Jon Beason retirement highlights risks of free agency

Two years ago, the New York Giants signed more free agents than any team in the league. The headliners from that group included cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, guard Geoff Schwartz and middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was a re-sign for the Giants after they acquired him via trade during the 2013 season and he played well enough to convince them to commit free-agent money to him.

On Wednesday, Beason retired and the Giants cut Schwartz. Between the two of them, they played 22 of a possible 64 games in the first two seasons of their contracts.

This doesn't necessarily mean anything negative about the people involved. Schwartz and Beason are both good guys who wanted to play. Their bodies let them down. In Beason's case, the full season he played in 2013 was an anomaly. He played in 15 games that year, missing one only because he was traded late in the week and didn't play in his first game as a Giant, but otherwise he missed a whopping total of 63 games over the past five years due to injury.

Teammates will tell you that Beason could be an NFL head coach someday, and some of them believe that's what he wants to be. The Giants loved Beason, elected him captain twice and believed his presence in the locker room, the meeting rooms and on the practice field -- even when he wasn't playing -- was valuable to the veterans and the young players alike. I believe they would keep him around in some capacity if they can.

But the fact that he couldn't answer the bell for them as a player for the past two years is a cautionary tale that's worth heeding at the outset of this crucial Giants offseason. The Giants could have close to $60 million in cap space this season, and they need a ton of help. They basically need to find seven starters on defense, two on the offensive line, one at wide receiver and maybe one at tight end.

That's more than one offseason's worth of work, no matter how much cap space you have. And the lessons of 2014 prove it. Schwartz's deal was hailed as a great one for the Giants at the time -- a big, versatile offensive lineman signing for a good price was exactly what they needed. Beason's signing was thought of as fine, too. Everyone understood the injury risk, but he'd played so well at a position the Giants had neglected for so long, keeping him made sense. They had Jameel McClain as a capable backup at the time in case Beason got hurt, and the upside of having him on the field was high.

Now, they're gone, as is Will Beatty, who was an important free-agent re-sign for them in 2013. And the point to take from all this is that free agency is a tough way to go. You're getting guys on second and third contracts who have already spent formative development years in other teams' programs. It's rare that a signing works out as well as Antrel Rolle did. Free agency is best used as a patch. Denver's 2014 haul of Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and DeMarcus Ware is being hailed right now for good reason, but it's worth remembering that the team they joined that offseason had just played in the Super Bowl.

The Giants did not just play in the Super Bowl. Far from it. They are 19-29 the past three seasons, consistently one of the worst teams in the league. They can attack their problems in free agency this offseason and likely will, if only to make sure they have enough players to fill out a 53-man roster.

But as you follow the signings and get excited about them, remember that most free-agent signings don't work out. The Giants' way back to respectability is through the draft, and through their ability to develop their own quality NFL starters. They've found some prominent pieces in recent drafts, including Weston Richburg, Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Johnathan Hankins and Devon Kennard. They need to keep finding and developing guys like that. It will take a while for that approach to bear fruit, but honestly it's the only way for the Giants to build a consistent contender again.

That $60 million or so in cap space will help the Giants put a roster together this offseason, and they might even find a cornerstone piece or two with it. But Wednesday's news was a reminder that free agency can't be the solution to the real, deep problems a team like this has.