Ralph Vacchiano has graciously agreed to periodically “sit down” (via e-mail) with GmenHQ and The Giants Professor and give our readers an insider’s look into the Giants and what it is like to cover the team. Mr. Vacchiano has been covering the NFL and the Giants for the Daily News since 2001. He is the Giants Insider for SNY-TV, a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio, and he wrote the book on Eli Manning (Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback, Skyhorse Publishing 2007). He’s a native of Long Island, N.Y. (Oakdale), a graduate of Connetquot High School, and he’s been covering the NFL since 1991, right after he graduated from Syracuse University and began his career at the tiny Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Gazette.
The Giants Professor: Where do you think Jerry Reese went wrong with his free agent “re-vamp” last season, and what do you think is the best way to address needs through free agency for this team?
Ralph Vacchiano: I don’t think he went wrong anywhere, actually. Or at least if he did it remains to be seen. Unfortunately he was mostly unlucky. Think about some of the bigger-name players he brought in – G Geoff Schwartz, RB Rashad Jennings, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DE Robert Ayers, CB Walt Thurmond. They were all hurt, to varying degrees. I’d have to believe that if they were all 100% (or close) for most of the year, the Giants would’ve been better at all those positions and probably would’ve won another game, maybe two. And then factor in the other guys that got hurt – Prince Amukamara, Victor Cruz, Jon Beason. I mean, I know nobody ever wants to use injuries as an excuse, but they certainly can be a reason.
So I think the jury is still out on last season’s free-agent crop. They’ll all get a mulligan this year (except, probably, for Thurmond) and we’ll find out if he spent his money wisely. But this year it’ll be like the Giants have two free-agent classes coming in.
And for this year’s class, I would go big after one spot – get a top safety or top defensive lineman – and then look for bargains elsewhere. I don’t think this team needs a ton. They have holes to fill, but don’t need a big splash at every position to do it.
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TGP: The Giants have long taken the position that they take the “best available player” when they’re on the clock. Do you think that they truly draft that way –ignoring need completely– or do you think their actual process is slightly different?
RV: Well, if you read my blog or follow me on Twitter you already know that I think “best available player” is a myth – at least when it comes to the first round. When the Giants say that it makes it sound like they have players ranked in order and just take the next one on their list. That’s not how it works. They have players ranked in groups or tiers and there’s always a choice of 2, 3, 4, maybe even 5 or more players when they’re ready to pick. And need is always factored in. Always. They don’t draft specifically for need, but it’s always a factor.
And their history proves it. Almost every first-round pick they’ve made in the last 20-plus years has proven to fill a need. Sometimes it’s a hole in the starting lineup. Sometimes it’s a rotational guy. Sometimes it’s because they know they might lose someone in free agency, or a veteran is getting near the end of their contract. Yes, “need” can be a pretty broad term, but it doesn’t matter. Need matters. And some needs are bigger than others.
Now, after the first round (maybe even after the second) they often just take the “best available player,” but even then need factors in – especially in the middle-rounds. If a player has enough value – like when they took quarterback Ryan Nassib in the fourth round a few years ago – maybe they’ll ignore their needs. And they won’t reach for a player because of a need – for example if they’re in the third round and need a tight end, but none of them have higher than fourth-round grades.
But the idea is to fill a roster and find useful players. They’re not going to take someone who’s not going to be immediately useful in one way or another – especially in one of the first couple of rounds.
TGP: What do you think the Giants need to focus on in the 2015 draft and which direction do you think they should go with their first selection?
RV: It’s honestly hard to say this early in the process. A lot can happen between now and the draft, most notably free agency. At this very moment they sure could use a safety, for example, but that’s a need they might fill in the next few days.
In a vacuum, I’d say they need to find a stud offensive lineman – a tackle they can put on one of the two sides for the next 10 years. It’s been too long since they’ve drafted one in the first round. Another need is a pass rushing defensive end to play opposite Jason Pierre-Paul and rotate in with Damontre Moore. Right now, those are the two spots I’d look at first.
Sep 29, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back runs the ball as New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (90) attempts the tackle during the first half of the game against the New York Giants at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 31-7. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
But which way they’ll go for sure, we’ll have to wait and see. There’s a lot of evaluation to be done between now and then. Honestly, I’ve had a pretty good record over the years of forecasting – with the help of some great sources – who the Giants will select. But I don’t usually get a real sense until the days before the draft. In some cases, it’s not until the day of the draft.
TGP: How has your job covering the NFL and the Giants changed since the advent of social media? Is it easier, harder, more fun, less so?
RV: That’s probably been the single biggest change in my career. Even blogging, which was another big change, didn’t have this kind of impact. Not to make myself sound old, but I broke into the business in 1991 when my job was to spend my day finding a story and finish the story by my deadline at the end of the day. Then I’d wait for the papers the next morning to see if I missed anything or if I had a scoop, and I’d do it all over again.
Now deadlines are a moving target. Thanks first to blogs, but now more immediately to Twitter, readers and fans want news instantaneously. So in a sense, I’m on call 24 hours a day. In the past, I could wait until the end of the day and see what had happened before determining what I should write. Now, as I’m typing these answers to you, I stop after every question to check my email, texts and Twitter to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
The only upside is that there are rarely surprises in the morning anymore. I used to get up at the crack of dawn and run to the store to buy all the local papers and would have a knot in my stomach as I read them, wondering if I missed anything. Now that part is gone. I sleep better knowing chances are whatever my competition has was already on Twitter.
The downside is that I’m constantly connected. There’s rarely a family dinner or event when I don’t sneak away to the bathroom or my car to check my phone. There’s no rest anymore.
The other change is social media has made me more accessible to fans. I actually enjoy that for the most part. I like the debate. I try to respond to everyone. My feeling is that if you’re kind enough to follow me and read my work, you deserve a response. The downside to that, though, is Twitter and message boards, etc., can be vile places. People, when granted anonymity, can be downright mean and ugly. I hate that part of it. I don’t get it nearly as bad as some people, but I get enough of it to find it disgusting.
In the old days, the most I’d get would be the occasional phone call or letter. I was more distanced from my readers, which wasn’t completely a good thing, but it insulated me from the enormous amount of hate there seems to be in the world.
TGP: Which Eli Manning do you think we’re going to see next season (and why)?
RV: I’ve always been a big believer in (and supporter of) Manning (and not just because I wrote a book on him). I think he’s a Top 10 quarterback in this league, although I certainly recognize his frustrating, up-and-down nature. But I think last year he showed that he’s bounced back from his awful 2013 season and I think with the right cast around him he’ll be even better. He needs a better offensive line, that’s obviously. But if they keep him upright, he’s good enough to put all the weapons the Giants have to good use. I don’t know if he’ll suddenly throw for 5,000 yards, but I think he’ll have a very good season – good enough for the Giants to be competitive in the NFC East race.
Dec 28, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) looks to pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium. The Eagles defeated the Giants 34-26. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
TGP: Is franchise tag the way to go with Jason Pierre-Paul? How would you handle the situation with him and do you think he can still perform at a superstar level?
RV: Since I’m a little late getting this back to you they’ve obviously already given him the “franchise tag”, and yes, I think that was the right move. The Giants were caught in the middle of two things. The first is that they need JPP. Without him they have absolutely nothing when it comes to a pass rush. Robert Ayers is a decent defensive end and Damontre Moore has (still unrealized) potential. But JPP, if he can play like the old JPP, is a force. He can be a dominant presence, even when his sack numbers are down.
The second thing, though, is that he hasn’t really been that dominant presence since 2011. He’s been mostly injuries and ineffectiveness since. He was good last year, especially against the run, but they’re not paying him top dollar to be a run stuffer. And I think nine of his 12 ½ sacks came in the final five games when the Giants’ schedule was pretty weak. So before they unloaded a six-year, $80 million deal on him with $25 million in guaranteed money, they need to be sure he’s really all the way back to his 2011 form.
So tagging him – even at the high cost of nearly $15 million – allows them to keep a potentially premier pass rusher and allows them to wait and see what he’s really worth before they give him that huge deal. Plus, there’s always the chance he accepts a long-term deal under market value, and that would work for the Giants, too.
TGP: Who is the funniest Giants player you’ve ever met, and, could you share a story?
RV: Wow, that’s a tough question since I’ve been covering them (on and off) since 1993. I suppose the quick answer to that is Martellus Bennett, who was … well … let’s just say an interesting character. His locker was a must-stop place whenever he was there because you could ask him any question and he would go off on a tangent that couldn’t be predicted. He’d talk about life, his philosophies, nicknames he gave himself (like “The Black Unicorn”) and who knows what else? It didn’t often make a lot of sense, but he was always smiling and the press was always laughing. I could never tell whether he was really smart or just pretending to be smart or just a deep thinker, but I always enjoyed the conversations and always ended up smiling by the time they ended.
I’m sure there were funnier guys throughout my career. A lot of offensive linemen had good sense of humor and their practical jokes are legendary. But there have been a lot of players, so sorting through them all in my head would take a ton of thought.