Free at last

Tom Coughlin is here and on his very first day he made it clear that he's going to shake up the complacency that has enveloped the Giants. Injuries and stupidity will not be tolerated, and he'll be installing a long, new list of rules. They will be followed and players will quickly learn they must do things his way. <BR><BR>

That may be a good way to restore the Giants' winning tradition, but it's not necessarily the preferred approach of players who have a choice. And that brings the Giants to free agency, which opens on March 3, and the 14 unrestricted free agents on their roster they may try to re-sign.

They'll have plenty of money to do so, as the salary cap, which was $74.8 million last year, is expected to increase to a figure between $78.7 and $79.2 million. It's up to the Giants which free agents they'd like to retain.

As for the players, will any of them want to be back after enjoying a cushy life under former coach Jim Fassel? Will any of them want to subject themselves to boot camp under Major Tom?

"Competitors are going to want to play for him," Giants GM Ernie Accorsi said. "(Penn State coach Joe) Paterno never had trouble recruiting, and he's tough. So I don't think it's going to be a factor."

"The guys who are going to be scared away," Giants VP John Mara added, "are guys we don't want anyway."

So who do they want? The Giants need a lot after their miserable 4-12 season, most notably help on the offensive line. But before they begin rebuilding they must make several decisions in the next few weeks:

C Chris Bober – The Giants' most consistent lineman during the last two seasons said "You definitely want to play for a place that puts a priority on the offensive line." It's safe to say he hasn't seen the Giants do that lately, nor does it help that they wouldn't ante up the money for a long-term extension during brief negotiations last year.

Bober, in a recent interview about the hiring of Coughlin, never once said the words "we" or "us" when referring to the Giants – an ominous sign to say the least. He will undoubtedly explore the free agent market. Meanwhile, the Giants are likely to look elsewhere as they rebuild.

Bober looks to land in the $1 million range annually.

CB Ralph Brown – Brown believes his brief replacement duty in the starting lineup this season has proven "I can start in this league." He also adds that, "Hopefully that'll carry over after the season," meaning that someone, somewhere will want him to start for them.

It won't be the Giants. They are committed to CBs Will Allen and Will Peterson, and they're convinced Frank Walker can be a productive nickelback. If Brown wants to come back at a low price and compete for the nickel job, they'll probably let him. Otherwise, both sides will move on.

Looks to land in the $800,000 range annually.

WR Ron Dixon – This will depress Accorsi, who loves Dixon's potential, but there is no way this enigma returns next season. For one thing, he's not healthy. His knee injury, once thought to be minor, kept him out all season. For another, his chronic lateness would get him buried so far in Coughlin's doghouse that he wouldn't ever be within six miles of the field.

QB Jason Garrett – The much-anticipated retirement of Garrett will probably finally happen. Coughlin wants a veteran backup for Kerry Collins, but the 37-year-old Garrett might be a little too veteran for him. He was brought back mostly to counsel Collins, who enjoyed his guidance and friendship. Coughlin is not likely to have room for such luxuries on his very tight ship.

DT Cornelius Griffin – Griffin said he expects to have "a few options," though "My No. 1 option is here." Chances are he'll get his wish because the Giants' won't have much of a choice. They know they're going to lose Keith Hamilton to retirement, and they know it's risky enough plugging William Joseph into that hole. If they lose Griffin too, they'd have Joseph and Lance Legree starting at the tackles next season, which wouldn't scare anyone at all.

Plus, Griffin still hasn't lived up to the promise of his rookie season, which means he's not likely to have many options on the market. This looks like a marriage of convenience, and at a cap-friendly cost, too.

Griffin should land a deal in the $1.5-2 million range a year.

S Johnnie Harris – His performance in the finale against the Panthers (an interception that became a fumble, a costly facemask penalty and some terrible coverage) won't look good to Coughlin. The Giants know they need safety help and will place a premium on people with good hands. For the right price, Harris will come back, but he'll hardly be a priority.

DE Kenny Holmes – He reached an automatic voidable year in his deal once he met his contract requirement of playing at least 10 percent of the defensive snaps for the year. Almost definitely will not return.

LB Dhani Jones – Jones said "I know my best is in front of me," and he better hope so. His potential is so good that he'll undoubtedly get offers – he nearly signed with the Packers as a restricted free agent last offseason – and the Giants aren't likely to enter the bidding. With both he and LB Brandon Short on the market, and the future of MLB Mike Barrow uncertain, something's got to give – and it'll probably be him.

Looks to land in the $1 million range annually.

CB Kato Serwanga – Allen, Peterson and Walker are the future at this position. There will be no room or reason to spend money on anyone else.

LB Brandon Short – Short may want to go someplace where he's on the field a little more often. Then again, the coaching change may present him with that opportunity. He showed some big-game potential and he definitely has some talent, so he might be worth a shot if his price remains low. But under Coughlin and new defensive coordinator Tim Lewis the Giants are undoubtedly going to try to upgrade their defensive personnel. If they make a big pitch for a big pass-rushing linebacker (did someone say Julian Peterson?) all bets with Short are off.

"I would love to come back here," he said. "In a perfect world I would love to retire as a New York Giant. New York City is great. The organization is great. But it's a business. Hopefully we can both come to an agreement and they want me back. It's a business so you never know how this thing is going to work out."

Short should be seeking a deal worth at least $1.2 million a year.

DE Keith Washington – A serviceable backup, he could still have a place here behind Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, especially now that Kenny Holmes is probably gone.

CB Ike Charlton – His agent should start calling all around the league. The only positive for Charlton is that he previously played under Coughlin.

CB Ray Green – Yeah, right.

TE Tony McGee – See above.

* Restricted free agents – Of the Giants' seven restricted free agents, only CB Will Peterson is expected to even come close to receiving an offer from another team. The other RFAs are DE Frank Ferrara, S Clarence LeBlanc, DT Lance Legree, QB Jesse Palmer, CB Reggie Stephens and TE Marcellus Rivers.

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Ken Palmer contributed to this report.

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