The Giants should give Osi Umenyiora what he wants, before it’s too late

Osi Umenyiora. (nfl.com)
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Another season, another gathering storm surrounding Osi Umenyiora’s dissatisfaction with his contract and his role.

Last week, Umenyiora, 30, the Giants’ proud and sensitive star defensive end, told reporters, “It would be a wonderful thing to do to start your career with one team and finish it with one team. I would love to do it.”

But he added, “Is it realistic? Is it reality? Who knows? I don’t like being a backup, I can tell you that.”

Umenyiora's self-description as a “backup” is technically correct. By the end of this past season, Jason Pierre-Paul, the latest product of the Giants’ assembly line of natural pass rushers, had supplanted Umenyiora as a starter at one defensive end spot. Justin Tuck, an established superstar in his own right, started at the other.

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But Umenyiora was a backup in name only. When he finally got healthy for the Giants’ playoff run after a season of ailments, he played nearly as much as Tuck. In the Giants’ four playoff games, Umenyiora--who returned from a high-ankle sprain in the last regular season game--played 168 of the Giants’ 268 defensive snaps, or 63 percent. Tuck, the nominal starter, played 174 snaps, or 65 percent. Pierre-Paul played 237 snaps, or 88 percent.

Also, most of Umenyiora’s snaps were on passing downs that tend to be higher-leverage situations: He rushed the passer on 76 percent of his playoff snaps, compared to 64 percent for Tuck and 66 percent for Pierre-Paul.

Looking forward to next year, there will be plenty of snaps to go around for all three. Dave Tollefson and the 23 percent of playoff snaps he consumed are gone to free agency, further carving out playing time for Umenyiora and Tuck. Consider also Tuck’s history of debilitating aches and pains, and the idea that Umenyiora is a bit player and not an indispensable one flies out the window.

In the modern N.F.L., where passing is king and stopping the pass is consequently the most important thing a defense can do, having three star defensive ends is more necessity than luxury. The Giants aren’t stuck with a “good problem to have.” Rather, they’re benefitting from a calculated effort to have premier talent exactly where it needs to be.

This issue of Umenyiora’s wounded pride over not being the titular “starter” seems easy enough to solve. Defensive-line alignments work on a rotation basis anyway, so the Giants could simply rotate which of their three ends starts each game. There are usually 60-70 defensive snaps a game. To make major career decisions over who plays the first few seems silly.

All of this goes toward saying that the Giants should try to lock up Umenyiora to a reasonable contract extension as soon as possible, if such an option exists. Umenyiora has hinted that he’s willing to give the Giants a “hometown” discount on his contract rather than going to another team, (a comment that seems at odds with his contention that he was hurt about not being a starter). If the Giants can mollify his feelings, they should take him up on his offer.

As a pass rusher, Umenyiora is as good as he’s ever been. According to the game-charting stats of Pro Football Focus, Umenyiora was the Giants’ best pass rusher by a fairly significant margin last year. In the site’s pass rushing productivity statistic, which measures sacks, hits, and hurries on the quarterback per passing play snap, Umenyiora ranked seventh in the N.F.L., counting playoff games. Tuck and Pierre-Paul ranked 26th and 29th, respectively.

Umenyiora had 13.5 total sacks counting playoff games, good for one every 26.9 times he rushed the passer. That’s comparable to the rate of one every 25.8 of Jared Allen, the Minnesota Vikings’ sack specialist whose 22 sacks came a half sack away from tying Michael Strahan’s all-time single season record. By comparison, Pierre-Paul the Giants’ leader with 16.5 sacks, posted one every 42.8 snaps.

Against the run, Umenyiora has always been mediocre. But the presence of Pierre-Paul allows the Giants to keep him off the field in many likely run situations. And the ever-diminishing importance of the running game in the N.F.L. makes his deficiency in this area less relevant.

Any decision to resign him now comes with caveats, of course. Because Umenyiora was great when he was healthy last year, it’s likely that by this time next year, whether because of injury or a regression in performance, his value won’t be as high as it is now, and the Giants would have paid for him at his high-water mark. But that will likely be more than offset by the fact that Umenyiora will have the entire league bidding for his services and not just the Giants, rendering the team that signs him a victim of the winner’s curse.

And should Umenyiora hit the free-agent market next year after a healthy and productive season, rendering his value higher than it is now, he might price himself out of the Giants’ range entirely.

Yes, Umenyiora will be 31 at this time next year and turn 32 during the 2013 season, which is old for a player to command a huge contract. But there’s recent precedent for older defensive ends to command huge paydays on the open market. Julius Peppers, who’s a better player than Umenyiora but not in a different stratosphere, got $42 million guaranteed from the Bears going into his age-30 season before 2010. Surely the success last year of Jason Babin, who the Eagles signed relatively cheaply for his age-31 season before he finished third in the league with 18 sacks, has driven up the market for aged pass rushers since then.

Locking up Umenyiora now also would allow the Giants to avoid the headaches that have accompanied Umenyiora’s contract situation for some years now. Last year, as part of a class-action lawsuit against N.F.L. owners, Umenyiora stated that Giants general manager Jerry Reese had violated a verbal promise to him to either rework his contract or trade him to a team that would. Though nobody knows for sure, there were rumors that Umenyiora’s curiously timed arthroscopic surgery, which caused him to miss the season’s first three games, was an act of civil disobedience stemming from unhappiness over his contract. (Umenyiora also didn’t show up to the Giants’ voluntary workouts yesterday, though that has often been the case during his career.)

The Giants have an outstanding quarterback and a stable of pass rushers that prevents other teams’ quarterbacks from being outstanding themselves. It’s a Super Bowl core, one that’s getting older and more expensive, but one worth paying to keep intact for the next several years.