Bobby Okereke essentially hit the lottery twice this week.
Not only did the 26-year-old middle linebacker agree to a four-year, $40 million contract ($22 million guaranteed) with the Giants, he also was fortunate enough to make the move without sacrificing the luxury of playing behind a blocks-eating All-Pro defensive tackle who makes his life easier.
Just insert Dexter Lawrence to replace the Colts’ DeForest Buckner as a teammate.
“Okereke is an every-down linebacker you don’t have to replace on third downs, or in short yardage, or any situational football,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger told Post Sports+.
“That’s the big thing because they have been stop-gapping that position forever. Especially when they get Dexter re-signed, you can put Okereke in the middle of your defense and feel good for a long time. He’s been very durable and very productive.”
On what down might Okereke’s presence make the biggest difference?
Think of second-and-long — a situation in which a play is deemed an offensive success if it gains 60 percent of the needed yards, according to analytics-based Football Outsiders.
“This guy is 235 pounds, but he’s fast enough that he’s going to make the tackles where he is supposed to make them,” said Baldinger, whose #BaldysBreakdowns film segments are a Twitter sensation. “So, second-and-7 becomes third-and-5, not third-and-1.
“The difference is where he makes the tackles. He is not going to get knocked back. There is nothing worse than second-and-7 becomes third-and-2 and run it again, especially against [short-yardage conversion masters] Philadelphia.”
The Giants ranked second-to-last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed and yielded the fifth-most first downs gained on the ground last season.
Their best defensive performances shared a common thread: Coordinator Wink Martindale out-schemed the opposing offensive play-caller.
“It’s the beginning of rebuilding this Giants offense,” Baldinger said. “Maybe this year it won’t be that every time the Giants defense plays well, it starts with Wink Martindale as the reason why. Sometimes your players have to play better than the other side. Okereke is still young enough, he’s earned this contract with his performance, so I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
So, why did Okereke hit the open market?
As one Colts source explained, Shaq Leonard is signed to a five-year, $98 million contract through 2026, and inside linebacker is the kind of non-premium position where smart salary-cap budgeting allows for only one big contract.
“Bobby checks a lot of boxes, including great locker-room guy,” the source said. “He is immediately [the Giants’] best linebacker.”
Inside linebacker contracts have been all over the map during the start to free agency, from the high end of Tremaine Edmunds capitalizing on the Bears’ salary-cap surplus to secure a four-year, $72 million deal, to David Long Jr.’s two-year, $11 million deal with the Dolphins that league sources see as one of the most team-friendly bargains of the offseason.
Okereke’s deal is the second-largest signed by an inside linebacker thus far, but Long was not deemed a scheme fit for the Giants.
Leonard’s neck, hand and concussion issues sidelined him for 14 games last season, allowing Okereke to showcase himself out of the All-Pro’s shadow.
His 17 tackles (out of the 151 total he made last season) in Week 17 stood out as one of the few max-effort performances the Colts got in a 38-10 rout by the Giants.
“Linebacker is a position where you can’t always find these guys in the draft,” Baldinger said. “If you go to free agency, you’ll probably overspend, but you’ll fix the position. You just have to get it right. It probably helped that Shaq got hurt this year and Okereke had to pick up the slack.
“Watching him, no matter who else he was playing next to, they got a real good look at, he can be that guy. He takes good angles, he gets to the football and he’s pretty easy to find on film.”
It was only three years ago that the Giants made a similar splash in free agency by signing Blake Martinez to a three-year, $30 million contract. Martinez was a 151-tackle machine in Year 1 before a career-changing torn ACL limited him to three games in 2021 and contributed to his release last summer.
The biggest difference between the two might be in pass coverage.
Martinez arrived with the (somewhat overstated) label as a liability whereas Okereke allowed -2.3 receptions over expected as the most-targeted linebacker in the league (78) last season, per NextGenStats. He ranked seventh among linebackers with at least 60 targets by allowing just 5.7 yards per catch over his two seasons as a full-time starter (2,058 snaps).
Okereke was ranked as the No. 22 inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus.
“When Wink does his blitzing, you are going to have to line up and take on tight ends and running backs man to man,” Baldinger said. “It starts with taking good angles.
“A lot of the routes are going to happen behind you. You can’t turn your body. He has the experience to do that. Getting everything underneath you, but you are getting proper depth in zone coverage to get in the passing lanes for what’s behind you. There’s a certain amount you have to understand just by the formation, to know where the route combination is going. There’s an old saying for linebackers: If you know the formation, you know the play.”
Wanted: Versatile pass-catchers
A few weeks before joking with the media at the NFL Combine about the outside “obsession with the receiver position,” general manager Joe Schoen was acknowledging to his scouting staff that the Giants “are pretty thin” at the position, as seen on a recent episode of the team-produced “Giants Life” documentary.
“The versatility to play multiple spots will be important,” Schoen said during a meeting. “You have to be smart to play in our offense. To do what we want to do, you have to be able to move the guys around, and they have to be able to learn.”
To begin with, Jeff Smith is expected to sign with the Giants after spending the last four seasons with the Jets, mostly as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver (34 catches for 426 yards in 36 games).
Which more prominent remaining free agents fit the versatility mold? Here’s a short list with snap-count splits from last season provided by Pro Football Focus.
Mecole Hardman, Chiefs, (155 wide, 155 slot, 7 backfield, 1 in-line): Speedster overlapped with Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka in Kansas City (where Kafka was quarterbacks coach). Played in only eight games last season, but also would be the long-missing punt return threat.
D.J. Chark, Lions (421 wide, 113 slot): Deep threat averaging 14.3 yards per touch over his five-year career, including 16.7 in 11 games last season. Giants have fared pretty well with receivers from LSU.
Parris Campbell, Colts (756 wide, 218 wide, 3 in-line): Former gadget player established himself as a true playmaker last season with more targets (91), catches (63), yards (983) and touch downs (3) than the previous three years combined.
Life and football
It’s easy to forget sometimes that athletes have real-life responsibilities, too.
So, imagine the strain that Giants tight end Darren Waller — acquired Tuesday in a trade from the Raiders — and Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum face now that they no longer will be playing in the same city. Waller and Plum, a WNBA star, were married earlier this month.
“It’s a bit of a curveball coming back one day from the honeymoon,” Waller said. “She supports me and wants me to shine to my ultimate potential as a player while I still have the opportunity. We are going to do whatever it takes to remain strong together whatever the distance looks like, the timing of it. I’m grateful to have somebody who understands how things work in an industry like this, and we just go forward and make the best of it that we can.”
Asked and answered
Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:
What impact will the recent running back developments have on Saquon Barkley’s extension negotiations?
The Chargers granted Austin Ekeler (due to make $6.25 million in 2023 after leading the NFL in touchdowns from scrimmage each of the past two years) permission to seek a trade after extension negotiations stalled, the Cowboys are about to free up $10.9 million in salary-cap space by cutting Ezekiel Elliott and going with franchise-tagged Tony Pollard and the Lions moved on from Jamaal Williams’ NFL-leading 17 rushing touchdowns by signing David Montgomery for $18 million over three years. The Eagles let Miles Sanders walk to the Panthers on a four-year, $25.4 million deal.
The Giants will not use any of these situations to pull or lower their offer and risk bad blood with Barkley. They believe in his play, leadership and off-field value.
But just like using the franchise tag shifted leverage from Barkley’s favor toward the Giants, each of these examples could be further used by the Giants to not budge from what sources say is an offer with an average value of about $13 million per year.
The long-term deal would lower his 2023 salary-cap hit from the $10.1 million that comes with the franchise tag.
That’s why it was crucial for him to get a deal done before reaching this point.
Barkley, 26, ultimately might have to decide whether he wants to sign for below-market value guarantees — compared to the contracts given to Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon — or bet on himself to have another big season and return to the negotiation table one year older.
What does it mean when the Giants’ contingent appears at a college prospect’s Pro Day?
Smokescreens often get too much credit. Sure, there is some deception involved in an NFL Draft, but head coach Brian Daboll, coordinators Mike Kafka and Wink Martindale and position coaches are not going to waste time appearing at a place when a decision is already made.
Sometimes an appearance is a sign of interest. Sometimes an appearance is due diligence in ruling out a player. A report that Martindale spent the most time talking to versatile linebacker Trenton Simpson at Clemson’s Pro Day on Tuesday could mean either. But it certainly says the Giants expect Simpson to be picked within range of their selection (No. 25) and something in his profile required extra eyes and ears beyond what a scout can offer.
Last year, general manager Joe Schoen and Daboll were at Kayvon Thibodeaux’s Pro Day in Oregon, but not at Evan Neal’s in Alabama. They were picked No. 5 and No. 7, respectively.
Schoen errs on the side of having players too high on the draft board initially because it is easier to move them down than up.