The players the Giants did not bring back who found new football homes Monday were far more notable than the players the Giants added on the first day they were allowed to engage in negotiations with free agents. Anyone surprised by this has not been closely following their salary cap situation.
The Giants did agree to terms to re-sign defensive tackle Austin Johnson, who played well in a limited role last season, and added running back Devontae Booker as Saquon Barkley’s backup.
These low-key and likely low-impact moves pale when compared with the Giants seeing defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson come to a contract agreement with the Vikings and guard Kevin Zeitler, released last week, sign with the Ravens.
Tomlinson got a reported two-year, $22 million deal. A team captain in 2020 and a four-year starter, Tomlinson’s loss will resonate inside the locker room.
“I know it’s a business and all but dis one hurted (sic),” Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton wrote on Twitter.
But the Giants front office knew it would not be able to re-sign the popular Tomlinson once the commitment was made to another defensive tackle, Leonard Williams. This is why the Giants made sure to bring Johnson back on a one-year, $3 million contract.
Johnson, 26, played in all 16 games in 2020 but never was on the field on defense for more than 23 snaps in any game. He is a 2016 second-round pick from Penn State and spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Titans. He is a 6-foot-4, 314-pound run-stuffer and, depending on who else shows up on the roster, could compete for a starting job.
Booker, who turns 29 in May, received a two-year contract worth up to $6 million.
Barkley is coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and the Giants expect him to be ready to go this summer. With Wayne Gallman, Alfred Morris and Dion Lewis all unrestricted free agents, adding a capable back was a priority. Signing Booker seemingly ends Gallman’s Giants career after four years.
Booker, originally a 2016 fourth-round draft pick of the Broncos, has appeared in 69 NFL games, with only seven starts. His best season was his rookie year, when he rushed 174 times for 612 yards for the Broncos. He spent the 2020 season with the Raiders and had 93 carries for 423 yards. The 5-11, 219-pound Booker has 1,526 career rushing yards, averaging 4.0 yards per attempt. He also had 122 receptions for 956 yards.
The Giants had interest in outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the player who eluded them in the 2016 NFL Draft. That interest did not amount to anything when the Rams re-signed Floyd to a reported four-year, $64 million deal.
The Giants have their own house to get in order before venturing out too far into the open market. There is the reworking of offensive tackle Nate Solder’s contract to free up cap space. There are the ongoing negotiations with Williams on a multiyear deal that would significantly decrease his 2021 cap hit of $19.4 million on the franchise tag.
That Zeitler quickly found a new football home in free agency was hardly unexpected, given his solid performance on the field for the Giants and his remarkable durability throughout his NFL career. The Giants released Zeitler last week and the Ravens pounced, agreeing to terms on a three-year deal worth $22 million, including $16 in guaranteed money. The Giants saved $12 million on the salary cap by parting ways with Zeitler and never offered him a chance to renegotiate his contract.
Zeitler wanted to stay with the Giants but realized his $14.5 million cap hit was not going to allow him to do so.
“You want to be with the Giants to finish out the contract or get extended,’’ Zeitler said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “The call came, I understood and it’s on to a new adventure.’’
Zeitler had praise for the path the Giants are on with head coach Joe Judge, saying “They’re going to be very tough.’’ He also believes in quarterback Daniel Jones.
“I think he’s about ready to take off,’’ Zeitler said. “Handling all the insanity of his first year and then this year with even more insanity, the fact he came to work every single day, I think he’s really going to explode this year and New York is going to be dangerous.’’
One of their own free agents the Giants are expected to re-sign is Nate Ebner, a key member of their special teams units and a favorite of head coach Joe Judge from their time together with the Patriots. Ebner, 32, this week is among approximately 30 players vying for one of the 12 spots on the United States National Rugby Team. Ebner was on the national team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Judge said “we are proud to support Nate’’ in his effort to make the U.S. rugby team and added both he and general manager Dave Gettleman “encouraged him to pursue this opportunity.’’ This is further indication Ebner is in the Giants’ plans for 2021.