The 2015 season wasn't always pretty for New York Giants first-round pick Ereck Flowers, forced by injury to sink-or-swim at the difficult and critical left tackle position. Will 2016 be better? Let's focus on Flowers as we continue our player-by-player profiles of the 90-man roster the Giants will bring to training camp later this summer.
2015 Season in Review
Pro Football Focus called Flowers the "worst pass-blocking tackle in football" in 2015. Per PFF, Flowers allowed more pressures than any other tackle in the league. Here are PFF's overall numbers for Flowers:
2015 PFF NFL grade: -44.1 (76th-highest OT in NFL)
Flowers wasn't horrendous in run-blocking as a rookie, though he didn't play well, either, grading at -4.0. He was completely overwhelmed as a pass-blocker, though, allowing five sacks, 17 hits, and 47 hurries in 2015.
OK, now let's move on from that bludgeoning Flowers and add some perspective to his rookie season.
Let's start with the reality that the Giants knew when they selected him that Flowers would be a work in progress, that there were technique issues his brute strength and raw athleticism wouldn't always cover. Here is part of what I wrote in an analysis of Flowers when the Giants selected him:
Jerry Reese and the Giants have always loved measurables. Flowers has them in spades. They have always loved size and athleticism, the physical profile of what they like being something they value highly. Flowers checks those boxes, much more so than the probably more polished Andrus Peat. Flowers checks off the character box, as well. He also checks off one other box, and it is the one that most people who are not convinced this was the right move for the Giants point to. Flowers is very young, very raw, very much a work in progress. He is a project, maybe more of one than you might like to take on with the ninth pick. It wouldn't be a shocker if Flowers struggles mightily at the beginning as he tries to adjust to the right side and work through some of the technique issues analysts have pointed to.
So, what box does all of that check off? It checks off the 'draft for the long term' box. It is what the Giants did when they drafted Jason Pierre-Paul and it's what they try to do whenever they can. They draft a player because of what they think he can be, not necessarily because of what he might be today.
In that same post, VP of Player Evaluation Marc Ross said:
"He is a man-child physically. He is gigantic. He has long arms. He just turned 21 on Saturday. Super productive against the highest level of competition there, the Florida States and the Nebraskas. He is a good player who is just scratching the surface of how good he can be. ...
"The guy is 20. They all have technique flaws. Nobody is ready-made to play in the NFL. Even fourth- or fifth-year seniors. They all can improve. He is just learning to play, but even with technique flaws, the guy was a productive and dominant player at times. ... A franchise left tackle is a rare commodity. There are not many of those guys around the league and we think this guy has the ability, the upside, the potential, the toughness, the smarts and the competitiveness to be a franchise left tackle for us."
If you want another opinion, go back and look at the instant reaction from "Invictus" after the Giants selected Flowers.
The Will Beatty injury put more responsibility on Flowers' shoulders than the Giants wanted to give him, forcing them to abandon the plan of starting him at right tackle for a year. Instead, he played the left side and struggled. If anyone expected he wouldn't, they were kidding themselves. Go back and look at the recent history of rookie left tackles, and it is littered with struggle. Greg Robinson (2nd) and Jake Matthews (6th) from the 2014 class and Eric Fisher (first overall) and Luke Joeckel (2nd) struggled out of the gate in 2013.
Flowers also dealt for a good portion of the season with an ankle injury, but still played in and started 15 games.
We did a Google+ Hangout with Dan Hatman of The Scouting Academy and Performance Consultant and Offensive Line Specialist Duke Manyweather early in Flowers' rookie season. Perhaps it might be useful to look back at that.
2016 Season Outlook
Where we are at with Flowers is that what happened in his rookie season no longer matters. What matters now is whether or not Flowers gets better in Year 2.
When the Giants played the Miami Dolphins in Week 14 last season, Olivier Vernon was in the midst of a dominant stretch that helped him earn a five-year, $85 million deal with $52.5 million guaranteed. Coming off his best game of the year, 2.5 sacks and six tackles, Vernon had three quarterback hits, two tackles and no sacks working against Flowers. A relatively quiet game.
Now, Vernon lines up against Flowers in practice. Even though the Giants are in shorts and t-shirts during OTAs, Vernon said he can see improvement from the second-year left tackle.
"Ereck Flowers, he's a talented young guy. He's got a bright future ahead of him. He's just gotta keep working on his technique, but in the future he's gonna be a monster, I believe," Vernon said.
"He's just gonna get better each and every year."
Late last season media had the opportunity to speak with then-Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty. Here is part of what Flats said about Flowers:
"I really like his attitude, his play strength, he wants to be a tackle in the NFL. His technique was something that we knew needed to get better. I think you see flashes of his technique. As a coach, I don't see enough of it yet, but that's coaching more than playing and he's got to learn to trust the NFL technique," Flaherty said earlier this week. "It's really difficult for a young player when he gets in -- he'll do it in practice, he works hard at it in practice, he's the kind of guy you love to coach, but when you get into a game situation, a lot of times the young players revert back to what they've been doing."
Part of what I wrote in that same post is also still applicable:
This is a 21-year-old kid who, because of the injury to Will Beatty, was asked to take on more responsibility than the Giants wanted to give him. All-in-all, no matter what the PFF grades say, Flowers has done an acceptable job. He has had ups and downs, as you would expect, and has shown in those flashes that he could be very good for a very long time.
The question is whether or not we will still be talking about those technique breakdowns a year from now. Knowing how hard the young man works and how professionally he takes his responsibility my guess is we see a huge improvement by the middle of the 2016 season.
Can Flowers minimize the technique breakdowns as a second-year player? There will likely always be some, but can he stay with his fundamentals more consistently in Year 2? Can he go from atrocious pass blocker to adequate one? Can he make progress toward becoming the long-term answer at left tackle the Giants hoped he would be when they selected him ninth overall a year ago?
"Ereck came back with a great mentality, he was ready to work," left guard Justin Pugh said after a recent OTA. "The sky is the limit for him. I can just see it already, the mentality he has and he wants to be great."
New Giants offensive line coach Mike Solari said earlier in the offseason that he and Flowers "have some things that we need to work on," but lauded him for improving during his rookie season.
"Absolutely, yes [his technique improved], you saw that throughout the season in his play and as a rookie coming into the NFL, it is a challenge, especially now with how college football is going more to the passing game and less in three-point stances, so there are some things that are a tremendous learning curve as far as technique and fundamentals for young offensive linemen coming into the NFL," Solari said.
The template for what the Giants hope to see from Flowers was provided in 2015 by Matthews. He was atrocious as a rookie in 2014, allowing seven sacks and 51 pressures. Matthews finished among the top 20 tackles in the league in 2015, per Pro Football Focus, and allowed just 38 total pressures.
Flowers doesn't have to be an All-Pro in 2016. He just has to be noticeably better than he was as a rookie. With all the gnashing of teeth over the right side of the Giants offensive line, if Flowers is better this season that unit as a whole will be better. And it will feature at least three long-term anchors with Flowers, Pugh and Weston Richburg. If Flowers isn't better, that will be alarming.