Giants bet big by trading for, extending Brian Burns. It needs to pay off fast

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It wasn’t an easy day in East Rutherford, N.J., as the Giants let two good young players walk away. It hurt even more knowing that Saquon Barkley, their most popular star, was heading just down the New Jersey Turnpike to play for the Eagles. He’ll face the Giants twice a year.

But Joe Schoen knew rebuilding the Giants would require tough decisions, and the GM believes strongly in the difference in values between positions. Some players are worth big money. Others aren’t. And so he let a top-tier running back leave for Philadelphia while safety Xavier McKinney left for Green Bay.

And now, Schoen had better be right about giving big money to Brian Burns.

Schoen took his biggest swing of the offseason — and probably the biggest of his two-plus-year tenure in New York — when he traded for Burns, a 26-year-old pass-rushing stud, on Monday and then quickly signed him to a massive five-year, $150 million contract with $87.5 million guaranteed, according to multiple NFL sources. It cost the Giants an early second-round pick (39th overall) and a fifth-rounder in this year’s draft, which they sent to Carolina, plus a good chunk of the $38.3 million in salary-cap space they had available to spend.

The hope is that Burns, who had eight sacks last year and 46 in his five NFL seasons, will be the kind of pass-rushing demon the Giants have lacked since Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora finished their careers in the early 2010s. They envision him joining forces with young Kayvon Thibodeaux (11 ½ sacks last season) and All-Pro defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence to turn the Giants’ defensive front into a force.

But for Schoen’s sake, hope has to turn into reality, quickly. As he enters his third season as a GM, it’s not that he’s on the hot seat. His seat isn’t even warm yet. The Giants seem committed to giving him time to rebuild the franchise in the wake of the mess left behind by his predecessor, Dave Gettleman, and by all accounts, ownership understands it’s going to take time. Nobody seemed fooled by the 9-7-1 record and playoff berth in his first year.

However, there’s no avoiding that his track record with his big swings has been spotty. His move to re-sign quarterback Daniel Jones for four years, $160 million and $82 million guaranteed last offseason was never highly regarded outside the organization — especially by those who thought he chose Jones over Barkley. It looks far worse now, though, after Jones’ terrible performance at the start of last season before he injured his neck for the second time in his career and then tore his ACL.

Eagles pry Saquon Barkley away from rival Giants with 3-year, $37.75M deal

Eagles pry Saquon Barkley away from rival Giants with 3-year, $37.75M deal

Meanwhile, Schoen has completely whiffed on rebuilding the offensive line — supposedly a top priority. Right tackle Evan Neal, the seventh overall pick in the 2022 draft, has looked terrible. The patchwork line gave up a near-historic 85 sacks last season. Even his decision to give Andrew Thomas a record five-year, $117.5 million contract extension after he looked like one of the best left tackles in football in 2022 looked a bit shaky after Thomas was only healthy enough to play in 10 games last year.

Schoen has a lot more hits than misses — including big ones like locking up Lawrence (four years, $90 million), drafting Thibodeaux (fifth overall in 2022) and signing middle linebacker Bobby Okereke (four years, $40 million). And he’s done a wonderful job of digging the Giants out of salary-cap hell so they could afford to deal for a player like Burns.

There’s nothing not to like about this deal on the surface. Burns is an elite young talent, a two-time Pro Bowler who seemed to break out with 12 ½ sacks in 2022. The Panthers once reportedly turned down two first-round picks and a second-round selection from the Rams for Burns, which makes the price the Giants paid a steal. And that price is roughly equal to the second- and fifth-round picks they got from Seattle in October for overpaid and underproducing defensive tackle Leonard Williams — which is a heck of a turnaround in trades for Schoen.

It will be hard for fans to shake the perception, though, that the real deal was about the cap space — that Schoen used the money he could’ve spent on Barkley and McKinney and allocated it to Burns instead. That’s not entirely accurate, of course. It’s not a fair comparison. But the raw emotions of the moment made it seem that way.

This is part of why Burns will need to produce to show everyone it was worth it — and not just at an average level. His eight sacks and 40 pressures (per Pro Football Focus) last season were fine. But the Giants didn’t give up a premium pick and sign Burns for $30 million per year for “fine”. They need him to be the kind of edge rusher who makes offenses change their blocking schemes. He needs to change games.

He needs to be the centerpiece of Schoen’s attempt to rebuild the defense, which is already reeling from the loss of popular defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. Players weren’t happy when Martindale quit in a huff this offseason after a fight with Giants coach Brian Daboll. It was already going to be an uphill battle for new defensive coordinator Shane Bowen to win over the room.

It will be easier with Burns on the team — if Burns is what the Giants think he is. If he’s anything close to what Tuck and Umenyiora once were, he can be transformative, and that’s what the Giants need. They’ll need a strong pass rush to help out their young secondary. They’ll have to disrupt opposing quarterbacks to give their rebuilding offense a chance.

And Schoen needs a win — almost as much as the Giants do coming off a miserable 6-11 season. He’s done a good job in his tenure so far, especially considering how bad things were when he arrived. There is more talent on the team and fewer bloated contracts, a better coaching staff and a lot more depth.

It’s the biggest things that get the most attention, though, and this deal is a big one. If Schoen is able to turn the Giants into a perennial contender, Burns could be a cornerstone. He could be the centerpiece of what might someday be a championship defense.

But that’s only if Schoen is right about the player he acquired. And that’s what he and the Giants are hoping — that their move to land Burns turns out to be too big to fail.

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Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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