The defensive line group is one of free agency’s deepest positions this year. How the Giants approach this area (and free agency in general) will largely depend on what happens with Jason Pierre-Paul. A long term deal or franchise tag designation will eat up a large part of the team’s available cap room, while letting Pierre-Paul walk will shoot defensive end to the top of the team’s needs list. Should the Giants retain Pierre-Paul it is hard to imagine defensive end being a priority in free agency with Damontre Moore and Robert Ayers likely to see significant time next season, but defensive tackle will remain a need and if Pierre-Paul does walk the Giants will have a number of viable alternatives to pursue.
Consider this the biggest wish of the wish list, but its not totally out of the question if the Giants decide to let Pierre-Paul hit free agency. Suh is not a like-for-like replacement for JPP, but he is an immensely impactful player nonetheless and would make a dominant interior duo with Jonathan Hankins. The soon-to-be former Detroit Lion is braced to become one of the highest paid defenders in NFL history, and the Giants will be one of many teams enticed by the 2010 2nd overall pick if they have the resources to make it happen. Certainly this is a long shot, but if Pierre-Paul walks expect the Giants to at least give it a go.
After just five sacks in three disappointing seasons in Indianapolis, Hughes found his calling in Buffalo - first as a situational pass rushing OLB in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense, and then this past year at defensive end impressing as a 16 game starter under Jim Schwartz where he helped comprise one of the NFL’s best defensive lines. Hughes is expecting a pay day which would factor him in much more as a Pierre-Paul replacement than a complement for the Giants. There are certainly risks involved with his success in Buffalo coming on an ultra-talented overall group of linemen, but at just 26 years old it could also be said he has his best seasons ahead of him.
Easily the most controversial name on this list, the Giants will have to decide themselves whether Hardy is a player they want to pursue for obvious off-the-field reasons. Practically speaking it also remains to be seen whether he’ll have to sit out some games in 2015 due to suspension. Strictly on-the-field though, Hardy is a favorable replacement for Pierre-Paul and could even come with a “damaged goods” discount.
The Giants will not have fond memories of Brandon Graham from their trip to Lincoln Financial Field this past season, but luckily for the Giants they probably will not have to see Graham in an Eagles uniform again. Graham, like Jerry Hughes, is a late blooming first rounder that looks destined to give his best football to his second franchise but is more of a projection still as a full-time starter as he did most of his work in a situational pass rushing role. Still, Graham was no doubt disruptive and with the premium put on pass rushers should see himself a healthy contract to start somewhere come March.
Sheard looks a lock to leave Cleveland after struggling to make the transition to OLB in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense. His 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011 were a pleasant surprise for the Browns but his sack totals have been on a steady decline since his rookie season, culminating in just 2 this past year. In his defense, Sheard does hold up strongly against the run and a return to his favored scheme and a change of scenery will no doubt help. If the Giants wanted to find a “value” signing to replace Pierre-Paul, Sheard would seemingly fit the bill - perhaps even a player to add in addition to Pierre-Paul at the right price.
Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions
The “other” Detroit defensive tackle hitting the market, Fairley has been in the shadow of the dominant Ndamukong Suh since he was taken 13th overall by the Lions just a year after they made Suh the 2nd overall pick. Fairley has yet to find consistent success in the league and is a risk based on previous issues with injuries and weight control, but has moments of brilliance that have just not yet have come consistently enough. Fairley is a more reasonable signing for the Giants than other big names as he is unlikely to attract the astronomical guaranteed dollars but is a classic risk/reward signing.
Stephen Paea, DT, Chicago Bears
Paea was a disruptive force along with Jeremiah Ratliff in Chicago’s interior this past season, and if he hits the market will be worth a look for the Giants. Certainly a better long term fit than Cullen Jenkins or Mike Patterson, Paea would be a signal of intent for the Giants returning to their ways of constantly putting pressure on the quarterback that led to two Super Bowl victories. Paea hasn’t exactly made his name in Chicago by clogging up running lanes however, which could be a red flag for a team like the Giants that defended the run so poorly last year. But in terms of an interior pairing, it is easy to see Hankins and Paea causing opposing quarterbacks a lot of problems.
Henry Melton, DT, Dallas Cowboys
Just let go by the Cowboys, Melton is a disruptive interior pass rusher that would be a valued addition to a number of team’s interior rotations including the Giants. Melton has some sticking potential, he played well for the Cowboys in a rotational role and was an excellent player in Chicago before tearing his ACL in 2013, but is more likely to take a cheaper “prove-it” deal once again and that could interest the Giants.