EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants let one of their best players walk Tuesday. It was a curious, if not bewildering, decision when they declined using the franchise tag on safety Landon Collins.
They allowed a 25-year-old defensive playmaker to hit the free-agent market after leading the team in tackles each of his four professional seasons and making the Pro Bowl in three of those four years. Collins was also a first-team All-Pro safety in 2016 and a team captain this past year.
It all makes the decision that much more curious and sets a dangerous precedent for general manager Dave Gettleman. Here is Collins, selected with the first pick of the second round in the 2015 NFL draft (albeit by the previous regime), playing at a high level and doing everything asked of him. And at no point did the Giants try to seriously negotiate a long-term deal.
Instead, they simply let him walk with the hope of, maybe, getting a third-round compensatory pick next year. It makes it all the more strange why they declined overtures for Collins last year at the trade deadline. The Green Bay Packers traded safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for a fourth rounder at the time. Collins, according to one pro personnel evaluator, is a significantly better player. The Kansas City Chiefs, among others, were interested.
What Gettleman did with this move is send a message to the locker room: Play well, play hurt, do everything we ask and you still might not get paid when your time comes. Undoubtedly, it's a risky way to operate, even if Collins isn't a perfect fit in defensive coordinator James Bettcher's scheme with his coverage deficiencies.
But Collins is a popular player. He's respected and well liked. Don't think for a second his teammates aren't paying attention. They're watching intently, and it might not be so easy to get them to go the extra mile for the organization after what just transpired. Wide receiver Sterling Shepard could be in a similar situation next year as a productive second-round pick with his contract set to expire.
All this is especially relevant with Gettleman in charge. It makes you wonder whether he learned from his first stint as general manager in Carolina, when he shockingly pulled the franchise tag from under Josh Norman and rubbed some of the team's leaders the wrong way with his hard-line negotiating. It didn't matter if many of his evaluations on those aging veterans were correct. It is still believed that the bad blood left behind was a significant part of his downfall and ultimately led to his firing.
Gettleman talked last week at the combine about the salary cap and financial implications of using the franchise tag on Collins. The safety would have counted $11.15 million against the cap this season if tagged. Gettleman said the Giants didn't have much money available under the cap (projected at $29 million) and Collins' salary, plus the rookie pool and the necessary in-season nest egg would leave them with little in reserve.
But the reality is that Collins' salary on the franchise tag would have been a nice number, but it's not something that should have been completely prohibitive. The Giants are keeping a 38-year-old Eli Manning, who counts $23.2 million against the cap. Surely there were ways to keep Collins if they so desired.
Gettleman also noted Collins would not have been happy with the franchise tag. He wouldn't have showed for the offseason program or training camp -- an unwanted distraction in the GM's eyes.
These are excuses. There were will be a "strong" market for Collins, according to a league source. Teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Chiefs are potential landing spots after most at the start of last week couldn't believe he would be allowed to leave.
"They're not really going to let him go, right?" one NFC pro personnel executive asked, as if it were a foregone conclusion the Giants would retain Collins.
Collins is a good player, one of the best in his league at his position. But this move wasn't as much about the salary cap as it was about Gettleman not seeing the value in the player. Coverage was never Collins' specialty. He is a safety who thrives near the line of scrimmage, and Bettcher, like most defensive coaches, prefers interchangeable safeties.
If that was the case though, why not trade Collins last year before he tore his labrum and his value was depressed? Why string him along and never show any desire to strike a long-term deal? It's a potentially lethal message to send to the locker room.