J.D. Walton may not be the New York Giants' starting center in Week 1 of the 2014 season, but a look at the contract he signed with the team earlier this week indicates that he'll at least get a serious shot at it.
Walton's deal is for two years and up to $5 million, with $3 million guaranteed. His 2014 base salary is scheduled to be $1.25 million and his 2015 base is $2.25 million. That's not backup money. This is a guy they expect to play. As of now, he's the only center on their roster. There remains a chance they could sign Kevin Boothe back, or pick one of the other free-agent centers still on the market. But the terms of Walton's deal tell me that they're not going to be big-game hunting for Brian De La Puente or trying to craft an Alex Mack offer sheet the Browns can't match. This contract tells us that they think Walton can be their starting center.
So the question is: Are they right? And the answer is, of course, that we don't know. Walton was a well-regarded prospect in college and a third-round pick in the 2010 draft. He started every game at center for the Broncos in each of his first two seasons and four games in 2012 before suffering a serious ankle injury, and he hasn't played since. By most accounts, he was one of the worst centers in the league in 2010 and 2011 -- a run-blocking liability who was charged with six sacks and 35 quarterback hurries allowed in those two seasons. It's tough to believe he's gotten much better by not playing for two years, but I guess anything's possible.
What seems clear is that the Giants' philosophy this offseason is based on paying free agents not for what they've already done but for what they believe they can do in the future. Guard Geoff Schwartz, running back Rashad Jennings and Walton are all examples of players who have something on their NFL résumés but plenty to prove. The Giants trust their scouting department a great deal, and they use advanced analytics to try to project performance. If you could actually get someone in the Giants' front office to talk about their reasons for targeting and acquiring these specific players (and yes, I have tried and will continue to try), they would have a laundry list of legitimate-sounding reasons to back it all up.
The problem is that they have to be right, or else they'll have nothing. When you base all of your moves on your own ability to predict the future, you open yourself up to a lot of risk. When you target specific players with the belief that they're the ones you need and spend what you decide they're worth -- as opposed to targeting a range of similar players and letting the market dictate what they cost -- you're playing the market fast and loose. It's like playing poker and making bets based only on the cards you have and the cards you expect to get, but not factoring in the money that's in the pot, the number of players who haven't yet folded and the cards they probably have.
The Giants may be right about Walton and all of these guys, and if they are, they'll look like geniuses and contend for championships. But if you're like me and you're wondering how to feel about the moves they've made so far, it's worth considering the possibility that these guys they think will be good going forward may just be the same guys they've always been -- and that they may end up needing to do this all over again in a couple of years.