EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The bar has been set low for Giants general manager Joe Schoen. That’s one of the benefits of replacing Dave Gettleman, who went 19-46 in four seasons as GM.
All Schoen had to do with his two first-round picks in the NFL Draft on Thursday night was avoid making a selection that would produce meme-worthy fan reactions, like when Gettleman took running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2 in 2018 and quarterback Daniel Jones at No. 6 in 2019.
Time will tell if Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Alabama tackle Evan Neal will be good NFL players. But at least Schoen’s first two selections didn’t trigger flying TV remotes across the tri-state area.
This draft was always going to be the first opportunity to really get to learn about Schoen. He inherited a salary-cap mess and spent his first few months trying to piece together a roster from the wreckage left by Gettleman. But with the fifth and seventh picks in the draft, Schoen had his first opportunity to put his imprint on the roster.
It was obvious that Schoen had prepared for every scenario. Predictably, the first two picks were edge rushers Travon Walker and Aidan Hutchinson. Then there was a bit of a curveball with cornerbacks Derek Stingley and Ahmad Gardner going consecutively.
The Giants had interest in Gardner, so it had to hurt to have him come off the board at No. 4 to the Jets. And it had to be a bit surprising that none of the offensive tackles was picked in the top four.
That left Schoen with two options. He could take the top tackle on his board at No. 5, trust that the Panthers would take a tackle at No. 6 and then take Thibodeaux at No. 7. Or he could take Thibodeaux at No. 5 and then take the top remaining tackle at No. 7. Schoen chose Door No. 2.
There’s no way of knowing if Neal or NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu, who went No. 6 to Carolina, was higher on the Giants’ board. But Schoen’s thought process was determined by what steps he figured would produce the best two-player package.
“After Thibodeaux, there was quite a drop (at pass rusher),” Schoen said. “We like the tackles very similarly, so we thought it was best to let it play out and get the pass rusher first.”
Left unsaid was the fear that a team would trade up with the Panthers, who were motivated to move down, and take Thibodeaux if he was there at No. 6. Schoen clearly felt he would be happy with Neal or Ekwonu and that the difference between them wasn’t great enough to risk losing Thibodeaux.
The process provided insight into how Schoen thinks and what he values.
Here are some additional takeaways from Day 1 of the draft:
• Schoen said there were “really six guys we coveted,” which left him one short of the necessary total so he could sleep easy entering the draft with the fifth and seventh picks. It’s safe to conclude that Thibodeaux and Neal were among that group of six. So who were the other four players on Schoen’s wish list?
It’s clear that Ekwonu was ranked closely to Neal because when Schoen was asked why he took Neal, he replied, “Because Ickey was gone at six.” Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was a big proponent of Gardner, according to a source, so the Cincinnati cornerback was likely among the six. It seems obvious that Walker and Hutchinson would be the other two players, although it’s possible that the Giants didn’t value one of those edge rushers as highly as their draft status.
Schoen said there was a seventh player they were prepared to take if those six players were off the board at No. 7. That debate likely comes down to Stingley and Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross, who went ninth to the Seahawks.
Schoen made a throwaway line that could have been revealing
“We had a couple rhymes in place for different scenarios,” Schoen said.
Gardner’s nickname is “Sauce,” which rhymes with Cross. Sesame Street detective skills aside, it seems likely that Cross was the player the Giants would have taken at No. 7 if the other tackles were gone and their other top options were off the board.
• Schoen said he spoke with three teams interested in trading up to No. 7. He said there were no calls for the fifth pick. It makes sense that the market was so tepid since only one quarterback, Kenny Pickett, went in the first round, and he slid to the Steelers at No. 20.
Schoen said he agreed to the parameters of trades with two teams before the draft, but he only planned to follow through if all six of his coveted players were gone. One of those teams pulled out “because a certain position was depleted that they were going to come up for.” It seems like that would have been cornerback because it was a bit unexpected that Stingley and Gardner went so early.
It doesn’t seem like Schoen would have been able to get a 2023 first-round pick back in any deal, which likely made trading back less desirable.
• Schoen didn’t play it safe with his first pick. Thibodeaux brings a larger-than-life personality that didn’t sit well with some around the league during the pre-draft process, including some in the Giants’ front office, according to a source. But Schoen put in an extensive amount of work to get to know Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux said he spent more time with the Giants during the pre-draft process than any other team. That included a combine meeting that Thibodeaux described as a “hard time,” a visit to the Giants’ facility and a trip by Schoen across the country for Thibodeaux’s pro day. Schoen attended only a handful of pro days, but he was sure to put Oregon on his itinerary, getting dinner with Thibodeaux the night before.
“We got to know the kid maybe more than any player in this draft,” Schoen said. “Liked the personality and liked the player.”
There were questions about Thibodeaux’s effort from analysts during the pre-draft process. Schoen explained why that wasn’t a concern.
“He had a serious ankle injury,” Schoen said. “And a lot of people, with his draft status and draft stock, could have hung it up and said, ‘We’ll call it a season and I’m not going to play anymore.’ He fought back.”
There was also chatter about Thibodeaux being more concerned about his brand than football. Schoen thinks the ability for college athletes to cash in on the Name, Image and Likeness policy has changed the game.
“Freshmen in college, some are making $100,000, $200,000,” Schoen said. “It’s a different athlete and a different experience as a college football player, and we have to evolve and understand that kids are going to evolve, and what they have been exposed to when they were in college is going to be a little bit different.”
It will fall on Daboll to make sure Thibodeaux realizes his potential on the field.
“When you’re coaching in the National Football League for 22 years, you come across a lot of different characters, and as long as they love football and they are a pro on and off the field,” Daboll said. “And that’s the job of a coach, too, to learn your players, what makes them tick, how to push them when they need (to be) pushed, how to hug them when they need a hug.”
• Thibodeaux’s personality figures to overshadow Neal (and many other teammates). That seems like it will be fine with the understated Neal.
There isn’t nearly as much intrigue with the Neal selection. He’s been viewed as one of the top offensive linemen in the country at every level. Selecting a player who started 40 games at Alabama doesn’t require much scrutiny.
The only potential red flag with Neal is the reported medical concern with his knee and hip that circulated in the days leading into the draft. Schoen said 8 percent of the league had a medical issue with Neal, but the Giants doctors had no concerns.
“I was kind of shocked a little bit (by the reports), but at the end of the day I just control my controllables,” Neal said. “I can’t control about the information that leaks out, but I played 41 games at Alabama, I didn’t miss a game, I didn’t miss a snap, I only missed one game due to COVID, so that’s your answer there.”
• Schoen was incredulous at his pre-draft news conference when a question was posed about a No. 1 cornerback being available with the fifth pick. Perhaps he had intel then that Stingley and Gardner wouldn’t make it to No. 5.
But with those corners out of the picture, the Giants don’t have an obvious replacement for veteran James Bradberry, who remains on the chopping block.
“That doesn’t affect James at all,” Schoen said of failing to add a corner in the first round. “I’ve said it all along, there are contingency plans. We still have three picks (Friday) night, a fourth, two fifths and a sixth. There are plenty of picks to be had.”
The worst news on the Bradberry front is that the Chiefs traded up to take cornerback Trent McDuffie with the 21st pick. That likely kills the Chiefs’ interest in trading for Bradberry. The Bills are another contender that has sniffed around on Bradberry, but they traded up to take Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam with the 23rd pick.
It’s becoming harder to see Schoen pulling off a trade with the pool of potential landing spots shrinking. Meanwhile, cornerback will likely be near the top of the Giants’ wish list on Day 2 because corner play is so vital in Martindale’s defense. Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. and Washington’s Kyler Gordon could be targets with the No. 36 pick.
• The draft picks overshadowed big news earlier in the day when the Giants declined to exercise Daniel Jones’ fifth-year option for 2023. That was the obvious move, but nothing was guaranteed considering how highly ownership thinks of Jones.
The Giants are essentially making a $9 million hedge against Jones. The fifth-year option would have guaranteed Jones $22.4 million in 2023. By declining the option, the Giants have the ability to cut ties after this season if Jones doesn’t make major strides. If Jones performs well enough that the Giants want to keep him, they’ll have the ability to do so with the franchise tag, which is projected to be $31.5 million. Both sides will likely be motivated to do an extension if Jones plays so well that the team is comfortable guaranteeing him over $31 million for 2023.
The odds are stacked against Jones morphing into a franchise quarterback at this stage of his career. Former Jaguar Blake Bortles is the only quarterback among the 28 drafted in the first round from 2011 to 2019 to have his option declined and then stay with the team for a fifth season. He was released before his sixth season in Jacksonville.
• The Giants exercised the $10.8 million fifth-year option on defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who was the 17th pick in the 2019 draft. That figure may seem high until you realize how the defensive tackle market has exploded recently.
Former Giant Dalvin Tomlinson is making $10.5 million per year with the Vikings, while former Giant Austin Johnson got a contract worth $7 million per year from the Chargers this offseason. Those prices will only go up, so it makes sense to lock Lawrence in at $10.8 million for 2023 now. The option will buy the sides time to reach an extension, as the team needs to start retaining some of its quality homegrown players.
(Top photo of Kayvon Thibodeaux: David Becker / Getty Images)
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