The New York Giants want to keep their rejuvenated defense together, and they're willing to pay the price to do it. They proved that on Tuesday when they officially slapped the franchise tag on DE Jason Pierre-Paul.
That move all but guarantees the 28-year-old defensive end will play at least one more season with the Giants, though both sides seem to be hoping they'll soon strike a long-term deal that will keep him with the Giants for much longer. The tag, which is expected to be worth more than $17 million, will become official on Tuesday, an NFL source confirmed. But the source added the two sides will likely continue to talk in the hopes of agreeing to a new contract before free agency opens on March 9.
If they don't, Pierre-Paul will count for about half of the $30-35 million in salary cap space the Giants are expected to have when free agency opens. And that won't leave them much room to re-sign defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and fill their other needs on the offensive line, at tight end and at wide receiver.
It's a risk the Giants had to take, though, because it was clear to them that Pierre-Paul was going to have plenty of suitors on the open market after registering seven sacks in 12 games this season. According to several league sources, there were no signs that pass rush-needy teams were going to shy away from him because of the hernia/groin surgery he had in December or due to his mangled right hand that was damaged in his infamous fireworks accident in July 2015.
Pierre-Paul, according to an NFL source, was hoping to get a deal similar to the five-year, $85 million deal (with $52 million guaranteed) the Giants gave Olivier Vernon last March. Several NFL people thought he might get it too, given the expected rise in this year's salary cap and the fact that he might have been the best pass rusher on the open market.
Since Pierre-Paul was given the "non-exclusive" franchise tag, he can negotiate with other teams during the free-agent signing period. But the Giants would have the right to match any offer he receivers, and if they don't, the team that signs him would owe the Giants two first-round picks.
Franchise-tagged players have rarely switched teams in NFL history, and most NFL insiders believe there is almost no chance a team will pursue Pierre-Paul knowing the cost is two first-rounders and a lucrative, long-term deal.
This is the second time in three years that the Giants have placed the franchise tag on Pierre-Paul - and it is not likely a decision he will welcome. He was franchised back in 2015 and was on the verge of signing a long-term deal with the Giants before he blew up his right hand in a fireworks accident on July 4. Given the uncertainty of whether he'd even play again, the Giants pulled their offer and he ended up playing the second half of the 2015 season on an incentive-laden deal.
The next spring, despite a more lucrative offer from the Arizona Cardinals, Pierre-Paul returned to the Giants on a one-year, $10 million contract, intent on proving his worth to the Giants and the rest of the league. Despite missing the final four games of last season, he felt he did that.
"I've proved it. I've shown it," Pierre-Paul said at the end of last season. "There's not really a guy like me out here doing it with 7 ½ fingers. … I know what I bring to the table. You've got to know your worth and I know my worth."
Not surprisingly, Pierre-Paul indicated he had no interest in signing another one-year deal, nor would he be happy with the franchise tag again.
Now that he's gotten the tag, though, his options are limited. He has until July 15 to solicit other offers or to negotiate a long-term deal with the Giants, and in the interim his only leverage is to skip the offseason workout program and spring mini-camp. After July 15, his only option is to play the 2017 season under his one-year franchise tag or not play at all.
There is certainly motivation on both sides to never let it get that far, though. Pierre-Paul wants to cash in after missing a shot at a big-money deal in each of the last two offseasons, and any long-term deal he signs will guarantee him at least twice as much, possibly thrice as much, as the $17 million he would earn from the franchise tag.
And the Giants not only could use the cap relief of a new deal with Pierre-Paul, but they currently project to have $44 million in cap space tied to three defensive linemen -- Vernon ($16 million), defensive tackle Damon Harrison ($10.6 million) and Pierre-Paul. That's more than a quarter of the projected $168 million salary cap, and that would be before they re-sign or replace Hankins.
It makes sense on both sides to reach a long-term deal quickly. One source familiar with the talks indicated the two sides weren't particularly close. But they are likely to talk again this week at the NFL scouting combine, and given how deadlines often spur action in the NFL, there will surely be movement between now and when the free-agent signing period starts.