One of the first things Giants general manager Dave Gettleman vowed to do when he was hired in 2018 was to fix the team’s offensive line.
His initial attempt to fix the unit consisted of a draft pick (left guard Will Hernandez) and several free agents (Nate Solder, John Greco, Jamon Brown). He also added a waiver pickup (Spencer Pulley); and undrafted free agents/journeymen (Jon Halapio, Evan Brown).
That season, the Giants offense finished 17th in total yards (356.1), 24th in rushing (103.1), 11th in passing (252.9), and 16th in scoring (23.1 points/game). Meanwhile, per PFF, the offensive line allowed 97 total pressures and 25 of the 47 sacks allowed.
The 2019 version of the offensive line wasn’t much better. Despite many of the same starters returning (plus the addition of newcomers Kevin Zeitler at right guard and free-agent signee Mike Remmers at right tackle), Solder and Halapio struggled, the offensive line allowing a whopping 194 total pressures and 25 of the 43 sacks absorbed by the quarterbacks.
In 2020, Gettleman went full hog molly in the draft, adding left tackle Andrew Thomas in the first round, tackle Matt Peart in the third, and guard Shane Lemieux in the fifth.
The results were a little better—170 total pressures allowed and 26 of the 45 sacks recorded—but not spectacular, at least not at first glance. While every team in the league was affected by the global pandemic, not every team had a new offensive scheme, its position coach replaced mid-season, and a rotation to overcome.
At the end of the season, Gettleman was encouraged by what the offensive line showed.
“We've got some really nice, young pieces,” he said in his year-end press conference. “I think this offensive line can compete. You can cherry-pick here, cherry-pick there, in terms of which game you want to pick and how the offense did.
"The offensive line showed very good progress. They're big, they're young, they're strong and they're tough and smart. This O-Line has a chance to be pretty damn good.”
Only time will tell if he’s right, but it sure would be nice to see the line, ranked 30th overall by PFF in their year-end review, become one of the team's strengths.
Andrew Thomas (PFF Grade: 62.4)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 57 Pressures, 10 sacks
Thomas’ season can best be described as a rollercoaster. Consistently facing some of the league’s top pass rushers, he gave up 37 of his 57 total pressures in the first eight games. However, in the second half of the year, he settled down, pitching a shutout on the sacks department in four of those eight games.
It's certainly fair to wonder how much Thomas was affected by the ankle issue, as early on, he showed clumsy feet. To his credit, he battled through the ailment, which he supposedly had as far back as the start of training camp, and did all he could to get better.
Another inconsistent area that he ultimately straightened out was his hand punch. Earlier in the year, he was late in getting his hands up to strike a blow, but that improved as the season went on, as did his ability to handle the inside pass rush moves.
Then there is the impact of the position coach change. When Dave DeGuglielmo replaced the fired Marc Colombo, Thomas had a much better showing, save for the game against the Cardinals, a game that no one on the offensive line looked good.
DeGuglielmo, who pulls no punches, had nothing but praise for the rookie.
“He’s got talent, and he’s playing obviously at a premier position in this league. It’s not [easy] to do. I see the competitiveness that’s going to take him to have a solid career. …it always takes time for a rookie to elevate his game to what the others will be.
“I promise you this guy will get there, one way or another he’ll get there.”
Will Hernandez (PFF Grade: 58.1)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 25 Pressures, 1 sack
Hernandez began his NFL career with so much promise to where many people began dreaming of him being a perennial Pro Bowl guard.
Unfortunately, he hasn't lived up to those hopes. His performance began to decline in his second season and continued to slide this year when after playing through the first seven games, his PFF grades dropped like a rock, particularly in pass blocking (50.9), which had been his calling card in his first two seasons.
In 336 pass-block snaps, Hernandez was charged with allowing 25 pressures—six fewer than the career-high 31 he was charged within 2019 and four less than the 29 he allowed as a rookie.
In run blocking, one of Hernandez’s biggest struggles was when asked to execute a pull, he seemed to get there a split second too late.
Hernandez is at his best when plowing straight ahead where he can use his brute strength to move guys off the mark. And when it came to picking up stunts, that was an adventure as well.
Hernandez tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, so it's fair to wonder how much his strength and stamina were affected. With that said, it's also fair to wonder if what he does well makes him a fit for the power running game the Giants seem to want to run.
C Nick Gates (PFF Grade: 59.5)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 16 Pressures, No sacks
The biggest of the offensive line's preseason questions was Gates' conversion to center, a position at which he had never had live reps. Add to that no off-season or preseason games, and the bar wasn't set very high.
Gates, however, made his first season at center a resounding success. He shook off some early-season struggles and became more at ease with snapping the ball and then looking to hit someone--and he was always looking for work, as they say, which is something you want to see in any offensive lineman.
A tough competitor--Gates famously mixed it up with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald in Week 4 and then again with the Cowboys in Week 17--his grit reminded one of Richie Seubert, also an undrafted free agent who was as scrappy as they came.
Where Gates still had some hiccups was in making line calls, especially against blitzes. But even that got better as the more he saw of what defenses tried to do, the quicker he adjusted.
Gates was rewarded with a contract extension at the start of training camp, a sure sign that the organization believes in him for the future.
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RG Kevin Zeitler (PFF Grade: 65.9)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 28 Pressures, 2 sacks
Zeitler continued to deliver smart, solid play in his second season as a Giant, particularly in pass blocking. Other than for being beaten by bullrushes on a handful of occasions, Zeitler held his ground well.
His power game did appear to drop off if just by a little, causing one to wonder how much of a sore shoulder was at fault. He also didn't seem as quick on short and long pulls, again causing one to wonder if another ailment affected this previous strength in his game.
Overall, Zeitler got the job done, and while it wasn't always pretty, he made it work.
With that said, Zeitler carries a $14.5 million cap hit for 2021, which is currently the highest cap hit on the team. If the Giants were to move on from him, they'd save $12 million and take a $2.5 million dead money cap hit in a year where the salary cap floor could be as low as $175 million, making such a move a tough pill to swallow.
RT Cam Fleming (PFF Grade: 58.4)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 35 Pressures, 6 sacks
Initially projected to be a swing tackle after he signed a one-year deal with the Giants, Fleming was pressed into a starter's role when Nate Solder opted-out, which forced the coaches to move Andrew Thomas to left tackle.
For the most part, Fleming held his own, battling and finishing every play. His run-blocking wasn't always smooth, particularly in the early part of the year, but he got the job done.
For the most part, his pass blocking was solid, as he held up well against power rushers, his only notable struggles coming against speed.
Fleming is an unrestricted free agent who will probably want a starter's role and the money to go with it, something he wouldn't necessarily be guaranteed to get from the Giants.
Shane Lemieux (PFF Grade: 32.2)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 25 Pressures, 5 sacks
Lemieux took over at left guard in Week 8, when Hernandez tested positive for COVID-19, and he refused to let go of the starting job, only coming off the field on occasion so that Hernandez could get some rotational snaps.
Lemieux struggled with pass protection and, in particular, the swim move, but in the run game, he was a natural, showing an ability to adjust on the move.
Matt Peart (PFF Grade: 69.7)
- 2020 Stats (per PFF): 9 Pressures, 2 sacks
Initially thought to be a year-long project, when Peart received his opportunities, he made the most of them.
He dabbled a little at left tackle when Andrew Thomas was benched for a quarter after violating a team rule. Otherwise, Peart mostly rotated with Cameron Fleming.
Regardless of where he played, Peart was solid both in his technique and in his movement until a late-season ankle injury slowed his progress.
Overall, the third-rounder has all the physical tools to play the position; he needs a lot more coaching to iron out some of his technique's rough spots.
And Let's Not Forget...
Veteran guard/center Spencer Pulley, tackle Jackson Barton, and offensive lineman Kyle Murphy did not receive any snaps on offense on which to evaluate, and offensive tackle Nate Solder opted out of the season.
Pulley will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season and is unlikely to be re-signed. The coaching staff held on to Murphy, a versatile and younger offensive lineman who was with them in training camp and who can take over Pulley's role of providing depth along the offensive line's interior.
Barton, who was previously with the Chiefs before joining the Giants, might develop into a swing tackle if he can add some bulk in the off-season.
When Nate Solder opted out of the 2020 season, his contract tolled, meaning that if the Giants wanted to end the business relationship, it would potentially cost them two years of dead money on the signing bonus instead of one.
There is a small chance that if Solder wanted to continue playing and the Giants wanted him, he could have a role on this team as a backup tackle, but that wouldn't come at a $16.5 million cap hit.
But considering the COVID-19 virus, which is why Solder opted out in the first place, is unfortunately not going away even with vaccines' rollout, it wouldn't be surprising if Solder calls it a career.
If that were to happen, Solder would almost certainly be a post-June 1 cap transaction so the team can optimize their cap savings.
Such a move would yield $10 million in savings with a $6.5 million dead money cap hit (still a lot, but better than the pre-June 1 transition that would see $10.5 million in dead money get dumped into the 2021 cap.
On the whole, the offensive line's rebuild has taken its most significant steps to date. More work is to be done, but as Gettleman said, the unit does finally appear to be on the right track.
Other 2020 New York Giants Position Unit Reviews
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Receivers
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Tight Ends
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Running Backs
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Quarterbacks
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