We have discussed defensive tackle Linval Joseph in this space before, and I continue to believe he's a player the New York Giants should sign before he hits the unrestricted free-agent market in March. He does not turn 26 until October. He's a top run defender who can also pressure the quarterback from the interior of the defensive line when the situation presents itself. He's a good, well-liked teammate with a strong understanding of the Giants' principles and priorities. He was the team's second-round draft pick in 2010, so they're already invested in him, and it makes sense to continue an arrangement that has worked out well so far for both sides.
That said, Joseph will justifiably want to be paid well. This contract is his big one -- hitting the market in his prime before the rigors of life as an NFL defensive tackle have had the chance to wear him down. So it's worth trying to figure out what it will cost the Giants to keep him. Here's a look at a few factors:
The top of the market: The highest-paid defensive tackles in the league are Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, each of whom is making more than $12 million per year on multi-year deals that guaranteed more than $23 million. Cincinnati's Geno Atkins is making about $10.7 million a year on the new five-year contract he signed during the season. That deal included $15 million in guarantees. I think it's unrealistic, especially with stars like Paul Soliai, Jason Hatcher and Henry Melton set to hit this year's free-agent market, for Joseph to get paid in that range. But it might be smart for him to wait for those two guys to sign and see how far they push the market before he signs his own deal. He is younger than all three of those players.
The likely comparables: It'd be a coup for Joseph if he could get into the Vince Wilfork ($8 million per year) range. If he does, it would be because he made it to free agency, and it's hard to imagine the Giants being the team that gives him that money. If he's to do a deal with the Giants before the market opens, it's likely he slots in somewhere near guys like Cincinnati's Domata Peko ($5.53 million/year), Washington's Barry Cofield ($6 million/year) or Green Bay's Ryan Pickett ($6.188 million/year). Cofield is of course an interesting comparison because the Giants themselves let him walk three years ago when he was only 27 and sign with a division rival for six years and $36 million ($12.5 million guaranteed). Two years before that, however, they signed a 26-year-old Chris Canty for six years and $42 million on the open market. So it's tough to look at their recent history with defensive tackle free agents and feel good about predicting what they'll do.
The need: The Giants still have Cullen Jenkins under contract for 2014, spent a 2013 second-round draft pick on the promising Johnathan Hankins and likely could bring back Mike Patterson, who played well for them, at a very low cost. Given their depth at defensive tackle and the number and extent of their needs elsewhere on the roster, the Giants could decide that a costly, long-term investment in Joseph just isn't justified. Again, I think this would be a mistake, given Joseph's skills and the way he obviously fits what they do. But it's a business decision that could be made.
The franchise tag: The Giants could theoretically designate Joseph as their franchise player and keep him off the market, but that would be neither cost-effective nor in-character. The franchise number for defensive tackles in 2013 was $8.45 million, and given the way the market has moved at the top, it's projected to be about $9.25 million this year. If the Giants wanted to spend that much on Joseph, it would make more sense to give him a four-year deal that keeps the 2014 cost lower. And the Giants haven't used the franchise player designation as a means for keeping players on one-year deals. When they have used it, it has been for the originally imagined purpose of the rule -- to keep a player with whom they're actively negotiating a long-term deal off the market while they have time to finish said deal. If Joseph is franchised, it likely indicates that a long-term deal is mere days or weeks away. If the Giants want to use the franchise tag simply to hold someone in place for a year and not commit to him long-term, the more likely candidate this year would be wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. We'll address that in another post down the road.
The prediction: I say the Giants keep Joseph off the market by signing him to a four-year, $26 million deal with about half of the money guaranteed. He wants to stay, they like him and the big guarantee would help ease his mind about long-term health and security. And if he manages to stay healthy, he hits the market again at age 29. Maybe this isn't his last shot at a big payday after all.