The New York Giants selected Ereck Flowers ninth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft fully aware that he wasn’t a finished product. That there would be a learning curve. He was young, unpolished, technically-flawed. Yet, he was a massive, powerful, athletic player with the potential to be something difficult, yet incredibly important, to find.
A franchise left tackle.
The Giants, in desperate need of young, talented offensive linemen, thought Flowers worth the risk. Here is Giants Vice President of Player Evaluation Marc Ross after the pick was announced:
"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."
Things haven’t gone according to plan.
An injury to Will Beatty just weeks after Flowers was drafted forced the Giants to play him at left tackle long before they wanted to. Flowers’ struggles have been deeper, and more obvious, than expected. There has been some progress — Flowers went from Pro Football Focus’s lowest-graded tackle in 2015 to 59th out of 80 tackles in 2016. That progress, though, has not been as pronounced as the Giants hoped. Flowers allowed 59 quarterback pressures in 2016, second-most in the league.
Can Flowers play left tackle? Can he still become the anchor to the offensive line that the Giants believed they were getting? After two seasons, even the man who drafted him has begun to question whether or not Flowers can be what the Giants envisioned:
“It is time for him to show us the fruits of being a first round draft pick, and I still think he has a chance to do that. Is he the left tackle? Should he be in a different position? We will evaluate that,” GM Jerry Reese said recently at his season-ending press conference. “But I do think that he is a big, strong kid who has a chance to be a really good player, so I still believe he has a chance to be a good player.”
Let’s go back in time.
What did the scouting reports tell us about Flowers before the 2015 NFL Draft? Were there warning signs that perhaps Flowers was the wrong guy to bet on as a franchise left tackle?
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote that “Some of Flowers' pass protection issue may be difficult to overcome. On the hand, his strength as a run blocker and ability to uproot his man and get them turned is undeniable. Flowers may be drafted as a tackle, but his best position could end up being as a guard.”
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports foreshadowed how things would unfold with Flowers by writing “... needs to be more reliant on his hands and technique, not just his broad-shouldered frame and strength, but possesses the hard-working preparation habits to adapt with NFL coaching. ... late first round pick who could go higher due to his upside.”
Perhaps, though, it was former NFL defensive lineman Stephen White, writing for SB Nation, who raised the alarm bell that, in retrospect, was spot on:
“As for what kind of player Flowers is on the field, there are positives and then there are some negatives. One question for me when I was done watching him play in all five games was, do the negatives outweigh the positives? Or is the opposite true? I also wondered if the negatives were correctable. To be honest the second question was probably the more important of the two because I see a ton of potential in Flowers. Also, some of his flaws are just flat-out weird for a guy who started every game the last two years and four in his freshman season at The U. You just don't expect a guy with that much experience to repeatedly make those kinds of technique mistakes.”
Why can’t Flowers fix his technique?
Here is where this whole thing gets tricky. And sensitive.
Flowers was a three-year starter at Miami, a big-time college program with top-tier coaching that has produced plenty of quality NFL players. Yet, White pointed out a number of “weird” flaws in Flowers’ game that looked easily correctable by a quality coaching staff. Yet, they had not been.
With the Giants, Flowers has had two experienced, highly-respected offensive line coaches in his two seasons.
Pat Flaherty was offensive line coach for the Giants for 12 seasons, the entirety of Tom Coughlin’s head-coaching tenure. Players like Chris Snee, Rich Seubert, David Diehl, Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg were all developed under Flaherty’s tutelage.
Mike Solari, who took over in 2016, has been coaching in the NFL for 28 years, most of it tutoring offensive linemen. He served lengthy stints as offensive line coach for the Kansas City Cheifs (1997-2005) and San Francisco 49ers (2010-2014). In between he was offensive line coach of the Seattle Seahawks for two seasons. Solari is well-versed in the scheme coach Ben McAdoo wants to run, and the blocking required for it.
Yet, during two seasons in which the No. 1 priority of these two veteran coaches was to help Flowers improve his technique he has shown only marginal improvement. There are still way too many reps like the one below shown in a post by Joseph Ferraiola on Inside The Pylon where Flowers gets his timing screwed up, drops his head, is badly beaten and Eli Manning pays the price:
Talent evaluators seem to agree that Flowers is basically the same athletic, but technically-flawed player he was at Miami. That he has the same issues today that he did when the Giants drafted him.
So, Flowers has not really improved technically with three years of top-notch coaching at Miami and two at the NFL level.
Which brings us back to the simple question of “why?”
Flowers, simply, appears to be wasting his talent. Is he unwilling to learn, or unable? You would think that working diligently under the direction of good coaches would enable him to improve his technique, but it hasn’t happened.
So, where do the Giants go from here?
Could the Giants leave Flowers at left tackle for another year? It seems inconceivable that the Giants will just say “Flowers is our left tackle” and leave it at that. Things might turn out that way, but not before the Giants leave no stone unturned in an effort to find an upgrade.
Thing is, finding that upgrade won’t be easy. Analysts will tell you this is not a great offensive tackle draft class. There are, maybe, three players who might be Year 1 starting left tackles. Such players are hot commodities and maybe they will all be gone when the Giants select at No. 23.
The free-agent group is anything but deep. The best of the bunch is likely to be 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth, the very definition of a stop-gap solution for anyone who signs him.
Trades? Offensive tackle isn’t the Giants’ only hole. How many draft picks, how much of the future, might they be willing to mortgage for a short-term solution like Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns or Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers? If, that is, those teams are willing to deal.
Let’s assume for now that the Giants are able to find a left tackle for the 2017 season. Should Flowers play right tackle? Right guard? Will he be any better at either of those spots than he is at left tackle.
Reality is, Flowers will take his technique issues to whatever spot he plays. His kick-step isn’t going to magically get better simply because the Giants move him to right tackle. Neither is his hand usage. Switching sides won’t improve the timing of his punch. It won’t eliminate his habit of dropping his head or getting parallel to the sideline and letting speed rushers get around him.
Here is what one source told me about a potential position switch for Flowers:
“Don't think there's anywhere on the line that you can move him to that will make him a better player. Putting him at guard would be a disaster. He plays so high and doesn't punch at all. He'd get run over inside. I think Reese moves him to RT to try and salvage him, but I don't think it will go any better, beyond gross game plan changes.”
There is also this. Flowers has not played the right side since his freshman year at Miami. At right tackle, everything is the opposite of what he has done for the past four years. There are, from everything we have learned, questions about his commitment to learning. How diligent will he be in adapting?
What about moving to guard, the spot Zierlein said might be his ultimate destination? Kim Jones of NFL Network reported recently that “At least some in the organization do not view Flowers as a viable candidate to play guard.”
There is a similar divide in the scouting community.
Flowers is a much better run blocker than pass blocker. His run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in 2016 was a 78.3, while his pass-blocking score was only 39.4. He is a massive, powerful man whose natural athletic traits and ability to move would seem to translate well to the guard spot.
The problem? Flowers is 6-foot-6, tall for a guard playing against powerful, shorter interior defensive linemen, who has as one of his numerous technique issues difficulty in keeping his pad level low enough.
Let’s go back to White, who wrote in his pre-draft scouting report that Flowers “might be able to slide inside to guard if tackle doesn't work out.”
“Look, I know that there aren't many 6'6 guards around, and hey, if pad level issues keep Flowers from working out as a left tackle, then even thinking about him at guard could give you pause. However, remember when I mentioned how well he did in those five games, getting up on the second level to block linebackers and safeties on running plays? Well guards do that kind of thing a lot.
“It's not easy to find a guard of any size who can consistently get on linebackers and safeties, and stay on those blocks. I wouldn't say Flowers would make the transition as well as, say, (Zack) Martin did last season. However, I can see that being a viable plan B if a team isn't comfortable throwing him out there at tackle the first few years ... or ever.”
What is the answer? What is the right position for Flowers to play? Will he ever be the quality player his strength, athleticism and aggressiveness indicate that he could or should be?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that how Flowers’ career turn out isn’t up to Solari. It isn’t up to Reese. It isn’t up to McAdoo.
It is up to Flowers. Does he want to get better? Does he want to maximize his ability? Or, will he end up as just another guy who could have/would have/should have been better than he was?
Only he can answer that.