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Giants have corrected atmosphere, now they need players

Head coach Pat Shurmur of the New York

Head coach Pat Shurmur of the New York Giants looks on in the first half against the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on Dec. 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

When Dave Gettleman and Pat Shurmur went about the task of rebuilding the Giants’ roster a year ago, they were more concerned about the locker room than the playing field. Sure, they wanted to bring in guys who could play, even a little. But their priority was to spend whatever resources they had on the culture of the team. A sour, despondent taste had been left behind and the team’s palate needed cleansing.

So they brought in veterans they knew they could trust. Jonathan Stewart, Michael Thomas, Connor Barwin, Kareem Martin, Alec Ogletree and Patrick Omameh were added, all of them passing the good citizenship test that the new front office required.

Not all of those acquisitions worked out in a football sense. In fact, very few of them did. But the mission to which they were assigned was completed. The 2018 Giants won only two more games than they had the season before, but the stability and maturity for which the franchise always has strived appeared to return.

Gettleman, who has said that one of his main priorities as general manager is to eliminate distractions so coaches and players can perform at their best, seems to have settled things down in terms of team temperament.

Now, though, it’s time to find some guys who can play.

No more Mister Nice Guys!

As free agency approaches — NFL teams officially can begin discussions with pending free agents on other teams starting Monday and can sign them beginning with the start of the new league year at 4 p.m. on Wednesday — the Giants need to embark on the next step in their growth under the still relatively new regime.

They have what seems to be a lot of answers on offense, including the addition of guard Kevin Zeitler from the Browns this past week in a trade that cost them linebacker Olivier Vernon, and they appear unlikely to bring in a veteran quarterback to challenge or replace Eli Manning. But the defense looks like a pockmarked moonscape filled with craters and deep chasms.

When Wednesday rolls around, the Giants will have no NFL-proven safety, no NFL-proven pass rusher and one NFL-proven cornerback on their roster. This isn’t a defense that needs only a little spackle to fill some cracks.

While the draft in April should provide a lot of talent for that project, the Giants might not have the capital to fill all those voids in free agency. They’ll have about $24 million in salary- cap space. That probably will keep them on the bench during the first frenzied hours of the process and require them to be smarter with the money they do spend. They’ll have to find the second-tier free agents who they think can be first-tier players.

It also means they have to focus on production and not personality. While Gettleman said he’s not going to completely abandon his philosophy of avoiding squeaky wheels no matter how fast they seem to spin — he said there is a quotient that the worse a player acts off the field, the better he has to be on it to compensate for himself — he might not have to be as discerning as he was a year ago.

The biggest victory for the 2018 Giants was in the culture change and the somewhat sedate locker room. The next step is to maintain that calm while adding players who can be disruptive to opponents and not the precarious balance that has been built.

If the Giants can do that, they might have a chance to take big strides in the win column in 2019. If they can’t, well, at least they’ll probably be gracious losers.

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