In the aftermath of the Cleveland Browns' decision to use the transition tag to retain All-Pro center Alex Mack, the New York Giants are left with one less option to rebuild the offensive line this offseason. It has been widely assumed that the Giants would look to sign both a center and a guard in free agency, with the other guard position being determined in one of two ways: (1) in-house competition between Chris Snee, Brandon Mosley, James Brewer, Eric Herman, or (2) the drafting of either Zack Martin or Taylor Lewan, the latter of which would force RT Justin Pugh to move inside.
But those constructs may go out the window now that Mack is essentially off the market.
The Giants now face a decision at center that involves no good options. The club can either (1) sign a journeyman center like Evan Dietrich-Smith or Brian De la Puente—neither of whose teams, or fan bases, seem in any rush to get them back—and likely overpay to obtain their services, (2) look to the oft-injured David Baas to return to form as the starter, or (3) draft a new center from a weak class and count on a rookie to step in and start.
But there is one more option.
When the Giants drafted Justin Pugh in Round 1 of the 2013 draft, no one quite knew for sure where he was going to play. He was a left tackle who, it was said, was versatile enough to play all 5 positions on the line. His technical proficiency offset his lack of ideal size, strength and arm length, and it was thought that, by virtue of his body type, his ideal position would ultimately not be at either tackle position, but inside.
If Justin Pugh is indeed capable of moving inside, would it make sense to consider going all the way and move him to arguably his highest value position on the line—center?
Let's look at some pros and cons.
1. Price. Signing Alex Mack might have cost the Giants $9M a season. Pugh would be on a rookie contract and spare the Giants from spending significant free agent money on a center, and especially overpaying for a mediocre one.
2. Physical Profile. Pugh has already established himself as a very solid NFL right tackle. But his effectiveness might be capped at a position where he does not fit the ideal physical profile. Moving to center could enable him to go from a very good right tackle to a dominant center. His height, weight, athleticism, and even arm length would now be ideal for the position.
3. Positional Importance. In today's NFL, the center position has risen sharply in value perception. (In pure market economics terms, a Top 5 center is paid more than a Top 5 right tackle. Right tackle is actually the least valuable OL position, and it can be argued that Pugh is being wasted there.) As the captain of the line, the center position requires high intelligence and leadership ability. Pugh has all of that in spades. As a bright, focused, hard working, and high character individual, it is not difficult to see Justin Pugh becoming the captain and anchor of the Giants' OL for the next decade.
1. Time. The Giants need to have their offensive line in top working order by the start of the season. It would be difficult for Pugh to learn the center position quickly enough to be full-go by September. The spring and summer would be one of growing pains and a significant learning curve.
2. Right Tackle. Moving Pugh to center would leave a hole at right tackle that would have to be filled, and it is likely to be an expensive investment, either through the draft or free agency. A high-priced free agent or high draft pick would be required to be able to step in and start immediately, unless someone like James Brewer could seize the job.
3. Risk. The experiment might ultimately turn out to be a failure. If Pugh does not successfully make the transition, the Giants would be in trouble at the heart of their offensive line. And the costs of that failure would be steep across the entire offense. It is not a slam dunk that Pugh would be able to make the switch.
In weighing the pros and cons, I believe the Giants would be wise to seriously consider moving Justin Pugh to center—with a lot of careful analysis by Pat Flaherty and the coaching staff. Based on what we know about him, his work ethic, smarts and character, if anyone can make the leap to a new position, it would be Pugh.
Long-term, the upside is enormous. In time, he could provide the Giants an All-Pro quality talent at a premium position, and become a rock that stabilizes the entire line for a decade.
For 2014, the move would also allow the Giants to be more flexible in their free agent pursuits and in the draft, where there are far more guards and right tackles available in the early rounds. Conceivably, the team could look to add one free agent guard, like Geoff Schwartz, and one high draft pick, like Taylor Lewan in Round 1 or Tiny Richardson in Round 2, and the line would be set, and at fairly low cost.
A line that looks like this would be both formidable and nasty, able to protect Eli and mash opponents in the run game:
Beatty - Mosley - Pugh - Schwartz - Lewan
While there's no way to know how such an experiment would work out, I believe moving Pugh to center is a significantly better option than any of the 3 options mentioned earlier. I hope the Giants will at least explore the possibility.