New York Giants eye top-of-the-market defenders in NFL free agency

Can the Giants gain an identity on defense? (1:07)

Jeff Darlington makes a case for why the Eagles need to figure out their receiver issues, while Damien Woody contends the Giants need to find an identity on defense. (1:07)

INDIANAPOLIS -- The New York Giants are getting ready to shop via NFL free agency. Not in the discount aisle, but in the big-boy section.

This is what happens when you're more than $70 million under the salary cap and have $29 million allotted to the defense, according to ESPN's Roster Management System. The leaguewide salary cap for the 2020 season is expected to be at least $200 million.

The Giants will be looking for edge rushers, inside linebackers and cornerbacks on the free-agent market, and they will start at the top.

Edge rusher might not work out. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman expects all of the top pass-rushers to be tagged, with the exception of Jadeveon Clowney "because of the injuries." In reality, Clowney and the Seattle Seahawks struck a deal that has prevented him from being tagged. Still, the Giants are traditionally conservative when it comes to medical concerns. It is hard to imagine they're seriously going to swim in those Clowney waters, given Gettleman's comment.

Multiple league sources say Clowney is aiming for the $20 million-per-year range. And Baltimore's Matthew Judon, Pittsburgh's Bud Dupree, San Francisco's Arik Armstead and the Rams' Dante Fowler are all expected to either be signed or tagged by their current teams. That severely limits the market.

Then there is Yannick Ngakoue, the disgruntled pass-rusher who wants to be a Giant but will receive the franchise tag from the Jacksonville Jaguars, according to a report from ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter. It will take a sign-and-trade deal for the Giants to land Ngakoue. One NFL executive put the price for him at a first-round pick or two second-round picks, the latter more feasible given the Giants select No. 4 overall in the NFL draft.

But this is where the Leonard Williams trade hamstrings the Giants, who gave up their third-rounder in 2020 and either a fourth or fifth in 2021. Sending their second-round pick this year (No. 36 overall) and next year would leave the Giants with one top-90 pick in this year's draft. And then they would already be down two picks in next year's draft. For a team with as many holes as the Giants, that would be a tough way to operate, considering their insistence on building this team through the draft rather than making too many big splashes in free agency.

This all puts Ngakoue as a long shot and leaves Gettleman in need of being creative via trade (for San Francisco's Dee Ford?) or looking elsewhere. It makes the next-level pass-rushers in free agency such as Markus Golden and Kyle Van Noy more likely options for New York.

The Giants like Golden and want to bring him back, according to a source. Several people around the league estimated the prices for Golden and Van Noy in the $10 million range, sort of a two-for-one instead of Clowney.

"Everybody really wants an elite guy. I think that's a true statement," Giants coach Joe Judge said at the combine. "No one's going to turn down a good football player. But you have to find ways, if you don't have necessarily that one elite guy, of getting production out of maybe two to three other players that complement each other."

More likely where the Giants could make their biggest splash in free agency is at cornerback or inside linebacker. Options at corner include James Bradberry, Byron Jones, Logan Ryan and Bradley Roby.

Jones is expected to come in at close to $16 million per season while Bradberry, who was drafted by Gettleman in Carolina, is looking for $15 million, according to a report by ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. Ryan and Roby won't be far behind, but there will be competition -- especially for Jones, who is considered by most the top cornerback on the market.

At linebacker, the Giants are looking at the top options, including Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert and Blake Martinez. This is important because the Giants currently lack a veteran linebacker and leader.

Littleton is expected to be the top linebacker available and come in at close to $13 million per year. Some teams the Giants will have to compete with in the linebacker market include the Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos.

As for the Giants' own free agents, they will not allow Williams to hit free agency with no strings attached. Williams will either be given the franchise or transition tag by the March 12 deadline if no long-term deal is reached, with the latter seeming the more likely option at this point. The transition tag for a defensive tackle is $13.1 million, compared to the franchise tag at $16.1 million.

There could be an objection about whether Williams should be considered a defensive end or tackle. The defensive end numbers are projected at $15.2 million with the transition tag and $17.8 million with the franchise tag.

"[The Giants] probably can't believe they got themselves into this mess," one NFL executive said.

The transition tag makes the most sense because it keeps Williams' number somewhat down while providing the Giants the right to match any offer. It's doubtful a team will come in and offer a long-term deal beginning in the $13 million range after he finished last season with two tackles for a loss and a half a sack.

And free agency might not be all about defense for the Giants. At center, Jon Halapio is recovering from an Achilles injury and is a restricted free agent. The Giants are looking elsewhere at options, both in free agency and internally. Shifting young offensive lineman Nick Gates to center is among the possibilities.