After a brutal performance in 2013 the New York Giants began a reconstruction of their offensive line by signing Geoff Schwartz to a four-year free-agent contract and drafting Weston Richburg to be their center of the future.
Things were better in 2014, but not perfect, and not as planned. Schwartz spent most of the season on IR due to foot and ankle injuries. Richburg, largely because of Schwartz's injuries, ended up playing out of position at guard.
Fast forward to right now and the Giants seem closer to completing that reconstruction. Richburg should be the starting center after the release of J.D. Walton. Schwartz is expected to be healthy, and in the lineup at one of the guard spots. That means the Giants are settled on four starters along the line. Who will be the fifth?
For a couple of months now, mock drafts have focused on players like Brandon Scherff of Iowa, Andrus Peat of Stanford and La'el Collins of LSU as potential first-round draft picks who would be expected to fill that final spot, either playing left guard or right tackle with Justin Pugh moving inside.
The belief here, however, is that Giants general manager Jerry Reese will be aggressive in attempting to find that fifth starter in free agency, which begins with the "legal tampering window" on March 7. Players under contract cannot visit with or be signed by new teams, however, until March 10.
Look at it this way. The Giants will almost certainly be starting Richburg at center, a second-year player snapping the ball to Eli Manning for the first time in game action. Do you really believe Tom Coughlin, in a win or else year that could bring an end to his coaching career if things go badly, relishes the idea of playing a rookie left guard next to a first-time NFL center? I thought not.
Over the past few weeks, we have been reviewing players who might be targets for the Giants in free agency. Let's summarize the top potential fits for the Giants.
The Top Five
Orlando Franklin, G/T, Denver Broncos -- Has succeeded for the Broncos at both right tackle and guard, which makes the 27-year-old a natural fit for the Giants. Pro Football Focus says Franklin "has proved to be a competent right tackle that has thrived at guard." NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal pumps the brakes on Franklin a bit, saying "No one gets overpaid in free agency quite like the solid interior guard in a thin market. Like a lot of offensive players, Franklin has looked better while playing with Peyton Manning." ESPN's Bill Polian only lists Franklin as a "C" prospect in free agency. NFL.com ranks him No. 30 among free agents. [Franklin profile]
Clint Boling, G, Cincinnati Bengals -- The Cincinnati guard has spent most of his at left guard with the Bengals, making him another natural fit for what the Giants need. The fact that he will only be 26 next season also makes him attractive. NFL.com ranks Boling No. 52 on its list of the top 101 free agents and says "True starting guards like Boling usually get paid big money on the open market." [Boling profile]
Bryan Bulaga, RT, Green Bay Packers -- The most accomplished of the pure right tackles on the free-agent market. "The best tackle available, Bulaga has battled his injuries and that probably limits what you're prepared to give him long term, but he's a very capable right tackle," says Pro Football Focus. If the Giants are convinced they need to move Justin Pugh inside, they could make a big run at Bulaga. If the Packers let him reach the open market. Bulaga gets a "B" from ESPN's Polian. NFL.com ranks him 15th overall among free agents, calling him a "rock-solid starter." [Bulaga profile]
Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49ers -- Great run blocker, poor pass protector. You'd really have a heckuva player if you could combine Iupati's run blocking with John Jerry's pass blocking. Reports are that Iupati will have several suitors, and that the Giants don't appear to be one of them. Still, he has to be on the list. "A fun guy to watch in the run game, where he just bulldozes all and sundry. Would be higher if he was healthier and, more importantly, wasn't such a liability in pass protection," says Pro Football Focus. Iupati gets a B+ from ESPN's Polian. [Iupati profile]
Joe Barksdale, RT, St. Louis Rams -- There are more accomplished players who could have been the final member of this top five. I put Barksdale here, however, because he is still only 26 and should be entering his best seasons. Has only been a full-time starter for two years. [Barksdale profile]
Doug Free and Jermey Parnell split right tackle with the Dallas Cowboys a season ago. Only one of them seems likely to be retained. Seattle offensive guard James Carpenter, Atlanta Falcons guard Justin Blalock are other players who could be available.