NFL coaches and players often say: Handling success can be even more difficult than handling failure.
To best position themselves to achieve at the highest level, NFL franchises must avoid resting on their laurels and instead power a level-headed approach to building toward better.
The New York Giants, in trading for Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller on Tuesday, took a step in that direction.
It’s easy to say the Giants are coming off an average 9-7-1 season with a playoff win and a playoff loss and a quarterback who passed for just 15 touchdowns. It’s easy to complain that quarterback Daniel Jones’ career performance doesn’t dictate the $40-million-per-year contract the Giants awarded him and that Waller’s injury history — like recently franchise-tagged running back Saquon Barkley’s, for those counting at home — should blare warning signs about the dollars allocated to him.
But when considering the Giants’ moves in context rather than in a vacuum, a picture emerges of a savvy front office that’s powering calculated decisions to build off what’s worked on offense and shore up what hasn’t.
Why Waller’s worth it for the Giants
Entering the 2022 season, BetMGM placed the Giants’ win total at 7.5, with slightly better odds that they would fall short of that number.
They exceeded those expectations by winning nine games, making their first postseason appearance since the 2016 season and winning their first playoff game since their 2011 season Super Bowl title.
Jones posted the best passer rating of his career, threw interceptions less often than any quarterback in the league and showcased a dual-threat ability far beyond what he’d highlighted at the Pro Bowl level with 708 yards and seven touchdowns rushing.
A healthy Barkley showed he’s still a home-run threat as he rushed for 1,308 yards and 10 touchdowns, requiring attention from defenses that allowed Jones to cut loose.
Giants brass believed the Year 1 success from each under coach Brian Daboll could further bloom with system and personnel continuity. So they negotiated Jones’ deal in time to place the franchise tag on Barkley, giving each player lucrative contracts in 2023 (and for Jones, in 2024) without mortgaging their long-term future. Jones’ guarantees dissolve after two seasons, while Barkley’s tag is good for one unless a long-term deal is reached before the league’s July 17 deadline.
The Giants would not have been the first franchise to let a player like Barkley walk, insisting that a quarterback as handsomely paid as Jones doesn’t need a player the caliber of Barkley powering the offense. They would also not have been the first franchise to tie a bow on its offensive free agency moves after agreeing to pay more than $50 million to that duo.
Instead, the Giants parlayed a third-round draft pick into a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Waller who immediately upgrades Jones’ pass-catching weapons. Making matters even better, the Giants still have their own third-round pick at 90th overall and were simply dealing the 101st overall pick, which they had acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for receiver Kadarius Toney.
Waller’s upside was on full display in 2019 and 2020, when he surpassed 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, including a nine-touchdown year in 2020. In 2021, he remained highly productive in 11 games available — 60.5 yards per game and 12.1 yards per reception, including an average of 4.4 yards after the catch per target — before injuries including a 2022 hamstring strain limited him to just nine games and 31.4% of Las Vegas’ offensive snaps.
The Giants now have the ability to create a dynamic trio with Jones, Barkley and Waller. They’ll pay the latter between $10 million and 12 million each of the next three years if he stays healthy enough to warrant it, a more palatable number than the $17 million average the Raiders signed him for last training camp. And if Waller can’t fight his spell of injuries, he’ll cost nothing to cut after the 2023 season.
The Raiders’ recent moves reflect a franchise not yet fully ready to contend, and thus one that can benefit from a deep tight end class that should offer talented players over the course of their rookie contracts but perhaps not as quickly as the Giants, guaranteed Barkley’s services just one more year thus far, would hope.
Will Giants’ strategy be enough?
NFL fans could ask: With a coach who seems as talented as Daboll, the 2022 AP Coach of the Year, why “settle” for a mid-tier quarterback when recent league MVPs like Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers’ 2023 teams aren’t yet settled?
It’s a fair question when the Kansas City Chiefs just won the Super Bowl thanks in large part to otherworldly play from Patrick Mahomes masking a host of deficiencies.
And yet, the Giants seem to instead believe that Jones’ immediate strides in his first year under Daboll portend even greater strides to come, that it was the career tape most reflective of the former sixth overall pick’s ability.
There’s logic in that philosophy regardless of how it pans out.
And should fans want to compare which strategy will work, they may need to look no farther than across town.
The New York Jets, in their pursuit of Rodgers as the piece that will put them over the top, seem intent on making that splash and cashing in on their window of talent via a bank-breaking, whatever-it-takes acquisition.
If Rodgers indeed agrees to the trade, the discrepancy between philosophies from the New York teams will shine an even brighter light on each’s decision.
Their shared willingness to pick a strategy and commit to it will shine through, too.
The Giants’ moves may not be the splashiest of the 2023 offseason. But their continued march toward improvement should give fans reason for optimism.