EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The strength of the New York Giants is in peril. NFL free agency is threatening to extract a key piece from their strongest position group with defensive linemen Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson in position to test the market.
The new league year begins March 17 and the Giants would like both players to return, but it might not be possible with Williams and Tomlinson expected to be rewarded for their stellar play this past season.
"I think they're both going to get paid," said an executive who studied both players this past season for another NFC team.
Signing Williams and Tomlinson to long-term to deals that keep their salary-cap numbers respectable in 2021 is the only way it would work in this year's financial environment.
Williams, 26, is coming off the best season of his career (11.5 sacks), and the Giants already made a substantial commitment to acquire him. They traded multiple draft picks to the New York Jets during the 2019 season and used the franchise tag to keep him last season at $16.1 million when he was coming off a half-sack campaign.
Franchising him again at $19.4 million would hardly be cost effective, but multiple league sources believe Williams will get paid in the range of $19 million per season if he reaches free agency. Tomlinson is a "$10 million a year player," according to the executive. That would make for an expensive defensive line on a unit that is still in need of a high-end edge rusher, another traditionally pricey position.
Nothing is believed to be close with either player as the Giants and the rest of the league wait for the salary cap to be set at somewhere probably slightly north of $180 million. That's an unprecedented drop of about $15 million from last year, which means many teams, including the Giants, will be contorting to get under the cap.
Even if it's possible to re-sign Tomlinson and Williams, the Giants must decide if it's prudent to dump such significant financial resources into two players on a defensive line in what is primarily a 3-4 scheme under coordinator Patrick Graham. Williams appears to be the Giants' top priority, if only because he provides a skill that is more difficult to replace. His 11.5 sacks were a career-high, and more than the rest of the defensive line combined. His 30 quarterback hits were three times more than any other Giant this past season.
Even though Williams' production was inconsistent in his first five seasons (4 1/2 with the Jets), he was a big reason New York's defense improved from No. 25 overall in 2019 to No. 12 last season. And in a sport that puts more and more emphasis on pressuring the quarterback, the Giants can't afford to let him walk.
"The bottom line is he thrived in our atmosphere," Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said after the season. "I'm ecstatic. It's like I tell players all the time, 'I only want you to be successful and I want you to make me cry when it comes to negotiations.'"
That might happen given Williams' incredible leverage. If the Giants thought he was worth more than $16 million after producing half a sack in 2019, what is he worth following 11.5 sacks? In this case, they've backed themselves into quite an expensive corner with one of their best defensive players. However, Williams has repeatedly expressed a desire to remain in New York. He was optimistic throughout the season with what coach Joe Judge and the Giants were building, and seems to believe if he stays, the first playoff appearance of his career could be on the horizon.
Williams might even be willing to let Gettleman and the Giants off the hook ... a little bit.
"I'm not going to lie, going into this season, throughout the season, at the end of the season, today -- it's never been about money for me," Williams said after the season finale when he recorded three sacks in a crucial victory against the Dallas Cowboys. "I was kind of drafted high [No. 6 overall in 2015], made a lot of money already in my career. I feel like I was smart enough and I could retire now and still have enough money for the rest of my life.
"But it's never been about the money. I think I just more wanted the respect and to show guys the reason why I'm in this league."
It's one thing to say that after the season. It's another to take that approach into negotiations.
Tomlinson, 26, also should have some leverage. Many around the league believe the market for free agents will get soft really quickly after the premium players get paid, but multiple sources consider Tomlinson at the top of the interior defensive line market.
He was a stalwart in the middle for the Giants this season, finishing with 49 tackles, eight for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and knocking down a team-best four passes at the line of scrimmage. Tomlinson's run-stuff rate of 5.1% was also third best among interior defensive linemen in the NFL this past season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
This will make him a coveted commodity. Just how coveted will determine if the Giants can make it work financially and bring back their best pass-rusher and run-stopper.