With all the focus on quarterback Daniel Jones’s need to take a huge step forward, Giants fans are naturally wondering about the state of the offensive line and the role it’s going to play in Jones’ development.
It’s a valid concern, as based on last year’s performance, the growing pains exhibited by the offensive line ran much deeper than the occasional hiccup or blown assignment.
Repeated mistakes in technique, the inability to recognize and adjust to defensive stunts and twists, and a rotating lineup were all contributing factors toward the unit finishing dead last in Pro Football Focus’s annual preseason positional preview rankings.
Of that ranking, author Steve Palazzolo notes, “Giants offensive linemen have combined to produce the fifth-worst overall grade in the league over the past two years, and they rank in the bottom eight in both pass blocking and run blocking.
Palazzolo also notes that “They need their young players to develop and their veterans to provide career years just to rank in the middle of the pack for 2021.”
So why the optimism from the Giants? First, they improved and stabilized the coaching situation at that position, which was a factor last year. Second, the Giants believe that people get better at things the more they’re taught and the more they work at it.
Third, they believe that with most of the offense going into Year 2 of the same system, everyone will be more automatic rather than prone to overthinking things out there.
And finally, the improvement of the skill position players should help. No longer will the offensive line, for example, need to hold a block for more than a couple of seconds while Jones waits for a receiver to run 20+ yards down the field. The return of a healthy Saquon Barkley, he of tremendous vision, should also help spot those little creases upfront.
In short, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic regarding the offensive line, at least from the organization's perspective. But from the outside looking in, it’s certainly understandable to have doubts; after all, we’ve been told seemingly every year for the last several years things would be different, only to be let down.
And that’s why the “Show Me” group is starting to outnumber the believers when it comes to the Giants’ offensive line.
Andrew Thomas, Shane Lemieux, Nick Gates, Will Hernandez, Matt Peart, Nate Solder, Zach Fulton, Jonotthan Harrison, Kyle Murphy, Kenny Wiggins, Chad Slade, Jackson Barton, Brett Heggie, Jake Burton
The Giants have $32,047,996 committed to their offensive line this year, the 21st highest financial commitment to the position, per Spotrac and 17.28% of their 2021 salary cap. The average cap figure per person on the unit is $2.289 million.
Nate Solder, projected as a reserve swing tackle this year, leads the group with a $9.5 million cap hit (5.12% of the total cap). He is followed by Andrew Thomas, who has a $7.351 million hit (3.96%).
After Solder and Thomas, the unit tapers off a bit in the dollars. Center Nick Gates and guard Will Hernandez are both due to count for $3.325 million and $3.057 million, respectively.
After them, the Giants have just two more offensive linemen, veteran Jonotthan Harrison and second-year man Matt Peart, counting for over $1 million against the cap.
The remaining eight players under contract on the offensive line all count for under $1 million.
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1. Will the unit be better?
If you prescribe to PFF’s rankings, there’s nowhere for the league’s 32nd ranked offensive line to go but up. The experience gained by the members last year in what was a tumultuous season for them, what with their position coach, will help. Live reps always help. And it’s expected that the stabilizing of the coaching situation, which includes additional resources, will help.
Will the unit be a top-10 group this year? Probably not. But would the Giants take a middle-of-the-pack unit that cuts down on the pressures allowed and excels in opening holes for the running backs, regardless of if it’s Saquon Barkley or Devontae Booker? Yes.
2. Can Will Hernandez successfully transition from left guard to right guard?
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To his credit, Hernandez has been working his tail off to make that transition as seamless as possible. Hernandez also looks like he shed some of the extra bulk he was carrying around last year that appeared to slow him down, especially when he was asked to execute movement outside the phone booth.
That all being said, switching sides, especially when you’ve played one side virtually your entire life, isn’t easy. It’s like having to retrain yourself from using your right hand to your left hand for everything. It can be done, but it might not feel as comfortable or natural at first, and the results might be a little sloppier than if you did what was more natural.
But yes, it can be done, and how successful it turns out boils down to the individual and his will to make it work.
3. Where is the biggest question mark on the line?
I’m going to go with right tackle for two reasons. While it did come out that Matt Peart was dealing with an ankle injury late in the season—head coach Joe Judge first revealed that info in early December—throughout the season, Peart’s technique needed some refinement that one might argue he never really got (perhaps due to the unstable offensive line coaching situation).
Peart has the talent and the size to excel at the position, but things like a slow hand punch hurt him. The good news is that he’s been working on this and much more in the off-season. He's also appeared to have bulked up a bit in his upper body, which will help increase his chances of survival out there.
Still, that’s a lot of “what ifs” for a position that’s become just as critical as the left tackle. And that leads to the second reason. If Peart can’t cut it, can Nate Solder, projected as the backup, step in and play the role at a high enough level despite having not played right tackle since his rookie season?
What Would Surprise Me
The Giants add to the group before Week 1. Every time a veteran becomes available on the market, I get several reader communications suggesting that the Giants should sign the offensive lineman in question.
I don’t see it happening. And before I go into why let me clarify that this doesn’t mean I agree with the approach; I’m just trying to see things from their perspective and a business perspective.
The first reason why I don’t see it happening is money. According to Over the Cap, the Giants have $2,412,571 in cap space available as of now. That’s barely enough to get them through the regular season, what with all the practice squad elevations, promotions, and roster tweaking that take place throughout a season—and that’s not even including any emergency signings that will have to be made due to injury.
Now I know what you must be thinking: The Giants can find a way to scrape together money. The problem is they pretty much bled that tree dry in the off-season with their signings, and now if they’re to clear any other money, it’s going to come as players are cut from the training camp roster.
And if nothing else, remember this. Players on the Week 1 roster have their salaries count against the cap for the rest of the season. This is why you will often see teams signing veterans after Week 1, as those salaries now become prorated for however long the player is on the roster.
In short, waiting until after Week 1 to sign someone gives a team a little more flexibility in terms of its salary cap, which is why I don’t see the Giants knocking themselves out right now or even before the season to scrape money together (unless there s a rash of season-ending injuries to hit the unit).
The second reason why I don’t’ see the Giants adding to this group is they want to see what the line looks like with the pads on. Thus far, the early reviews on new offensive line coach Rob Sale have been positive.
As is the case every year, one doesn’t truly know what they have with the offensive line until the pads go on and the hitting starts. So just because guard David DeCastro is currently sitting out there, don’t expect the Giants to go banging down his door (and DeCastro, for what it’s worth, needs a third ankle surgery, and he has not ruled out retiring).
What Wouldn’t Surprise Me
The projected starting young line isn’t the Week 1 starting line. Whether it’s due to injury or performance, I’m not 100% convinced the projected starting offensive line of Andrew Thomas, Shane Lemieux, Nick Gates, Will Hernandez, and Matt Peart is what will be on the field for Week 1 versus Denver.
I get it—the only way this line will grow is to be out there playing, but that’s where the preseason games will be of the utmost importance. If I’m head coach Joe Judge, I get my projected starting five guys are many preseason game snaps as possible.
I also think it’s a big mistake not to have at least one truly seasoned veteran in that starting lineup. Currently, the most “senior” of the projected starting offensive linemen are Gates and Hernandez, who are entering their fourth NFL season. Gates, however, is entering his second as the full-time center while Hernandez’s struggles with handling some of the stunts that came on his side were rather painful to watch on tape.
In speaking with NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger for the LockedOn Giants podcast two weeks ago, we talked about removing veteran guard Kevin Zeitler from the roster. Zeitler not only was the unit’s most consistent player, but he was a calming presence on a young offensive line to where if something unexpected happened, Zeitler could fall back on his experience to help guys out.
Now? The Giants have veteran offensive linemen on the team. Still, those guys are projected to be on the sideline rather than in the trenches, which means they’ll have a different vantage point during a game than a veteran who was in the trenches. And I hope I’m wrong when I say this, but I think that’s a major mistake, especially given some of the defenses that unit is going up against this coming season.
Whether it’s someone already on the roster or someone they pick up after training camp cuts are made, I wouldn’t be stunned if a more seasoned veteran gets added to that starting unit.
Be sure to keep it locked on Giants Country all the time!