Giants must focus on retaining key internal free agents as first offseason step

Oct 23, 2022; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) celebrates with teammate running back Saquon Barkley (26) after scoring a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the fourth quarter at TIAA Bank Field.
Oct 23, 2022; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) celebrates with teammate running back Saquon Barkley (26) after scoring a touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the fourth quarter at TIAA Bank Field. / Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD — It wasn’t fun. Joe Schoen all but admitted that as he addressed the media at his year-end news conference. He was more custodian than general manager his first year with the Giants — cleaning up the ludicrous mess left for him by his predecessor.

Cap space? None. Horrid contracts? That there were plenty. Schoen would have loved to add veterans at the deadline to aid in the Giants’ playoff pursuit. He just couldn’t.

Now the Giants are on the other end. There’s an easy path to $70-plus million in salary cap space — which would be second most in the NFL. Year 2 for Schoen will be Year 1 he can be aggressive.

But before he gets to adding, Schoen must focus on retaining. The GM said his top priority is taking care of the Giants’ own unrestricted free agents.

That means quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley.

“It takes two — both sides are going to have that conversation,” Schoen said. “We haven’t crossed that bridge yet. There are tools at our disposal.”

It was clear to anyone in attendance on Monday that the Giants have absolutely no intention of letting Jones play for another team next year. That certainly wasn’t the case when Schoen first took over. There was a reason the Giants declined Jones’ fifth-year option and committed substantial guarantees to veteran Tyrod Taylor in free agency. That’s ancient history now, though.

In a prove-it year with the cards stacked against him, Jones enjoyed the best season of his career. He threw for 3,205 yards (personal best), 15 touchdowns and five interceptions (personal low). He had a quarterback rating of 92.5 and completion percentage of 67.2 (both personal bests). He ran for 708 yards and seven touchdowns (both also personal bests). He did so with very little surrounding talent.

Jones put the Giants on his back and carried them to a 9-7-1 record and playoff berth — the team’s first since 2016. He then became the first player in NFL history to throw for 300-plus yards, run for 70-plus, and score two touchdowns in the Giants’ 31-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

He looked very much like a franchise quarterback. And now the Giants seem to have every intention of committing to him as their franchise quarterback.

“We’re happy Daniel is going to be here,” Schoen said. “Hopefully we can get something done with his representatives. That would be the goal: To build a team around him where he could lead us to win a Super Bowl.”

The key for the Giants is to find a number that both satisfies Jones without overpaying. Jones is good. That’s clear. The Giants can win with him. Also clear. He is not, though, in the same conversation as the likes of Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs), Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills) or any of the other tier-1 quarterbacks. The Giants must pay him for who he is (good), but stop short of what he’s not (great).

That’s likely an annual salary of $30 million per year. Because the Giants declined Jones’ fifth-year option, though, he is an unrestricted free agent. He doesn’t have to accept that offer. He can turn New York down in hopes of finding something more lucrative on the open market. While Schoen didn’t say it directly, the Giants would likely then use the franchise tag on Jones. The figure is estimated to be $31.7 million. The deadline to tag is Mar. 7.

“We haven’t gone down that road yet,” Schoen said. “We still have to have our meetings with our staff late in the week (Thursday), and we’ll devise an offseason plan. We haven’t had those meetings yet, but we would like to have Daniel Jones back.”

Jones is Priority No. 1 for the Giants. Second — and it’s a very clear second — is taking care of Barkley. While Schoen spent much of his news conference with a largely positive outlook on his quarterback, the tone was a bit different with Barkley.

Yes, Schoen said the Giants want him back. The between-the-lines analysis of his remarks painted a bleak outlook on the likelihood of that happening. Basically, if Barkley doesn’t like what the Giants offer, then the Giants have no problem with him trying to find better elsewhere.

The GM said the Giants must take into account “positional value” and how they want to “allocate our resources.” He reiterated, multiple times, that he believes Barkley is a “good” football player — but that was the strongest compliment handed out.

Barkley ran for a career-high 1,312 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He caught 57 passes for 338 yards, too. More importantly: He remained healthy and available for the Giants throughout the season. The only game he missed was the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles in which the Giants rested all of their starters.

The potential holdup in bringing Barkley back, it appears, would be finances and the Giants’ reluctance to pay top dollar to a running back.

“We would like to have Saquon back if it works out,” he said.

Barkley met the media on Sunday as the Giants cleared out their lockers following their loss to the Eagles. He stressed that he does not want to reset the running back market — this would mean eclipsing Christian McCaffrey’s AAV of $16 million. He said he understands his injury history (20 missed games from 2019-2021) will dock his value. Despite this, though, the Giants and Barkley were unable to agree to an extension when the two talked during the Giants’ Week 9 bye.

Schoen described the conversations as “productive,” but added “we weren’t really that close” on the value.

“Everybody is going to step back, take the emotion out of it, evaluate the roster and then we’ve got to operate under the salary cap,” Schoen said. “How are you going to divvy up? How are we going to create the roster? What are the priority positions, and how are we going to move forward?”

This past season was a magical one for New York — there’s no other way to describe it. The sorry state of the roster, and inability to improve it outside of the draft because of those financial restraints, made it near impossible to foresee any semblance of success.

The Giants then burst through those preconceived notions. They embraced winning ugly. And that style of play led them to the playoffs. Ultimately, they fell short when they matched up against a team capable of exposing the talent gap.

It might take more than one year, but Schoen has to at least begin to bring the Giants closer to the Eagles this offseason — bridge that gap. Now, for the first time, he has the means to do so.

Re-signing Jones will help. If they can bring back Barkley, too, that’s great.

But that can’t be all. And it won’t be.

Because, finally, the Giants' focus isn’t cleaning. They’re building.

And they will once they settle things in house.