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As free agency nears, Giants face different timelines

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman speaks to the

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman speaks to the media on Dec. 31, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the 2019 season ended, Giants co-owner John Mara fired the head coach and issued an ultimatum to the general manager, who kept his job by the slimmest of margins.

“We need to win more games, and Dave [Gettleman] knows that,” Mara said. “That’s going to be the challenge going forward . . . He does know that the batting average [on personnel decisions] has got to increase going forward.”

A few weeks later, Mara introduced Joe Judge as the new coach, replacing Pat Shurmur. In doing so, he seemed to regret having fired Judge’s two predecessors as quickly as he did, with each lasting two seasons or less. “It’s up to us to show a little more patience with this coach than perhaps we have over the last few years,” Mara said.

The indication was that Judge, the young head coach in charge of the young locker room, would have a long leash to get things turned around from the past few years of football misery.

The first legitimate whiffs of free agency are still scheduled to arrive on Monday, followed by the opening of the market for players on Wednesday afternoon, assuming that the NFL does not alter its schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic. And as the Giants head into the first stages of their roster-building process, the two men who will guide them seem to be on dramatically different timelines.

For the weakened general manager, there is an urgency. For the darling and fresh head coach, there is patience to build.

Negotiations between them to determine the immediate direction of the franchise may be more important than any that take place with agents or players.

There is probably no better illustration of the two differing philosophies than the major decision that has been hanging over the team since October: What to do with Leonard Williams?

Gettleman traded for the defensive lineman and pending free agent with the knowledge that because of the restricted salary-cap space at the end of the 2019 season, he would not be able to sign him to a long-term deal. But Gettleman said he thought Williams could help the 2019 team win more games (and, in the process, help Gettleman keep his job, although he didn’t mention that part).  The acquisition, though, required two payments to make — the picks sent to the Jets, including a third-rounder this year, and the money to sign Williams. Those bills are coming due.

The Giants are considering use of the franchise or transition tag on Williams, and they have until Monday afternoon to apply it (assuming, again, the NFL schedule remains unchanged). That would keep Williams off the market and allow them time to explore further options for a long-term contract. But they also could let Williams walk away.

Gettleman, speaking at the NFL’s Scouting Combine last month, said he knows the optics of that would be unflattering.

“I’ll get killed,” he said. “But I have thick rhino hide.”

He may need it.

As for bringing in fresh faces, the Giants have a lot of capital to spread around. Depending on the final numbers on the salary cap, they should have about $78 million available — and a lot of holes to fill.

The biggest among those voids is not a particular position, but a stage of career.

The roster is stacked fairly heavily with players in the first two or three years of their NFL tenures, such as Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, and a number of them have been in the league for at least a decade, such as Golden Tate and Nate Solder. What they lack is a strong group of players who are between their fourth and ninth seasons. Players, in other words, who are in their primes.

“Because of the way we’re designed, the way we’re built right now, we have very few veterans,” Gettleman said at the Combine.

It’d be easy to write a few checks and bring in the mercenaries to plug that gap, but the Giants are very leery about the type of players they acquire. It took two years for Gettleman to flush out the dysfunctional locker room he inherited and install the culture he sought. He’s not going to want to ruin that work by signing hired guns.

“If we’re going to do something like that, we’ve got to be extremely selective and bring in the right people,” he said.

The temptation of short-term gains, however, may be strong.

Judge, meanwhile, has embraced the youth of the current roster. He might not want to buy his players off the shelf, preferring to grow them himself.

“I love that they’re a young team and that we can develop this team,” he said at the Combine. “That’s a strength. That’s a much bigger strength than people understand because it gives you time to work with guys and time to mold guys. All these guys come out in the draft, their best advantage is that they’re young. They have young legs and are impressionable. That’s critical. You want to have a team that you can coach and mold to be a team.”

Judge has the luxury of time to do just that. Not everyone in the organization shares that perk, though.

This week should demonstrate whose schedule the Giants are following.

New York Sports