By Steve Silverman
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The New York Giants are a team in transition, and general manager Jerry Reese is under the gun to get them turned back in the right direction.
Two consecutive non-playoff seasons means every move he makes is under scrutiny, and he must find a way to increase the talent level and productivity in 2014. In the past, Reese has excelled at making sure the Mara family did not waste any of its money, but that's no longer good enough if he has designs on staying with the team for years to come.
In some ways, he's under the same pressure as 29 other general managers in the league – John Elway of Denver and John Schneider of Seattle are safe – but the Giants have too many holes right now and Reese has to be proactive in turning them back into a nasty, marauding team that chews up quarterbacks and spits them out.
There are many areas that need to be improved, including wide receiver, offensive line and cornerback, but building a cohesive pass rush would probably help the defense more than improving the coverage.
An explosive defensive line will help cover for an average secondary, but even the best cover men can't win games when the line does not put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Justin Tuck is going to test the market in free agency and if he is courted by big spenders, the guess here is that Reese will let him walk. If that happens – even though Tuck had 11 sacks last season – the Giants are going to have to replace him. Since they are not going to be in a position to draft South Carolina stud Jadeveon Clowney the Giants are going to be forced to go the free-agent route to bring their pass rush up to speed.
The possibilities are there for Reese to make a statement at the position.
Start with Greg Hardy, 25, of Carolina. It would seem that the Panthers would have to be foolish to let him get away after he anchored their defense and recorded 15 sacks last season, but there are rumblings that they may not be willing to pay him the moon and the stars. Perhaps they want to send a message that no player is bigger than the team, but Hardy's a monster who changes the game with every snap he's on the field. If he is a free agent March 11, the Giants would be wise to be at the head of the line.
Seattle's Michael Bennett, 28, is not a superstar, but he was quite proficient in the complementary role he played on the Seahawks' defense. Bennett, the brother of former Giant and current Chicago Bear tight end Martellus Bennett, has a super-quick first step to the quarterback and a slew of counter moves that enables him to put on significant pressure. Bennett is not likely going to come with an outrageous price tag, but he has 17.5 sacks in the last two seasons and he is also solid against the run.
Jared Allen, 32, of the Minnesota Vikings can still turn the corner and cause havoc. The Vikings were a sad-sack team from start to finish last season, but Allen never shut it off. The cynic might suggest that Allen produced 11.5 sacks because he was in the final year of his contract and wanted another huge deal. While he's not going to get another $72 million deal like the one he signed in 2008, Allen should get two or three more years and he could give the Giants an upgrade.
It's easy to overlook Lamarr Houston of the Oakland Raiders. Not only did Houston play for one of the most inefficient and inconsistent teams in the league, he did not dominate in the sack department. The 26-year-old had six quarterback traps, but it seemed Houston was always in the backfield providing plenty of pressure and he excelled against the run (69 tackles). He could become a force to be reckoned with in a new environment, and he should come at a fair price. He wouldn't necessarily be a bargain for Reese, but the Giants wouldn't have to overpay, either.
Anthony Smith was not a factor for the Dallas Cowboys last season because he only played in one game before his season ended due to microfracture surgery on his knee. When a 30-year-old pass rusher is coming off that kind of procedure, it makes it difficult to imagine him coming back to the form that allowed him to get 11 sacks in 2012. The thought of Smith in a Giant uniform is intriguing, but way too risky.
Other possibilities include Cincinnati's Michael Johnson, Kansas City's Tyson Jackson, Denver's Robert Ayers and Baltimore's Arthur Jones.
The bottom line is that the Giants will have to do something fairly dramatic if they lose Tuck. Hardy is at the top of the list, but the guess here is that the Panthers won't let him go.
The Giants would be best served by going after Bennett or Houston if Hardy is not available. The upside is strong for both players and neither one would seem likely to let big free-agent money impact their game preparation or on-field production.
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