INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Schoen had no doubt, he said, that Daniel Jones would be the New York Giants’ quarterback in 2023.
The Giants general manager was “cautiously optimistic” last Tuesday at the scouting combine that “productive conversations” would prompt a deal to materialize for the 2019 sixth overall draft pick, whose fifth-year option the Giants previously declined.
Because sure, the Giants could assign their quarterback a franchise tag before 4 p.m. ET this Tuesday to ensure his 2023 rights or the equivalent of two first-round draft selections.
The franchise could lock up Jones for the $32.4 million price tag that not only far undercuts his reported $45 million per year request but also falls meaningfully short of the $37-million-to-$42-million range that multiple agents at the NFL combine described to Yahoo Sports, on condition of anonymity, as a more realistic and likely range at which Jones’ representation and the Giants might compromise.
But would the Giants, in need of talent influx at multiple positions including receiver, be wise to allocate 14.4 percent of their 2023 salary cap to Jones in a one-year, prove-it deal? A longer-term deal allows for more cap flexibility and creative accounting.
“If you have to franchise Daniel, I don't think that’s best for the organization and I don’t think it’s best for Daniel, especially as we try to build the team around him,” Schoen said. “It does hurt you a little bit in terms of the team-building process.”
So it’s no surprise that, as this past Thursday arrived without meaningful progress, Schoen said on NFL Network that he was “starting to feel the time crunch a little bit.”
The clock indeed is ticking on a deal. And as the Tuesday deadline creeps ever closer, agents and team executives told Yahoo Sports questions they’d want to answer based on their experience in past negotiations.
‘We’re trying to do something that’s almost impossible’
Two major philosophical questions permeate the decision-making science facing the Giants and Jones’ agents.
How much will Jones’ career-best 2022 season reflect his future performance? And at what price and structural points is a contract with Jones worth settling in order to free up the franchise tag for two-time Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley?
“That’s the tricky thing about what we do: It’s not an exact science,” one team executive told Yahoo Sports. “We’re trying to do something that’s almost impossible and that’s predicting human performance in the decisions we make.”
Barkley, the 2018 No. 2 overall draft pick, gives the Giants game-changing talent when healthy. His rookie-year, 15 touchdowns and 2,028 yards from scrimmage screamed explosiveness and versatility. Most recently in Year 5, Barkley contributed 1,650 total yards and reached double-digit touchdowns (10) for the first time in four years.
But injuries plagued the duration of his rookie contract and figure to become even more concerning at a position that requires players’ bodies to routinely withstand punishing blows in the trenches. The 2023 running back tag would secure Barkley’s services for $10 million, a far more palatable hit than the quarterback tag imposes.
Jones, meanwhile, is coming off the most productive and most efficient season in Year 1 with head coach Brian Daboll. His career-high best passer rating (92.5) reflects his best marks in total yards passing, rushing and from scrimmage in addition to a personal-record seven rushing touchdowns, five more than Jones’ next-highest season. Jones’ health factored meaningfully, as he played 16 games (the Giants rested him in a meaningless final regular-season game) and led New York to its first playoff appearance in six years and first playoff win since the Giants’ 2011 season Super Bowl title.
As impressive as any production: Jones’ improved decision-making. After turnovers plagued his early years in the NFL, Jones threw an interception on just 1.1% of pass attempts this season, the best mark in the league. Throwing the ball away more regularly helped position Jones for a dip in bad throws, per Pro Football Reference. Resulting drive continuity helped position Jones to levy a dual threat. Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka excelled in extracting his potential.
And “he'll be the first to tell you,” Schoen said of Jones, “there's still a lot of meat left on the bone and a lot of room for improvement.”
But can the Giants bet on that?
“I think the coach is really good,” the AFC executive said of Daboll. “They maximized [Jones’] talent and got some players around him. So I think they saw what he is capable of. Now — is that sustainable?”
The Giants must hedge their bets and act accordingly.
Saquon Barkley’s Giants future in jeopardy
Two AFC executives and two agents who spoke with Yahoo Sports were aligned on the crux of this deal. It’s not whether Jones is averaging $39 million vs. $42 million over the life of the deal.
“I’d care most about guaranteed money and cash flow through the first two and three years,” the second AFC executive texted. “Clubs can easily inflate the APY [average per year] by making the later salaries very, very high.
“Ideally I would tag him, but it’s tough with the running back.”
The first AFC executive agreed that players they’d negotiated with often care most about guarantees and cash flow, while teams cared most about guarantees and structure.
“If I have the kind of player who’s a quarterback and a good one, then I don’t want to do a deal where he becomes vulnerable and can be cut any time,” one agent who had negotiated quarterback contracts said.
The agent said they would aim to frontload client money or at least create a flat rate per year, while also seeking a guarantee structure that should net players money in advance — i.e. part of a third-year guarantee arriving on the first day of the second league year. Roster bonuses and incentives similarly can reward a player. The more the team is financially beholden to a player, the more likely a coaching staff and front office is to keep that player not only employed but also on the field and supported schematically.
For a player like Jones coming off both his best year and a year incongruent with his previous three years’ performance, determining the sweet spot to compromise can be sticky. But an inability to trudge through undoubtedly jeopardizes his opportunity to play along Barkley.
“If it gets out of hand and it's out of our comfort zone, we have the tag,” Schoen said. “If someone's got to walk [between Jones and Barkley], then that's unfortunate. But that's a part of the business. We're still building a team, that's important to keep in mind.
“We're gonna try to get Daniel done. We wouldn't be in this situation negotiating with Daniel if we didn't want him to be our quarterback.”