Reese ‘Rolle'd Dice by Exercising Caution

The best thing the Giants did at the bell of free agency was nothing. They didn't pitch a tent in front of Karlos Dansby's home, or start incessantly blowing car horns at the stroke of midnight on Julius Peppers' curb.

No, the Giants showed the necessary restraint when a grossly overpriced market of NFL players opened for business at midnight on March 5. Dansby wound up getting $22 million in guaranteed money from the Dolphins. Peppers snatched $42 million in guaranteed cash from the Bears, who initially looked like they might try to sign every free agent in the land.

The Giants would grab Antrel Rolle later that night, a marvelous addition, a move that immediately made them better in several areas. But grabbing Peppers wasn't a cost-effective move, not even for a Giants team that last season treated opposing quarterbacks as if they had infectious diseases.

And Dansby was commanding a huge price for a player who will turn 30 by the end of the 2010 season, totaled one sack and one forced fumble in 2009, helped lead a mediocre Cardinals defense and would have had to make a seamless transition from a 3-4 defense to the middle of Big Blue's 4-3.

Giants president John Mara had the right idea when noting the potential pitfalls of free-agent spending. He could have used his own team as a case study. The Giants shelled out more than $80 million for linebacker Michael Boley, defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and defensive lineman Chris Canty on the first three days of 2009 free agency. All it got them were a batch of high-priced injuries and an underachieving .500 team that watched the playoffs from various living rooms around the country.

Backing up the Brinks truck is often a sure sign of both desperation and impending disappointment. The Giants were universally lauded for signing Boley, Bernard and Canty in an attempt to bolster their defense. Now they are being universally questioned for the 2009 train wreck.

Imagine if the Giants plucked Albert Haynesworth from the market last offseason? He was trumpeted by just about everybody as a can't-miss signing. While Giants general manager Jerry Reese disputed the reported $80 million his team offered Haynesworth, it's safe to say Reese's bosses were prepared to pay something in the vicinity.

Though there's no guarantee he would have limped up and down the 2009 season like he did for Washington, Haynesworth became the latest symbol of Daniel Snyder's perpetual desire to pay first and ask questions later. The Skins owner wound up signing Haynesworth for $100 million, a move that helped Washington finish 4-12.

In retrospect, Haynesworth's prized contribution might have been as a willing sparring partner for recreational boxer/Giants back Brandon Jacobs, given their comedic pugilistic session during a game last season. That reminds me: We can only hope and assume Giants bosses have informed Jacobs that it's both a safer and smarter move to confine his boxing prowess to guys wearing ring headgear and not official NFL helmets. Or else his next injury could be a busted hand.

I digress.

Rolle was the smartest move the Giants could make during the early free-agent catwalk. He immediately improves the Giants in three areas: safety, cornerback and defensive line.

He will be a jewel next to fellow U alum, Kenny Phillips, assuming Phillips' recovery from microfracture surgery gets him to opening day at 100 percent. Rolle improves the cornerback position by properly performing the duties of a free safety – taking correct angles, breaking on the ball properly, sticking to slot receivers – unlike the Giants' 2009 safeties who required a Boy Scout compass to find streaking receivers. And Rolle makes the pass rush better by forcing opposing quarterbacks to hang onto the ball a split-second longer. Who knows? His presence might even result in Osi Umenyiora making a play or two in 2010.

The Giants will be better off focusing on improving their defense from within than adding high-priced Band-Aids. As poorly as it played last season, their defense still has a promising talent base. Two keys to a resurgence are Umenyiora and Phillips.

There is no excusing Umenyiora's woeful season. At the same time, he clearly felt uncomfortable in Bill Sheridan's schemes from, oh, day one or so, and was coming off major surgery that cost him the 2008 season. It's hard to imagine that Umenyiora, who turned 28 in November, completely lost the play-making ability that helped him net 13 sacks in 2007. Umenyiora's biggest obstacle might be above the shoulder pads. If he focuses on what made him a Pro Bowler instead of getting caught up in whether he'll be in the starting lineup, Umenyiora could reemerge as an integral asset.

Phillips seemed on the cusp of a breakthrough season when he went on injured reserve in September with an arthritic condition in his left knee. If he returns to the field 100 percent – and he insists that will be the case – Phillips and Rolle could have the same kind of impact at safety that Darrelle Revis and newcomer Antonio Cromartie should have at cornerback for the Jets.

Speaking of cornerback, Aaron Ross finally should be healthy well before training camp. It's easy to forget that Ross and Corey Webster helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLII as starting corners.

The one area Rolle will be hard-pressed to improve, of course, is middle linebacker. The Giants had no choice but to release Antonio Pierce, who struggled before a season-ending and career-threatening injury. Reese and his personnel team will earn their salaries trying to find a play-making mike linebacker, whether by trade, free agency (Oakland's Kirk Morrison, a restricted free agent reportedly given only a third-round tender, is being mentioned) or the draft.

The Giants still have a lot of work to do before the season kicks off. But we are a whole lot closer to opening day of baseball than football. There are no CC Sabathias on the NFL market. Proceeding with Rolle, and with caution, is a nice start.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

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