Will Justin Tuck return to play for the New York Giants in 2014? That's one of the top questions on fans' minds this offseason as the Giants try to improve a team that went 7-9 in 2013 while missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
To make the team better, the Giants want to keep the players that are productive while shedding those who aren't. It sounds simple, but in Tuck's case, the Giants don't really know what they will be getting if they sign the soon-to-be free agent to a long-term extension. Will Tuck be the leader and playmaker that he was when he averaged nearly 10 sacks per season from 2007 to 2010? Or will he be the often injured pass rusher who only sacked opposing quarterback nine times in the 2011 and 2012 seasons?
The incredible 2013 that Tuck turned in is an indication that he is back to being a star performer, but the Giants may not be interested in investing in a player who will be 31 years old before the next season begins. There are younger players on New York's roster and in free agency who would be glad to take Tuck's place if he can't reach an agreement with the Giants in the offseason.
I think that New York and Tuck will find a middle ground because the star's skill in handling the media and guiding younger players gives him more value to the Giants than to other clubs. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that talks break down because Tuck wants to get paid like a superstar and the Giants want to save money to improve the team in other areas. If that happens, here's a number of way the Giants can fill his shoes.
If the Giants want to sign one of the best players on the free agent market, it will likely cost as much if not more than re-signing Tuck would. However, there are benefits to going outside the organization for help. Carolina's Greg Hardy has 26 sacks in his last two seasons and is five years younger than Tuck. Even if he costs more money, the Giants would likely get more bang for their buck by inking Hardy when he's in his prime. Less expensive options include Michael Bennett, who is coming off a strong, but not spectacular season in Seattle, and Michael Johnson, who is younger than Tuck but coming off a down season in Cincinnati.
Inside the Organization
The Giants might have more leverage on Tuck if it weren't for the struggles of Jason Pierre-Paul. After a magical 2011 season in which he registered 16.5 sacks, Pierre-Paul has just 8.5 sacks in the past two years while he has been hampered by injuries. If the Giants believe that a healthy Pierre-Paul can return to his old form, then letting Tuck go would be a lot easier, but it there's also the possibility that Pierre-Paul is never going to be the player he was in 2011 again. Another talented defensive end already on the team is Damontre Moore, but he still has plenty to prove after a rookie season in which he barely saw any playing time.
The NFL Draft
Is it ever too early to talk about the draft? For a 7-9 team like the Giants, the answer is usually "no." If Tuck is let go, it would take a mega trade to land the notorious Jadeveon Clowney, but there are other prospects who could be had in later rounds. A couple of names to look out for are Jackson Jeffcoat out of Texas and Michael Sam from Missouri.