Which Giants free agents might return, and who may not

The Giants soon enough will be immersed in NFL free agency. Before they look outward for help, they will look inward to determine which players they want to retain. General manager Joe Schoen is a big believer in familiarity. If he knows his own player, and likes that player, that gives that player an advantage over someone coming in as an unknown.

Already, Schoen has re-signed Isaiah Hodgins, who was set to be an exclusive rights free agent. Hodgins unexpectedly blossomed after he was claimed off waivers Nov. 2 from the Bills, and emerged as a key target for Daniel Jones, hauling in 33 passes for 351 yards and four touchdowns. In the playoff victory over the Vikings, Hodgins was sensational, with eight catches for 105 yards and one touchdown. 

Bringing Hodgins back was an easy decision. Most of them moving forward will not be. Here, in alphabetical order, are the Giants’ 21 unrestricted free agents and a thought or two on their chances of returning:

RB Saquon Barkley

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley #26, running for a touchdown in the 4th quarter.
Saquon Barkley
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Yeah, there’s been a whole bunch already written and said about No. 26. He wants to return and the Giants want him back. Barkley said he does not need to set the market at the running back position. During the bye week, he turned down a three-year deal averaging around $12.5 million per year. The Giants are not going much higher than that initial offer for Barkley, but if they agree to guarantee more of the money, something should get done. The franchise tag for $10.1 million is a possibility but not one the Giants want to use.

RB Matt Breida

New York Giants running back Matt Breida (31) scores a touchdown in the second half of the NFC Divisional playoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in Philadelphia, PA.
Matt Breida
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

It seemed as if the offense could have used a bit more Breida, who looked solid when given the chance. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry, but only received 54 rushing attempts. He also caught 20 passes for 118 yards. The 27-year-old is a serviceable backup, but the Giants might want to get younger and a bit cheaper here.

ILB Landon Collins

Landon Collins #21 of the New York Giants runs the ball in for a touchdown as Parris Campbell #1 of the Indianapolis Colts and Zack Moss #21 of the Indianapolis Colts gives chase during the first half when the New York Giants played the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, January 1, 2023 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
Landon Collins
Robert Sabo for the NY POST

The 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Week 17 victory over the Colts that clinched a playoff spot was far and away the highlight for Collins in his return to the team that drafted  him in the second round in 2015. For the season, the 29-year-old Collins was only in on 40 percent of the snap counts in Wink Martindale’s defense, making a return in 2023 unlikely.

ILB Jarrad Davis

New York Giants linebacker Jarrad Davis #57, during practice at the Giants training facility in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Jarrad Davis
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The state of the linebacker position was in such disrepair that Davis was signed in late December and almost immediately became a front-line player. He even started both playoff games. The former Lions first-round pick has the bulk for the job but probably did not do enough to find a long-term home with the Giants.

DL Justin Ellis

Justin Ellis #71 of the New York Giants reacts after he sacks Taylor Heinicke #4 of the Washington Commanders during the second quarter.
Justin Ellis
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“Jelly’’ was an excellent locker room guy who added professionalism to the defense. He played in all 17 games, with four starts. The Giants, however, want to get younger (Ellis is 32) and will look for more production from the interior of their defensive line.

C Jon Feliciano

Jon Feliciano #76 of the New York Giants warms up prior to the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on January 15, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Jon Feliciano
Getty Images

This Buffalo import started 15 games in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. While he certainly fit in from a teammate perspective, he did not grade out well in the eyes of Pro Football Focus, who ranked him at No. 31 in the league among centers. His taunting penalty in the 20-20 tie with the Commanders was a killer — even though Feliciano was trying to celebrate with Darius Slayton, rather than antagonize the opponent. Not a bad guy to have around, and at age 31, still has something to offer.

OL Nick Gates

Nick Gates blocks during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings.
Nick Gates
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

You want to know who should have been nominated for Comeback Player of the Year? Look no further than Gates. He came back from a potentially career-ending lower leg fracture to start eight games in the regular season and two more in the playoffs — although he often logged fewer snaps than Ben Bredeson in a shared left guard position. There was rust Gates needed to shake off, and PFF graded him at No. 45 among guards. A big favorite (voted a team captain) among his teammates and the coaching staff, the 27-year-old is worth another shot, as he brings guard/center versatility.

P Jamie Gillan

New York Giants punter Jamie Gillan (6) punts during the first half when the New York Giants played the Detroit Lions Sunday, November 20, 2022 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
Jamie Gillan
Robert Sabo for the NY Post

It could go either way with the “Scottish Hammer.’’ The talent and the leg strength is there. The consistency is not. After three years with the Browns, Gillan finished 18th in the league with an average of 46.8 yards per punt in his first year with the Giants. He ranked in the middle of the pack in putting the ball down inside the 20 and was near the bottom in preventing touchbacks. Do the Giants want someone more proven or are they willing to keep developing the 25-year old?

WR Richie James

Richie James #80 of the New York Giants runs the ball as Camryn Bynum #24 of the Minnesota Vikings leans in for a tackle in the first half of the NFC Wild Card game at U.S. Bank Stadium Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Minneapolis, MN.
Richie James
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

He rebounded nicely from a dreadful game (two lost fumbles on punt returns) against the Seahawks, and a team could do worse for a No. 4 receiver with special teams value. He is fairly elusive in the slot and led all Giants wide receivers with 57 receptions. Prickly with the media, he plays with an edge, and the Giants need more of that.

S Tony Jefferson

Tony Jefferson #36 of the New York Giants pulls on Dalvin Cook #4 of the Minnesota Vikings jersey as he runs the ball during the fourth quarter. The New York Giants defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-24 to win the Wildcard.
Tony Jefferson (No. 36)
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

A former starter for Martindale with the Ravens, he never moved into a major role this past season with the Giants. A foot issue landed him on injured reserve midway through the year. When he returned, he logged between 17-28 snaps a game on defense as a hybrid linebacker. His impact was minimal and he is likely headed elsewhere.

WR Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson #84 of the New York Giants runs the ball as Marcus Epps #22 of the Philadelphia Eagles defends in the second half. The Philadelphia Eagles defeat the New York Giants 22-16 at Lincoln Financial Field, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Philadelphia, PA
Marcus Johnson
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Well-traveled 28-year-old veteran played in 14 games (seven starts) and had only nine catches for 99 yards. He saw his playing time take a nosedive in the second half of the season and does not figure to be re-signed.

QB Daniel Jones

New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones #8 throws a pass during the third quarter.
Daniel Jones
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Jones does not have a contract for 2023? Has anyone delved into this? The two sides are trying to come closer together on a long-term deal, but it’s uncertain anything will get done before March 7. If not, it’ll be the franchise tag ($32.4 million) for Jones until a multi-year agreement is reached, or — and this is not what either side prefers — the tag for the entire season. Either way, Jones is not going anywhere and will be waiting to take the shotgun snap for the Giants in 2023.

LS Casey Kreiter

New York Giants long snapper Casey Kreiter (58) brings down Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Britain Covey (18) during the first half at MetLife Stadium, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in East Rutherford, NJ
Casey Kreiter (No. 58)
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

How many times did you hear or read Kreiter’s name the past three years? Not much. That is a good thing for long snappers, who usually only garner attention when they mess up. Kreiter is respected — he was voted one of the team captains — and he worked well with kicker Graham Gano. Those are strong reasons to bring him back, unless the Giants want to go cheaper at this spot.

S Julian Love

New York Giants safety Julian Love (20) reacts after the Giants win against the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in East Rutherford, NJ.
Julian Love
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

This could be a sticky one. There is no doubt head coach Brian Daboll likes what Love brings, on and off the field. There also is no doubt Martindale trusts him — Love played 95 percent of the snaps on defense in 2022. So, what’s the problem? Well, the Giants will soon have Xavier McKinney’s contract to consider for an extension, and they cannot invest No. 1 safety money in two players. If Love accepts good, and not breaking-the-bank money, maybe there won’t be a problem at all. But Love is a versatile player — even if not a star — and skilled at everything about working in the New York/New Jersey market. He will have suitors elsewhere if he is available.

CB Fabian Moreau

Giants cornerback Fabian Moreau (37) at practice in East Rutherford, N.J. P
Fabian Moreau
Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

There is a glaring need for a No. 1 cornerback and Moreau is not that. He started 11 games and provided steady, but unspectacular play. He does his job while steering clear of the spotlight, rarely appearing before the media in the locker room. At 28, he is a useful cover man and provides depth to the secondary. If he wants to come back in that role, and the money makes sense, why not?

WR Sterling Shepard

Sterling Shepard #3 of the New York Giants is all smiles on the field during pre-game warm ups at Lincoln Financial Field, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Philadelphia, PA
Sterling Shepard
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Everyone loves Shep. All those serious injuries did not wipe the smile off his face. He was a relentlessly positive presence in 2022, constantly lifting up his teammates. But does he have much left to offer as a player? He managed to appear in only 10 games the past two years, with a ruptured Achilles and torn ACL to blame for relegating him to observer status. Now 30, Shepard’s value as a slot receiver is difficult to determine. A one-year, prove-it deal could happen, as Schoen and Daboll like having him around. But they also have to believe he can help the team and stay healthy.

WR Darius Slayton

Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton (86) runs after a catch in the fourth quarter. The Philadelphia Eagles beat the Giants 48-22 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Darius Slayton
Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

This guy is resilient. He did not overly impress the new coaching staff last summer and was a healthy scratch in the season opener. Slayton didn’t like it, but he didn’t pout or make waves. He kept quiet and kept working and, when other receivers fell by the wayside, Slayton was there to deliver. He started 11 games and finished with 46 receptions for a team-high 724 yards and two touchdowns. He is a deep threat, but he also drops more passes than is preferred. Smart and tough, his four years came and went quickly. The offense needs an upgrade; is there still a place for Slayton?

ILB Jaylon Smith

Jaylon Smith #54 of the New York Giants makes a tackle during the first quarter.
Jaylon Smith
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Smith ended up starting 11 games and had 88 tackles, but only three for loss, and only one sack.. The effort is there with Smith, every play, but the team’s run defense never really got untracked and was a weakness for much of the season. There is a good chance the Giants completely revamp their inside linebacker depth chart, from top to bottom. It’s unclear if that will include Smith, who turns 28 in June but is not the tackling machine he once was with the Cowboys.

OLB Jihad Ward

Giants linebacker Jihad Ward (55) reacts in the fourth quarter. Photo by Bill Kostroun. New York Giants and Washington Commanders at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
Jihad Ward
Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

Coaches often bring in one of their own to show the new guys what the program is all about. Ward was one of those guys for Martindale from their time together with the Ravens. Ward is a tough guy who brings it every game and knows what Martindale wants, traits rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux was able to see on the field and in the locker room. Ward started 11 games and had three sacks, 43 tackles, two forced fumbles and 13 quarterback hits. He could be a one-and-done with the Giants, though, as they try to improve the run defense. 

DL Nick Williams

Seattle Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III, left, runs against New York Giants defensive end Nick Williams (93) during the first half of an NFL football game in Seattle, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022.
Nick Williams (No. 93)

This was one of the most damaging under-the-radar losses of the season for the Giants. Williams started seven of the first eight games, pleasing the coaching staff with his run-stopping ability. But Williams, 33, missed the second half of the season with a biceps injury. His absence was felt. The Giants likely will look elsewhere for depth additions on the defensive line.

OLB Oshane Ximines

Giants linebackers Oshane Ximines (53) and Micah McFadden (41) leave the field after the Giants and Washington Commanders game ended in a 20-20 tie at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Oshane Ximines
Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

The moment to remember for Ximines in 2022 was his strip-sack of Aaron Rodgers in the closing seconds to secure a Giants victory over the Packers in London. There were not many other plays to mention. Ximines started four of the 15 games he appeared in and had 24 tackles, two sacks and eight quarterback hits. His best year was his rookie season in 2019, when he had 4.5 sacks. The affable third-round pick from Old Dominion probably needs a new start somewhere else.

Asked and answered

Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:

Is it a big deal that Brian Daboll lost his running backs coach?

Upon his Giants arrival, Daboll hired DeAndre Smith as the running backs coach, but Smith has departed, leaving for the Colts to work with their new head coach, Shane Steichen, whom Smith had previously worked with at UNLV. Daboll pivoted and has now brought in Jeff Nixon, most recently the running backs coach with the Panthers. Daboll and Nixon previously worked together with the Dolphins, where Nixon was the running backs coach when Daboll was their offensive coordinator. This past season wasn’t an easy one for Nixon, who had to deal with the fallout in Carolina after star running back Christian McCaffrey was traded away to the 49ers. When he starts digging into the job with the Giants, he undoubtedly will hope he gets to work with Saquon Barkley.

How different of a feel is it this year during the NFL scouting combine than it was for the Giants in 2022?

New York giants general manager Joe Schoen talks to the media during the 2022 NFL Combine.
Joe Schoen is in Indianapolis this week with a different set of priorities, and a little less pressure, than when he went to the Combine last year.

A whole lot different. This year, the Giants have the No. 25 overall pick after going 9-7-1 and winning a playoff game. Every pick is important, and the Giants can certainly find a gem at No. 25. But this isn’t last year, when Schoen and Daboll were new hires as they headed to Indianapolis a year ago, armed with the No. 5 and No. 7 overall picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.  

Having two of the top seven picks means a new general manager is under immense pressure to get both of those premium selections right. All eyes were on Schoen when he went for Kayvon Thibodeaux at No. 5 and Evan Neal at No. 7. The early returns are more promising with Thibodeaux than they are with Neal but the race has just begun for both players. This year, Schoen knows the roster better than he did in 2022 and is much more knowledgeable as to what he needs.