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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Giants GM Jerry Reese opens the vault to improve defense in NFL free agency

New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese speaks

New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese speaks to the media during training camp at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. Credit: Brad Penner

You don’t want to get into a habit of using the free agent market to solve your problems, especially in a league where the draft has been and will continue to be the true lifeblood of your roster. But if you’re Jerry Reese and have a defense that is in desperate need of refurbishing, and if the salary cap offers some breathing room, then you do what the Giants’ general manager just did on Day 1 of free agency.

You identify a handful of players you think can help, and then you back up the truck and pay handsomely for their services.

Say hello to Janoris Jenkins, Damon "Snacks" Harrison, and Olivier Vernon. And welcome back, Jason Pierre-Paul.

Not even two hours after the official signing period began Wednesday afternoon, Reese had re-made his defense with the same bravado of Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan when he bought himself a secondary at this time last year with the likes of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Marcus Gilchrist and Buster Skrine. Desperate for help along the defensive line and in the secondary, Reese came away with some of the biggest free agent prizes this class had to offer.

The Giants’ GM is clearly on the spot heading into his 10th season. One of the main reasons is because the Giants parted ways with Tom Coughlin after 12 years and two Super Bowl victories. Reese’s personnel decisions have come under tremendous scrutiny now that it has been four years and counting since the Giants last made the playoffs, and the mandate from team owners John Mara and Steve Tisch is clear: Get this team better, and do it in a hurry.

In less time than it takes to play the first half of an NFL game, Reese opened up the vault and came away with some big-time help for a defense that ranked dead last in 2015. Reese acted swiftly once teams were permitted to begin negotiating with agents on Monday, and after Wednesday’s 4 p.m. start to the new league year began, Reese added three players of great consequence from other teams and inked Pierre-Paul to a one-year deal. He is hoping that the pass rusher can show improvement after recovering from a devastating fireworks injury last July 4.

Jenkins is one of the best ball-hawking cornerbacks in the game, and pairing him with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another pricey free agent from 2014, the Giants now boast one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Jenkins had a combined 10 interceptions in four seasons with the Rams, and his six return touchdowns are the most by any defensive player since he came into the league as a second-round pick in 2012.

The Giants paid handsomely for the right to sign him; Jenkins’ five-year deal is worth $62.5 million and includes $28.8 million in guaranteed salary. Yes, it’s a lot of money. But with the Giants having the most salary cap money since Reese became the GM in 2007, you spend as wisely as you can, and Reese has generally done a good job on the open market. His free agent hits include Antrel Rolle, Rodgers-Cromartie, Michael Boley, Rashad Jennings and Dwayne Harris, among others. So there’s reason to believe that Jenkins will be a positive addition to that list.

Same with Harrison, who built himself into a Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle after signing with the Jets in 2012. He’ll be a terrific inside presence on the defensive line alongside Johnathan Hankins, who was beginning to emerge last year before a season-ending pectoral injury.

Reese, meanwhile, was smart to re-sign Pierre-Paul on a one-year deal, and I would argue that the Giants would have lost Pierre-Paul to another team, perhaps the Cardinals, had it not been for Reese. Of all the people in the organization, it was Reese who held the greatest conviction that Pierre-Paul would be able to return after suffering extensive damage to his right hand in a July 4 fireworks accident. That loyalty paid off with Pierre-Paul’s decision to come back, and the veteran defensive end is convinced that an off-season surgery will allow him to play without the use of a “club” that hindered him upon his return for the last eight games in 2015.

And then, the best news of the day for the Giants: After the Dolphins withdrew the transition tag to top young pass rusher Vernon, who produced 29 sacks in four seasons with Miami and is near the peak of his ability at age 25. He is very fast off the line, and coupled with Pierre-Paul gives the Giants a one-two punch they haven’t enjoyed since the days of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Pierre-Paul. It’ll cost the Giants — Vernon’s deal is worth as much as $85 million — but you can never have enough quality pass rushers.

It’s just a start for Reese, and he still has a draft that is considered deep in defensive talent, so the makeover will continue. If he hits on his first-round pick this year the way he did with Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014, and if that happens to be a blue chip defensive player, then the Giants will be that much further along after last year’s rock-bottom performance on that side of the ball.

One very important day down in a very important off-season, and this much is clear: The Giants are a much better team today than they were yesterday.

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