Deep Dive on how Dave Gettleman and the Giants wound up in salary cap hell

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Ralph Vacchiano
·8 min read
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304934430 030819 Gettleman Treated Art
304934430 030819 Gettleman Treated Art

It didn’t come as a surprise to most, but it was still jolting news for many. When the NFL salary cap was set on Wednesday at $182.5 million, the Giants found themselves several million dollars over it.

That’s right. A team that has lost at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons was still somehow in a bit of salary cap hell.

It’s not as bad as it seems, of course. After all, after cutting veteran guard Kevin Zeitler and clearing $12 million in cap space on Wednesday they’re now about $4 million under the cap, with more moves coming.

They could save up to $10 million by cutting tackle Nate Solder. There are other minor cuts and contract restructures they can do. And they’re still trying to reach a long-term deal with Leonard Williams that would ease some of the burden of his $19.3 million franchise tag.

But the point is still the same. They are a team pressed up against the cap with nothing to show for it but an 18-46 record over the last four seasons, while other struggling franchises like the Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars will have tens of millions of dollars in cap space when free agency begins.

So how exactly did they get here? And where has all their cap space gone?

Here’s a deep dive into their problems (with the help of numbers from OverTheCap.com)...

They are still paying for a few past mistakes

There’s no doubt the Giants have given out some bad ones during the Dave Gettleman years. The worst remaining one is the four-year, $62 million deal they gave Solder in 2018. The four-year, $36.3 million deal they gave receiver Golden Tate in 2019 was pretty terrible, too.

Those are the only two “bad” deals that still hurt, though. Solder, assuming he’s cut and is designated a “post-June 1” cut – which spreads his remaining cap hit out over two years instead of just one – will leave $6.5 million behind in “dead money.” That’s the amount a player still costs a team against the cap even after he’s gone. Tate still counts for $4.7 million, too.

But that’s really it, other than Zeitler ($2.5 million) and a couple of failed draft picks – cornerback DeAndre Baker ($2.8 million) and linebacker Ryan Connelly ($168,000). Overall, the Giants have $10.3 million in “dead money” on their 2021 cap, though that balloons to $16.8 million if Solder is cut.

Right now, they have the 11th-most “dead money” in the NFL. Cutting Solder (as a post-June 1 cut) bumps them up to sixth, just ahead of the Jets who have $16.6 million. Of course, the Jets will still have about $70 million in cap space to spend when free agency begins.

Drafting high hurts

Poor records lead to high draft picks, which is good. But the higher the pick, the more money those players get on their rookie deals.

The Giants have drafted in the Top 6 in each of the last three years. They drafted Saquon Barkley No. 2 in 2018 and he counts for $10 million against the cap this season. Andrew Thomas (No. 4 in 2020) counts for $7.3 million. Daniel Jones (No. 6 in 2019) counts for $7.1 million. Had they been drafting, say, 20th, their last three first-round picks would only be costing about $3.4 million each. That’s a difference of about $15 million total.

Also, if you look back one more draft to 2017, the Giants are now paying two first-round picks on their more expensive, fifth-year options – tight end Evan Engram ($6 million), whom they drafted 23rd overall and safety Jabrill Peppers ($6.7 million), whom they acquired from the Cleveland Browns in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade.

All of those Top 10 picks, plus an extra first-rounder on the books, is a $20 million-plus expense.

They have signed some relatively high-priced free agents in recent years

The Giants haven’t gone crazy in free agency the way they did back in 2015, but they haven’t shied away from spending big money in recent years, either. They are spending that $19.3 million on Williams’ franchise tag, and they signed four pretty important free agents last year who they smartly kept despite their high cap cost – cornerback James Bradberry (who has a cap cost of $17.25 million this year), linebacker Blake Martinez ($10.2 million), safety Logan Ryan ($7 million) and kicker Graham Gano ($4.25 million).

That’s not the problem, of course. Teams are supposed to pay for good players, and no one has complained that any of them are overpaid. But those five players do count for nearly a third of the Giants’ spending on the 2021 cap (31.8 percent).

Gettleman’s pay now, not later philosophy

The Giants GM drew some (more) criticism this week for his answer to a question about restructuring some contracts to create cap space this year. He said “The goal to best manage the cap is to get flat contracts. … Once you start restructuring or renegotiating you usually back-end load them. What you’re doing is kicking the can. … It’s not a good place to get to.”

First, he’s not wrong. Restructuring a contract is simple. It’s basically just converting part of a players’ salary into a bonus which gets paid immediately, but for cap purposes is spread out over the life of the deal. It does reduce the cap hit in the year the restructure is done, but it adds to the hit in future years. That’s not ideal.

Still, it can help, especially in a year like this when the cap dropped dramatically, knowing it’s expected to rise dramatically in future years when the new TV contracts kick in. And by the way, despite what he said, Gettleman has done it in the past. In 2019 he restructured deals with Solder and Zeitler. That helped create about $10 million in cap space that year. Of course, it also added about $7 million in “dead money” to the Giants’ cap hit in 2021 (assuming Solder is cut).

The problem with restructuring deals this year is it only works with a player not on a rookie deal who has a large salary and multiple years left on his contract. For the Giants, that’s really only Bradberry, Martinez, and receiver Sterling Shepard. And restructuring those three would only give the Giants about $10 million in salary cap space while, again, adding that amount to future years (mostly in 2022).

Also, for the critics, keep in mind that wasn’t an option with Zeitler because he was in the last year of his contract. A “restructure” in his case either meant a straight pay cut that he was never going to accept or an extension that would’ve added money and years to the deal.

Would that have been smart for him or the team? Zeitler is 31 and the Giants are already grooming his replacement, so they weren’t going to pay him big money for the future. So he had to know he’ll almost certainly be better off financially as a free agent signing somewhere else.

They are victims of circumstance (though so is everyone else)

Don’t forget this important point: As the Giants were planning and plotting their future, even last March, they couldn’t possibly have foreseen an 8 percent drop in the salary cap from where it was in 2020 ($198.2 million). Over the previous seven years, the cap had increased an average of $10.8 million per year. So they had to be budgeting for a cap of about $209 million.

In other words, if it weren’t for a global pandemic that led to a season mostly without fans, the Giants would have about $30 million in salary cap space to spend right now -- $40 million if they cut Solder. If that had happened, they wouldn’t have been in any kind of cap hell and no one would’ve accused them of mismanagement.

Maybe they would’ve kept Zeitler. Maybe they’d be able to keep defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson from free agency. They could’ve done both and still had money to spend on, say, a top receiver or edge rusher – the final pieces the Giants feel they need to compete.

So where did their cap room go?

This is the bottom line, right? Where is all their cap space going? Well, assuming Solder is either cut or accepts a massive pay cut, the Giants only have 10 players with a cap number of $5 million or more. Five of them are players on their rookie contracts. Five of them are free agents who are incredibly valuable to the team:

1. DL Leonard Williams -- $19.3 million

2. CB James Bradberry -- $17.25 million

3. LB Blake Martinez -- $10.225 million

4. RB Saquon Barkley -- $10.025 million

5. WR Sterling Shepard -- $9 million

6. LT Andrew Thomas -- $7.35 million

7. QB Daniel Jones -- $7.17 million

8. S Logan Ryan -- $7 million

9. S Jabrill Peppers -- $6.7 million

10. TE Evan Engram -- $6.01 million

None of those are disposable players. None of them are overpriced. Yet they account for $100 million in cap space – or 54.9 percent of what the Giants are allowed to spend.

If all 10 of those players play like they’re worthy of those numbers, the Giants should be a much better team in 2021. And that’s the real bottom line for a team without much cap room: The players they have need to prove that the team has spent their money in the right places.