with the way Jameel McClain played in his place, they could cut Beason. Only $900,000 of Beason's 2015 salary is guaranteed, and they'd save about $3.5 million if they released him. Interesting decision looming there. Elsewhere, McClain is reasonable at $1.175 million in salary this year, and second-year man Devon Kennard is a good-looking and versatile piece. Jacquian Williams, Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger are all unrestricted free agents. Williams is a question mark because concussions ended his season, but if he's healthy, they will look to bring him back. Herzlich is a favorite of a lot of people there, a helper on special teams and also likely to be back in a reserve role.

Cornerback

They should look to extend Prince Amukamara's contract now. They exercised his $7 million fifth-year option last offseason, but that doesn't become guaranteed for anything but injury until September. Make it part of the guarantee in a new multiyear deal and they should be good to go into the future with Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as starters. The free-agent question here is Walter Thurmond, who signed a one-year deal last year and went down early with a season-ending injury. He was a big part of their plans as a nickel cornerback, and assuming he's not looking to cash in big, they are likely to try to bring him back.

Safety

The only safeties on the roster right now are Nat Berhe and Cooper Taylor, neither of whom projects as a starter for 2015. They'll talk to Antrel Rolle about a return, but I have a hunch they'll lowball him -- as they did Justin Tuck last year -- and he'll get more elsewhere. If that's the case, expect this to be a big focus of their offseason resources -- meaning either free-agent money, early-round draft picks or both. Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps are both candidates to return, but only if they're willing to do very team-friendly deals.
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I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Steve Spagnuolo and the New York Giants are made for each other and having him back as defensive coordinator will return them to Super Bowl glory, or at least the playoffs. Maybe he's a great coach who had a raw deal in St. Louis and New Orleans and will get to rebuild his reputation now that he's back with the team with which he had his greatest success. Maybe the Giants see something in him that no one else in this hiring cycle saw, and maybe they're right.

I just don't think, if I were the Giants, that I'd risk my future on it.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spagnuolo
Mike Groll/AP PhotoThe Giants needed a defensive coordinator for the long term, so they better hope Steve Spagnuolo has picked up some new tricks in his time away.
After they fired defensive coordinator Perry Fewell last week, the Giants had a chance to do with their defense what they did last year with their offense -- rethink and rebuild it with a fresh voice in charge. Instead, they defaulted to the familiar and brought back Spagnuolo, who was their defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl season of 2007 and the 12-4 season of 2008. Those were Tom Coughlin's best teams as Giants coach, and you can understand the temptation to go back to one of the people who helped make them happen.

But the Giants right now are at a point in their history where the focus needs to be on rebuilding for the long term. A half-decade's worth of miserable drafts has sapped their talent pipeline to the point where they needed to sign 20-plus free agents a year ago to fill out a roster that would go 6-10. The only reason to think they can turn this around in a year is that the NFL perpetually offers everyone that hope. Realistically, they finished six games out of first place in 2014 and are still in the early stages of a rebuild. The right move isn't to hire a coordinator to make the 2015 defense great. The right move is to hire a coordinator who'll help make the defense great for the next five or six years.

Spagnuolo could be that. Coughlin's quotes in the news release announcing his hiring focused a lot on how Spagnuolo has changed and grown as a coach since his last time in New York -- as if anticipating questions about this being a backward-looking hire and trying to head them off.

"His defense has changed since he was last here," the release says Coughlin said. "He worked in Baltimore with John Harbaugh and Dean Pees, and they are outstanding defensive coaches. He has studied defenses. Steve visited colleges and talked to college coaches, including Urban Meyer (coach of national champion Ohio State) to learn how to defend the spread offenses that have become so popular."

Good for him, and good for the Giants if that's the case. The best coaches are the ones who evolve and learn and open their minds to the new and creative ideas of those around and available to them. If that's the way Spagnuolo has spent the last two years, then he and the Giants can certainly benefit, and this could turn out to be a forward-looking hire after all.

But while this is obviously a great week to name-drop Urban Meyer (and yes, the parentheses were the Giants', not mine), the reality is that there are a lot more negatives on the Spagnuolo résumé than there are positives. You can tell me he didn't have the pieces in St. Louis to be a successful head coach, but he wasn't even a mediocre one. He was 10-38 in three seasons. You can tell me he and everyone else with the 2012 Saints were in a bad position due to the Sean Payton suspension and the bounty scandal, but that doesn't mean your defense has to go out and allow more yards than any NFL defense has ever allowed in a season, as the Saints did with Spagnuolo as their coordinator that year.

If this were a 55-year-old coach with a résumé identical to Spagnuolo's except that he'd spent 2007-08 with, say, the Minnesota Vikings, Giants fans would hate this hire. Literally the only reason for a fan to be fired up about it is if they're living in the past -- a past that by the way included Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora in the pass rush.

Make no mistake: Given the Giants' personnel issues on defense right now, this job is a lot closer to the ones Spagnuolo had in St. Louis and New Orleans than it is to the one he took with the Giants in 2007. Can he make the difference? Possible. It's just a mistake to assume he will. And if he flops, the Giants will end up having to do what they could and should have done this time around -- find somebody to help build them something new and lead it into the future.
It wasn't long ago that New York Giants VP of player evaluation Marc Ross was a hot name on the potential GM circuit. He interviewed with the Jets a couple of years ago before they settled on John Idzik, and he was a candidate for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' GM job last year before the Bucs hired Jason Licht. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, especially after former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi was brought on in Chicago as a consultant, there was some buzz about the Bears possibly calling Ross to talk about their GM opening.

But the Bears never called the Giants to ask permission to interview Ross or anyone else in the front office. In fact, no NFL team has expressed interest in any member of the Giants' front office or coaching staff for any vacant GM or head coach opening this offseason.

How unusual is that? There are only seven teams who haven't had anyone call about any of their people for an NFL head coach or GM opening this offseason:

Giants

Washington

Falcons

Bears

Rams

Steelers

Raiders

There's only one playoff team on that list, and combined winning percentage of that group in the 2014 regular season was .366. You can make it a nine-team list, if you'd like, by adding the Packers and Jaguars, whose only requests for interviews have been by the Eagles for their pseudo-GM job. But other than the Packers and Steelers, these are not teams whose company you want to keep on any kind of NFL list right now.

This tells that perception and reputation can be fleeting in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Ross isn't a worse executive than he was last year or two years ago. It's just that the state of the Giants' program right now is such that teams aren't thinking about them when they're looking for help. They won the Super Bowl three years ago, sure. But they haven't finished above .500 or made the playoffs since.

And while their 2014 draft, headlined by likely Offensive Rookie of the Year Odell Beckham Jr., looks as though it could turn out to be a good one, the reason for the Giants' problems the past few years is that they're coming off a long string of terribly unproductive drafts that sapped the roster of depth and quality across the board. Once that starts to sink in around the league, it's not the kind of thing that helps your scouting director get GM interviews.

As for the coaching staff, it would be unfair not to point out that offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was a red-hot offensive coordinator candidate who even got a head coach interview with the Browns last year before the Giants hired him. But the lack of on-field success in East Rutherford is going to keep NFL teams from looking to the Giants' coaching staff for help when they're making decisions about who should lead them.

It only takes one good year to get back on teams' radar screens. If the Giants turn things around, g0 11-5 and win the NFC East next year, it's entirely possible that Ross and a couple of their coaches and executives start to generate interest again. The lack of interest around the league obviously isn't personal. It's just a reflection of how poorly things are going for the Giants at this particular time in their history.
No final decision yet from the New York Giants on a new defensive coordinator, but it appears as though they've interviewed all of the candidates they plan to interview and hope to have a decision by the end of the week.

In the meantime, they are also closing in on a deal with Tim Walton, the former defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, to join the staff as their defensive backs coach. Walton would replace Peter Giunta, who was fired last week along with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

Once the Giants hire a new defensive coordinator, they will seek his input on the construction of the defensive coaching staff. And that could mean some other defensive assistants would be replaced or shuffled into different roles, as happened on the other side of the ball last year after the Giants hired Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator. But head coach Tom Coughlin has final say on the coaching staff, and Walton appears to be a guy they'll bring on regardless of who they pick for coordinator.

Walton was the Rams' defensive coordinator for one season -- 2013 -- after spending four seasons as the defensive backs coach for the Detroit Lions.

The Giants interviewed their own former defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, for the coordinator position Wednesday. He's viewed by many close to the situation as the front-runner, though at this point they have not informed him that he's their choice. They also are considering former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen and former Giants linebacker and current Buffalo Bills defensive line coach Pepper Johnson.
The New York Giants on Tuesday interviewed former Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen for their vacant defensive coordinator position. Allen is one of four known candidates to replaced the fired Perry Fewell as Giants defensive coordinator, along with Raheem Morris, Pepper Johnson and Steve Spagnuolo. Here's a look at what Allen brings to the table:

Allen
Allen is only 42 years old, which I can personally assure you is a very young age and indicates a man still very much in his prime. He had one season as an NFL defensive coordinator -- in 2011, with the Broncos, who went 8-8 and won the AFC West and a playoff game with Tim Tebow as their quarterback. The Broncos that year ranked 20th in the NFL in total defense, measured by yards allowed.

Off of that performance, a 39-year-old Allen was hired as head coach of the Raiders, a position for which he almost certainly was not ready and in which he went 4-12 in each of his first two seasons before starting the 2014 season 0-4 and being fired. Three of the Giants' defensive coordinator candidates -- Morris, Allen and Spagnuolo -- are former head coaches. Their combined record as NFL head coaches is 35-97. You could say that, as head coaches go, these guys are really good defensive coordinators.

Regardless, my point on Allen is that he's no retread. If the Giants are looking for a fresh, young, nimble mind to lead their defense, Allen should not be ruled out of that category simply because he's a failed head coach. It was shocking that the Raiders hired him when they did, and had they not done so, it's entirely possible he'd be a red-hot defensive coordinator with teams banging down his door for head coach interviews.

Before he was the Broncos' defensive coordinator, Allen spent five years on the defensive coaching staff of the Atlanta Falcons from 2002-05 and then five more on the New Orleans Saints' staff from 2006-10. His position-coach background is with defensive backs, but his first job with the Saints was as an assistant defensive line coach. And yes, I do find it interesting that three of the Giants' candidates -- Morris, Allen and Spagnuolo -- all have backgrounds as defensive backs coaches, especially because the Giants fired defensive backs coach Peter Giunta along with Fewell last week.

I can't handicap this. A lot of people seem to think Spagnuolo, whose interview is Wednesday, is the favorite. He may be. I know there's a strong sentiment among many in the Giants' building in favor of bringing him back. But I also know that there are those who want it to be Johnson, the former Giants' linebacker who's been an NFL assistant coach -- though never a coordinator -- for the past 15 years. Unless Johnson totally botched the interview, I will hold to my prediction that he gets the job, but that's little more than an educated guess. If it's Allen who ends up with the job, though, you shouldn't be upset just because he couldn't coach the Raiders. Nobody since Jon Gruden has been able to do that.
Former New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is scheduled to interview for that same job Wednesday. Spagnuolo is the top choice of many Giants fans and some in the Giants' building. Here's a look at some of the potential pros and cons of hiring Spagnuolo as Perry Fewell's replacement:

Spagnuolo was the Giants' defensive coordinator for only two seasons, but they were wildly successful. The 2007 Giants rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 10-6, claim a wild-card playoff spot and beat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. They ranked seventh in the NFL in total defense. The 2008 Giants went 12-4 and ranked fifth in the league in total defense before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs after top wide receiver Plaxico Burress was arrested for firing a gun in a New York City nightclub.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spagnuolo
AP Photo/David RichardRavens assistant head coach and secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Giants' defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008 before leaving to be the Rams' head coach.
That performance got Spagnuolo a job as head coach of the St. Louis Rams. He went 10-38 in his three seasons in that job, which is obviously a complete disaster, though he did come very close to winning a division title in 2010. His team lost to the Seahawks that year on the final day of the season, which meant both teams finished 7-9 and the Seahawks won the NFC West on a tiebreaker. Spagnuolo's Rams went 2-14 the following year and he was fired.

From there, Spagnuolo went to New Orleans, where he served as the Saints' defensive coordinator in 2012. The Saints' defense that season set an NFL record with 7,042 yards allowed, and Spagnuolo was (again, obviously) fired as a result. The 2012 season was a wreck all the way around in New Orleans, because that was the season for which head coach Sean Payton was suspended as a result of the bounty scandal. Spagnuolo was put in a very difficult situation, replacing suspended and fired coordinator Gregg Williams in historically unprecedented circumstances, so it might not be completely fair to judge him on his performance in New Orleans.

Still, it's important to reiterate that the 2012 New Orleans Saints, with Spagnuolo as their defensive coordinator, allowed more yards than any other team in NFL history has ever allowed in a single season.

Spagnuolo has spent the past two years as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, which is a fine place to rebuild a beaten-up coaching reputation. He is 55 years old, and given the challenging circumstances in which he found himself in St. Louis and New Orleans, he likely deserves another chance. As a man with NFL defensive coordinator and head coach experience on his resume, he's clearly overqualified for his current job and clearly qualified for this job, which is one he used to have.

I just don't think he's the slam-dunk choice others seem to believe he should be. Those Giants defenses with which he had so much success had Hall of Famer Michael Strahan as well as Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Antonio Pierce in their front seven. Those are some heavy hitters, and even if Jason Pierre-Paul re-signs and Jon Beason comes back from his injury, the 2015 Giants defense stands as something of a rebuilding project. The only player still on the Giants' defense who remains from Spagnuolo's tenure is Mathias Kiwanuka, and his chances of being on the 2015 roster are quite slim.

As I have written before, the Giants need to be looking forward and long-term with this hire. This can't be about comfort level for 2015. This is about rebuilding a defense with a clear vision for the long haul under someone with the ability to execute that vision. The Giants might well decide Spagnuolo is that man, and as I said above, he has the qualifications. But if they do hire him, they need to make sure it's for those reasons, and not because 2007 and 2008 were so awesome.
It's a big week of interviews for defensive coordinator at the New York Giants' facility. After interviewing former Giants linebacker and current Bills defensive line coach Pepper Johnson for the job Monday, the Giants interviewed former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen on Tuesday and are planning to interview former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on Wednesday.

The Giants also interviewed Washington defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for the job last week, but he does not appear to be under serious consideration. It's unclear whether the Giants will interview more candidates later in the week or next week, or whether they plan to make a decision soon. Former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who was the Bills' defensive coordinator this past season but won't be joining Rex Ryan's staff in Buffalo next season, is a logical candidate for the job but as of Tuesday afternoon had not been contacted to schedule an interview.

The Giants fired defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and defensive backs coach Peter Giunta last week after a 6-10 season in which their defense ranked No. 29 in the NFL. They'll make at least one assistant coach hire in addition to the new coordinator, and the new coordinator is likely to want to make a new hire or two of his own.

I'll have posts looking at the candidacies of Allen and Spagnuolo later Tuesday and/or Wednesday morning.
New York Giants fans of a certain age obviously know Pepper Johnson as a two-time Super Bowl-winning linebacker from the Bill Parcells Giants teams. He's been an NFL assistant coach for the last 15 years. He was a member of Bill Belichick's coaching staff with the New England Patriots for 14 years (adding three more Super Bowl titles to his resume) before joining the Buffalo Bills in 2014 as their defensive line coach.

[+] EnlargePepper Johnson
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsPepper Johnson coached under Bill Belichick for 14 years before being hired by the Buffalo Bills.
Now, as Adam Schefter reported Saturday morning, the Giants plan to interview Johnson next week for their vacant defensive coordinator job.

Johnson coached linebackers and the defensive line at various times during his coaching apprenticeship in New England, and three of the four starting linemen he coached in Buffalo this year -- Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- have been selected to this year's Pro Bowl. He is 50 years old and has never been a defensive coordinator before, but the Giants last year hired an offensive coordinator (Ben McAdoo) who'd never had that job before because they believed he was ready to take the leap.

From what I have been told, there are plenty of people in the Giants' building who want Tom Coughlin to hire former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to replace Perry Fewell in this job. The Giants haven't been able to interview Spagnuolo yet, as he's on the Ravens' coaching staff and they've been preparing for a Saturday playoff game in New England. But I also have been told there are people in the Giants' building who are hoping Johnson blows them away in the interview process and convinces them he's ready for the coordinator job, because they'd like to give a shot to a fresh face on the way up the coaching ranks.

Coaching under Belichick for 14 years surely taught Johnson plenty, and as he told the New York Post this week, he believes he's ready for this chance. I personally believe that if he can convince Coughlin and the Giants during the interview process that he has a vision for how to build and lead a defense, he's the favorite for the position -- even over Spagnuolo. We'll find out in the next week or so.
Mailbag time. You use the #nygmail hashtag on Twitter with your Giants question, I answer on Saturday morning.

@DanGrazianoESPN: The answer to your question is yes, the New York Giants would be open to that if they fell in love with a defensive coordinator candidate who ran a 3-4 defense. But I do not believe that is their preference, because it would require a pretty intense evaluation and overhaul of their defensive front seven. They'd have to move on from Jason Pierre-Paul, who's a 4-3 defensive end, and go out hunting for pass-rushing outside linebackers, which aren't super-easy to find in high quantities. It's possible they could stand up Damontre Moore and turn him into that kind of player, but they'd need more, and they'd have a bit of a logjam at inside linebacker with Devon Kennard, Jameel McClain and Jon Beason. Up front, they'd have to figure out whether Johnathan Hankins fit better as a 3-4 defensive end or a nose tackle. I suspect he'd be an end, which means they'd need to get a nose tackle. Considering they already have major work to do on the defensive line and in the secondary as is, adjusting the front-seven alignment that significantly is likely too extensive an offseason undertaking for them in 2015. Again, if they found a guy they really loved and he was a 3-4 guy, they obviously wouldn't rule it out. But the sense I get is that they'd prefer their new coordinator to run a 4-3.

@DanGrazianoESPN: I'm assuming you're using the Pro Football Focus rankings, right? They're obviously useful but imperfect, and they're better at rating certain positions than others. I could see Beatty grading out as a top-10 left tackle in 2014, but he clearly was far worse than that in 2013, and the inconsistency is what kind of leaves me cold. Since he's not a big, bruising, physical left tackle, Beatty is dependent on technique to succeed. When his technique slips, he struggles to get it back, as was the case throughout 2013. He led the league in holding penalties in 2014 with eight, and I don't think that's a coincidence, because when I watch him I see a guy who likes to grab too much. I think he can be overpowered, especially by top pass-rushers, and I think left tackle is a position where you want to spend major resources on elite talent if you can. While he was serviceable in 2014, and more good than bad, I don't think he's elite, and if I were the Giants I would be on the lookout for a way to upgrade. Not saying it's easy, just saying I don't agree with the perception that they're as good as they could possibly be at left tackle. And I think it's an important enough position not to cut corners.

@DanGrazianoESPN: Without a doubt. If you're trying to guess who the Giants will take with the No. 9 pick in the draft, Alabama safety Landon Collins is as good a guess as any. The Giants only have two safeties -- Nat Berhe and Cooper Taylor -- under contract for 2015. Even if they do bring back Antrel Rolle, they'll obviously be looking to build quality young depth at the position. And with the signing of Rolle and the drafting of Kenny Phillips in the first round, there's a good amount of recent evidence that safety is a position on which the Giants aren't afraid to spend major resources. Especially if they come out of free agency feeling like their pass rush and offensive line are in good shape, Collins will be a popular and potentially accurate projected pick for the Giants at No. 9. Good call.

@DanGrazianoESPN: This is a completely worthwhile question, though it's important to remember that when Ben McAdoo took the offensive coordinator job last year, Coughlin was still only signed through 2014. And while John Mara said it was possible they could break with organizational history and allow Coughlin to enter this season as a lame duck, he said the same last year and they still extended Coughlin through 2015 before the season began. So that could still happen. But even if it did, there's no guarantee Coughlin will be the head coach beyond 2015, and anyone applying for the defensive coordinator job will know that. So yes, it's possible that situation could affect the search or their ability to get the coach they want. These things can be overcome with money and the offer of unprecedented opportunity, of course. There are plenty of quality coaches out there who are dying for a chance to be defensive coordinators and would jump at the offer regardless of the head coach's long-term status. But could it keep a guy like Buffalo's Jim Schwartz or San Francisco's Vic Fangio from making a lateral move if they like their current salaries and situations? Absolutely.

If this were really all about 2015 -- if New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin really were looking at this coming season as a "make-or-break" one for his career -- then Perry Fewell would still be the defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeCoughlin
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsTom Coughlin is in search of a new defensive coordinator, and that speaks volumes for where the tenured coach is at in his career and with the Giants.
Think about it. If Coughlin really believed he only had one year left as Giants coach, why wouldn't he keep all of the coaches with whom he's comfortable -- the men in whom he believes as fellow leaders? If all he cared about was his own job security -- or his own "legacy," to borrow a word that was being thrown around in East Rutherford last week -- then what would be the point of rebuilding the defense under new leadership. That kind of thing takes time. If Coughlin were being driven by the idea that his time with the Giants was short, big change wouldn't be the way to go.

This is where I think people get it wrong about Coughlin. There's an assumption that everyone acts only out of self-interest, and there's a fair bit of evidence in the world today that the assumption is safe. But I don't think that's the way Coughlin coaches the Giants, and I think the fact he's looking for a new defensive coordinator one year after hiring a new offensive coordinator demands we give him the benefit of the doubt.

Coughlin has coached the Giants for 11 years. He's won two Super Bowls as their coach. He is a significant part of the franchise's history, and as such he is invested in its long-term success. Whether he's the coach for one more year or two more years or five more years or eight more years, Coughlin is bound by his sense of professional duty to do what's best for the Giants -- not for himself.

From the outside, Coughlin's job security didn't look super-solid going into 2014. Yet he still brought in a new and untested coordinator in Ben McAdoo, knowing it would take time to get the offense running as well as it could. A man who thinks his time is short doesn't operate that way. But it was the best thing for the Giants to do at that point in their franchise history, and so that was the move Coughlin made.

Likewise, this month's search for a new defensive coordinator is likely to be wide open. Sure, they could talk to former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and decide he's the best man for the job. And if they hire him, obviously you could make the argument Coughlin is defaulting to a situation that makes him comfortable. But if he really were doing that, he'd have kept Fewell in the job and gone into his "make-or-break" season with the staff in which he believed so strongly just a few months ago.

I think it's important, when analyzing Coughlin in general and this coordinator-hunt specifically, to consider the kind of person Coughlin is, what he's meant to the Giants and what the Giants mean to him. I think it's fair to trust him to hire the coordinator who's the best bet for the organization in the long run, regardless of what it means to his own immediate future. He cares about winning and about his legacy, yes. He admitted as much last week. But he's been with the Giants long enough that he cares what happens to them after he's gone. And I think you'll see that show up in this process.
With Perry Fewell out after five years as New York Giants defensive coordinator, here's a partial list of possible replacements, in no particular order:

Pepper Johnson, defensive line coach, Buffalo Bills: Former Giants linebacker and two-time Super Bowl champion was with the New England Patriots' coaching staff for 14 years before joining Buffalo's in 2014. If the Giants decide to go the unproven-coordinator route as they did on offense last year with Ben McAdoo, Johnson will be among their top candidates.

Steve Spagnuolo, assistant head coach/secondary coach, Baltimore Ravens: Some in the Giants' hierarchy are pushing for a return of the coordinator who helped coach Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck & Co. to that Super Bowl XLII upset over the undefeated Patriots. But it's no sure thing, as the Giants want to look at all options. And that "assistant head coach" title could mean the Ravens (who are still alive in the playoffs) don't have to let Spagnuolo out of his contract for anything less than a head coach position.

Mike Smith, former Atlanta Falcons head coach: Smith was the Jaguars' defensive coordinator for five years before becoming Falcons head coach in 2008, and is well liked and respected by Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

Mike Nolan, Altanta Falcons defensive coordinator: Likely to be a free agent once Alanta hires Smith's replacement. Nolan was Giants' defensive coordinator from 1993-96 under Dan Reeves.

Dennis Allen, former Oakland Raiders head coach: Seen as a bright defensive mind who likely will be on several teams' lists as coordinator candidate.

Jim Schwartz, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator: Still under contract in Buffalo, but if the Bills' new head man wants to pick his own coordinator, the former Lions head coach will be among the hottest candidates around.

Vic Fangio, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator: Fangio wants the Niners' head coaching job, and if he doesn't get it, he's not likely to stick around.

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