The Giants made a concerted effort to improve their rushing attack in the 2018 draft when they spent the second overall pick on Saquon Barkley and the 34th selection on UTEP guard Will Hernandez.
The Giants were able to see their efforts manifest themselves on the football field in 2018, where Barkley rushed for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Giants, they finished 5-11.
Despite the losing season, the Giants seemed to find a linchpin left guard. According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez had a very solid rookie season; he finished 26th in offense, 38th in pass blocking, and 42nd in run blocking (out of all guards) as a rookie.
But more important than their grades was the amount of consistency Hernandez displayed on film.
His block framing was much better than what we’ve seen since his rookie season, and he still had his unique strength. It seemed like Hernandez would only get better, but development isn’t linear, and different situations don’t always yield positive results. Hernandez struggled in his second season and finished 74th in offense, 33rd in pass blocking, and 117th as a run blocker.
The pass protection seemed to be just fine, but his run blocking--something that he didn’t struggle with at UTEP--was an issue. It didn’t seem like Hernandez, left tackle Nate Solder, or center Jon Halapio were consistently in sync.
The offense relied on big runs from Barkley to make the average rushing totals look acceptable.
Fast forward to 2020, which wasn’t a great year for Hernandez. After contracting COVID-19, he missed two games, but then after recovering, he found himself benched midway through the season for rookie fifth-round pick Shane Lemieux.
Whether COVID was a factor in his benching remains a mystery that neither Hernandez nor head coach Joe Judge want to clear up. Still, it's certainly fair to wonder how much Hernandez might have been affected by the virus after he recovered.
That said, before the illness, Hernandez was a frustrating player who would flash high-quality blocks in numerous situations (ACE, DEUCE, Inside Zone, anchoring down, and even while pulling). Yet, it was far from consistent, and miscommunications, along with ostensible lethargy that led to poor positioning and disadvantageous situations, seemed to be evident.
The Giants offensive line is young and inexperienced. Hernandez is the longest-tenured presumed starting offensive linemen with Nick Gates at center (second year at the position, but was undrafted in 2018), Shane Lemieux at the opposite guard spot (presumed left guard in second season), Andrew Thomas at left tackle, and Matt Peart on the right side (provided that Nate Solder does not start).
The addition of offensive line coach Rob Sale could help these neophytes develop into a core unit that can maximize the showings by quarterback Daniel Jones and the rest of the offense, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.
Although Hernandez has struggled in his young career, I’m more optimistic about his capability over a player like Lemieux, a good run blocker but struggles in pass protection.
Hernandez is quick on his feet for a 330-pound player. He’s also reportedly trimmed his weight down and has been getting himself ready for the right guard position.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that Hernandez may be in for a good season heading into a contract year, so let’s break down why this might be the case and why we should still have some reservations in this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly.
(Will Hernandez is No. 71)
The Good: Pass Protection Capability
Hernandez does a solid overall job in pass protection; his anchor holds up well -- he can get caught lunging at times -- but his quick feet and good posterior strength allow him to execute his assignments reliably.
Hernandez is solid once engaged with a defender and does well with his adjustments to mitigate a defenders ability to set up counter moves and separate with ease.
The 3-technique here establishes quick position inside of Hernandez, putting him into a precarious position. Roy Robertson-Harris (95) tilts his body to go towards a half-man relationship up the field while using his length for separation.
However, Hernandez grabs the cloth and pulls Robertson-Harris into his frame while using his momentum to ride him up the arc with little to no ability for a counter; this is possible because of the body position of Hernandez and the hand fighting.
Once Hernandez’s outside arm is knocked off the rusher, he quickly reestablishes and pulls tight while shifting his weight into the rusher and getting his inside arm on the hip of Robertson-Harris.
The rusher continues to attempt a win around the EDGE, but there’s no positioning to do so because of Hernandez's grip strength and framing. It’s a good adjustment from Hernandez -- it might not be the best technique -- but it worked!
In week one, the Giants offensive protection gets out-schemed here in a 3x2 manner with Andrew Thomas having to kick out wide, leaving Will Hernandez against the 4i-technique and the blitzing linebacker in the A-Gap -- this is a terrible situation to find oneself in.
Hernandez handles it very well, and there are a lot of moving components to the play. Gates should have just picked the blitzer up, but the Steelers slanted their 2i-technique inside to occupy the center.
This puts Hernandez in a bad position where he has to worry about two threats. He makes contact with both rushers to each side of him; he then subtly pulls down on the outside shoulder pad of the blitzing linebacker.
This forces the linebacker to fall to the deck, and then Hernandez quickly diverts his attention towards the next biggest threat - the 4i-technique. He eats a quick swipe move that disregards Hernandez’s outside arm, but the guard is swift to get his hands back inside of the rusher and then gets his feet set to provide just enough time for Daniel Jones to get rid of the football.
I wish Hernandez’s anchor was a bit more consistent, but when all things are clicking, he has the ability just to stonewall rushers. Vinny Curry (75) attempts to bull-rush Hernandez from a wide alignment, and the guard just absorbs the contact, pulls the rusher into his frame, sets a firm base, and brings him to the ground while quickly recollecting himself and engaging his core. This is a textbook anchoring job upon contact by Hernandez.
Hernandez does it against Javon Hargrave (No. 93) as well; the guard stabs with his inside arm and makes the contact to which Hargrave attempts to convert his speed inside to a powerful bull-rush, yet Hernandez sits on the drive and absorbs the attempt. This is the type of anchor and adjustment ability that the Giants need from their interior offensive lineman.
The Great: Overall Power/Strength
Hernandez was always an incredibly strong player; at the combine, he did 37 bench press reps at 225 pounds which ranked him in the 97th percentile for interior offensive lineman - that is ridiculous! This strength is on display throughout his film.
A lateral zone run from the Giants puts Hernandez in a position to reach the 4-technique after Andrew Thomas (No. 78) is done blocking him.
Hernandez is quick to flip his hips, which really helps him in so many situations, and it does here as well. He doesn’t necessarily flip them, but he gets them oriented in the right direction as he steps laterally and starts to angle his body towards the inside shoulder of the 4-technique.
Thomas gets tossed to the ground as he attempts to come off the block, but Hernandez is there to engage with great upper body strength to shove the defensive linemen to the ground.
Hernandez and Thomas’s job is to create a double team on the 3-technique, but Hernandez needs to make clean contact, for the positioning of Thomas makes for a difficult scoop type of block.
Hernandez’s responsibility is to contact the defender’s inside shoulder and wait for a clean transition off the DEUCE block up to the second level.
The defender is jolted back by the drive of Hernandez, who then locates a second-level defender and drives him backward. That initial jolt gives Thomas a better opportunity to execute his assignment.
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This is not an easy block here from Hernandez against Washington’s Jonathan Allen (93). He’s the play side guard on the counter run, and he has to get to Allen’s inside shoulder in a scooping manner while driving him outside to create a lane.
Hernandez does well to limit Allen’s space throughout the play; initially, he gains control of the outer portion of Allen while “splitting” the defender by getting his inside leg into the middle portions of Allen.
He then uses his strength to bully Allen outside while flipping his hips in that direction and using his power to displace Allen laterally. Allen attempts to create separation on a second effort, but Hernandez does a great job reestablishing his inside shoulder on Allen’s outside shoulder to help clear a path.
There seems to be a miscommunication with Cameron Fleming (75), but I love how Hernandez can quickly pull and locate the most dangerous man in this trap type of situation.
The power of Hernandez eliminates the defender, but the actual end man on the line of scrimmage ended up being unblocked, and he made the tackle.
This is a great athletic play from Hernandez, who initiates a block on the 3-technique before quickly coming off the block due to the realization that a blitz is overwhelming Thomas. Hernandez plants his inside foot and explodes outside while quickly flipping his hips and finding a pass rusher.
He then re-sinks his center of gravity and explodes through his hips to send Kenny Young (41) flying outside. This creates an easy rushing lane for Devonta Freeman (31).
This play shows fluid hips, change of direction, coming to balance, explosiveness, good hurried technique, strength, processing, and just overall awareness.
Hernandez shows very good patience on this stunt. He awaits the loop inside and then reacts to the penetrating Michael Brockers (90) by violently attacking the defender while engaged with Nick Gates (65).
He’s always been a player to look for work in pass protection, and he shows the strength when he explodes low to high by uncoiling his hips upon contact and driving through defenders.
LOOK FOR WORK! Hernandez diagnoses the threats and goes through them quickly before letting himself loose to deliver a big hit on an engaged defender. This is punishing defenders and just putting them down on the ground in pass protection.
I like Hernandez’s quick ability to recover after a mistake or after a very good power pass-rushing move from an opponent. Watch how he overextends himself on the punch and leaves himself a bit vulnerable to the outside spin from Cameron Heyward (97).
He senses the mistake, gets his head flipped, and then pivots off his inside plant foot to get his hips flipped and make contact on Heyward as he’s about to crash the pocket. What an excellent recovery after the initial struggle.
The Ugly: Consistency
There are a lot of positive plays throughout this piece so far, but, sadly, Hernandez wasn’t always consistent with his anchor, or his strength, or his ability to seal in the run game, or even climb off combos.
As much as I appreciate his hip movement in recovery situations and his quicker-than-advertised feet, there’s also concern that lies with his ability to protect his edges against a defender that isn’t in his grasp.
Hernandez has 32” arms which is in the fifth percentile among guards in the NFL. If he doesn’t have some cloth which ultimately leads to him restricting the defender’s space and impeding their movement, then he has susceptibility around his edges, as we see above and below.
Both defenders, especially in the first video, do a great job bending through the contact of Hernandez, who is sent frantically attempting to keep up with their speed.
In both plays, he struggles ever to get a clean look at the defenders, and he also attempts to use his strength, but the low center of gravity of the first clip, and the distance/speed of the second clip, render his typically potent strength ineffective.
The entire protection breaks down on this play, but Hernandez is just pushed back by Kevin Givens (No. 90). He gets put on skates and doesn’t do a good job establishing a platform to absorb contact; look at his feet--they’re directly underneath him with a high center of gravity at the point of contact.
This puts Hernandez in a position to be bullied backward, and Givens uses his length to keep the guard away from his frame. Givens dictates the entire play, and Hernandez keeps getting pushed back and is a step late to every hand movement Givens employs. The play just looks like Hernandez wasn’t ready for the power of a player like Kevin Givens.
This play is against Aaron Donald (No. 99), so yeah, but even so, Hernandez’s pad level is too high, his base gets way too wide, and he just looks very uncomfortable and unconfident in his set. Just a guess, but Aaron Donald will do that to people.
A bit later in the game, in a passing situation, Hernandez gets tunnel vision against this Rams’ stunt that uses Donald to occupy both Thomas and himself. Hernandez, who is typically solid with his processing, loses sight of the looping inside Rams’ defender; he gets locked into Donald and dips his head downward, and there’s no one around to protect the A-Gap.
Jones is able to just get the football off before taking a big hit, but mental mistakes are frustrating, even if they're not super common.
We’ve seen how good Hernandez’s anchor can be against good competition, but there are these occasional reps where he just gets pushed back by a long-arm stab. It looks as if he has little understanding of how to sink his hips, position his feet, and anchor down --- something we know he can perform and perform well.
He’s up against a 4i-technique, and he sets just a bit too far outside and, when contact is initiated, Hernandez’s feet are in a terrible position to absorb contact.
Hernandez didn’t have the best season before being benched. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked 83rd in offense, 80th in run blocking, and 90th in pass blocking. A lot of those pass blocking errors were miscommunications with Thomas and Gates -- not all of them were Hernandez’s fault -- but mistakes like that must be corrected heading into 2021.
He only surrendered one sack last season, but 25 pressures are still too much in 336 pass-blocking reps. I remain cautiously optimistic about Hernandez heading into the season, as I do with the entire offensive line. However, I’m more uneasy about the entire unit than I am with just Hernandez.
The Giants are trusting their ability to develop young offensive lineman in a pivotal third year for their quarterback Daniel Jones. It could lead to five cheap players playing on their rookie contracts (outside of Gates, who is still on a cheap deal) putting everything together as the Giants win the NFC East. Or it could all implode to leave the Giants needing to invest even more assets into this offensive line.
Hopefully, we will be discussing the former at the end of the season.
MORE "GOOD, GREAT & UGLY" BREAKDOWNS
WR Kelvin Benjamin | RB Devontae Booker | RB Corey Clement | OLB Lorenzo Carter | CB Isaac Yiadom | TE Kaden Smith | WR Kenny Golladay | TE Levine Toilolo | Edge Ifeadi Odenigbo | DT Danny Shelton | OL Zach Fulton | CB Adoree' Jackson | TE Evan Engram | S Jabrill Peppers | S Xavier McKinney | ILB Reggie Ragland | WR John Ross | TE Kyle Rudolph | OLB Oshane Ximines | LB Carter Coughlin | DL Dexter Lawrence II | WR Darius Slayton | LB Cam Brown | DL Leonard Williams
Be sure to keep it locked on Giants Country all the time!