EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The route the New York Giants took to rebuild their defense was unorthodox, twined through the most dangerous of webs. It's a place most franchises don't want to travel given the perils of past history.
The Giants went to the top of the free-agent market and plucked players as if they were presents underneath the Christmas tree. They landed the top pass-rusher in Olivier Vernon, top run-stuffer in Damon Harrison and who they believed was the best cornerback in Janoris Jenkins -- they were right -- on the market.
More often than not, this approach has met with disaster (see: Washington Redskins, recent history). It is considered among the quickest ways to set back a franchise for years by tying up large sums of money in players their former teams allowed to walk. Free agents are often free agents for a reason.
Yet, somehow, the Giants found a way to do it effectively with their big-money expenditures and the bit pieces alike. They flat-out hit the free-agent jackpot, and it's at the very top of the list of why they've gone from six-win team to Super Bowl contender.
The Giants (11-5) have a wild-card playoff game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. They'll be counting heavily on their offseason acquisitions.
The fact that the Giants turned it around isn't stunning. They already had a veteran quarterback in place. It's the suddenness of the U-turn and the impact of the new pieces that was surprising.
The overhaul happened in the span of an offseason, with five free-agent acquisitions, a first-round pick and several undrafted free-agent finds. The defensive rebuild was spearheaded by general manager Jerry Reese, assistant general manager Kevin Abrams, vice president of player evaluation Marc Ross and their scouting staff. Together they pulled off the improbable; some might have even said the impossible prior to this season.
The Giants' front-office brass hit on all three of their major offseason signings. Jenkins made the Pro Bowl and the other two were deserving. Vernon led the team in sacks with 8.5 and Harrison led all defensive tackles with 86 tackles, including six for a loss.
"It just doesn't happen," one NFL personnel executive said of going 3-for-3 on top-of-the-line free agents. "It's rare. The odds are strongly against it."
They hit the trifecta and more. Linebackers Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard have also proved solid under-the-radar signings. Sheppard starts at middle linebacker and provides veteran leadership, and Robinson has remained healthy -- his shoulder was a question heading into the year -- and is an asset in pass coverage as the nickel linebacker.
All five moves can be considered successes, which shouldn't be understated. Free agency is almost always a crapshoot.
The Giants came out of this one all right, and only one team gave up fewer points this season as a result.
"We had a lot of players and a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. You have to give the personnel department, Jerry [Reese], a ton of credit for that," coach Ben McAdoo said. "What we did, we hit the lottery in character and integrity. The guys fit together well and they enjoy seeing each other be successful. That's a big reason why we're playing great defense with them."
Harrison's presence off the field can't be understated. He was voted the Most Important Voice in the Locker Room by teammates in a recent ESPN poll.
This wasn't even part of the equation when the Giants' free-agent haul was graded a B-plus earlier this year by ESPN analysts, which included three former front-office executives. A re-grade probably would net them an A-plus. Just about every move worked out as planned, or better.
It was the perfect storm, with the right players and just enough money to spend, spend and spend some more. The Giants committed $105.3 million of guaranteed money to their big three signings. They handed out more than $200 million in contracts to insta-fix a defense that desperately needed help.
"I think we did what was necessary to correct the last-ranked defense in the league last year and I think we did a good job," linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Casillas said.
The Giants were the 32nd-ranked defense last season. They finished 10th in total defense this season.
It took some time. The Giants didn't take the field with their new additions and instantly transform into a dominant defense. They had their ups and downs throughout the season.
They gave up over 400 yards three times in the first half of the season. It didn't happen again in the final eight games, when the entire unit gelled and thrived.
"Yeah, there is probably some truth to that," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I don't know if I thought that way, but there is probably some truth to that."
The results speak for themselves. The Giants made the largest ever year-to-year jump in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), and allowed Reese & Co. the opportunity to clean up the mess they arguably made.
The Giants' defense was decimated and devoid of talent last season. They were coming off their third consecutive losing year and fourth straight without the playoffs. Reese was under pressure to turn it around, and to do it quickly.
"Jerry knows this is on him. I've had that discussion with him," Giants co-owner John Mara said last January. "He can't hide from the record. It's up to you to get it fixed because the last three years just were not acceptable."
He did it with an unprecedented dip in free agency. And now the Giants have a chance to make some noise in the postseason because of it.