You could be forgiven if you predicted disaster when it came out that the New York Giants would be starting undrafted rookie offensive tackle Chad Wheeler against the Kansas City Chiefs. After all, the Chiefs boast one of the best pass rushers in the NFL in outside linebacker Justin Houston — who primarily rushes against right tackles.
After all, a former Giants’ offensive lineman wasn’t exactly optimistic about the match-up.
Oh man. Eli is going to be throwing the ball super quick today. https://t.co/wYUUGZNusd— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) November 19, 2017
Wheeler was regarded as a talented left tackle prospect, but slid out of the draft due to concerns about his play strength, injury history, and off-field incidents. The Giants were excited to be able to sign Wheeler after the draft, giving him the largest signing bonus of any of their undrafted free agents — twice what they gave receiver Travis Rudolph.
Surprisingly, the rookie Wheeler had a solid game against the All-Pro Houston, and fans were eager to get a closer look at the new piece on the offensive line.
We might. He and I will discuss b/c he did an excellent job. https://t.co/Z04EkpPuUO— Big Blue View (@bigblueview) November 19, 2017
Well ... Ask and ye shall receive.
Just don’t get too used to it!
Q1 - 8:37 - 3rd and 10 (NY 32-yard line) Giants 0, Chiefs 0
We start off with the Giants’ first attempt at a third down conversion of the game. They are in their “base” 11 personnel offense, in the shotgun set. The purpose of the package and formation is to spread out the defense and create room for a receiving option to get the first down.
With 10 yards needed to convert, this is an obvious passing situation, so the Chief’s rushers can simply pin their ears back and get after Eli Manning. Hardly a good position for Wheeler to be in against a premier pass rusher.
Wheeler initially stays close to Fluker, keeping a hand inside to ward against and inside move by Houston or a rush through the B-gap by the defender (it looks like Chris Jones) lined up there. Jones instead takes an inside move, and attacks the A-gap, while Houston takes an outside rush.
Wheeler has to make up a bit of ground to get to the landmark before Houston can get past him, but he is able to do it. His footwork is good enough, keeping a nice wide base to absorb Houston’s rush, bending his knees and dropping his hips to get his pad level down. Wheeler’s hand usage looks good, with at least one inside Houston’s shoulders and his arms fully extended. He is able to control the linebacker and Eli has an excellent pocket in which to step up and make the throw, as well as a nice throwing lane between Wheeler and Fluker.
The Giants failed to convert the third down (leading to their first called regular season fake punt since 2004), but that was due to a rookie mistake by Travis Rudolph, who ran a good route — just not far enough. Rather than running past the first down marker, he ran to it, then came up short as he worked back to the ball.
But for Wheeler, and the offensive line as a unit, this play is a definite win.
Q2 - 4:09 - 1st and 10 (NY 25-yard line) Giants 6, Chiefs 3
Moving on to the run game, we see the Giants in their 12 personnel package, with tight ends in-line to the left and Manning under center. The play is an outside zone run to the right.
With the tight ends aligned to the left, and a fake sweep from a wide receiver, the Giants are obviously trying to instill some confusion and slow the Chiefs down. It helps to manipulate the numbers game. The Chiefs are forced to shade the nose tackle to the center’s left shoulder, playing four defenders to the (offensive) left of the center, and just three defenders to the right. That means each blocker is only responsible for one defender, and the Giants can bring two of their strongest run blockers to bear.
Wheeler, D.J. Fluker, and Brett Jones do a very good job of clearing out a running lane for Darkwa.
Fluker starts off by doing what he does best and getting a nice block on Rakeem Nunez-Roches (number 99). Though the defender is lined up on Fluker’s outside shoulder, the guard is able to get under his pads and force him back toward the middle of the field, creating the inside seal for the running game.
Wheeler doesn’t dominate Houston on the outside, but he wastes no time getting his hands on him and stays between him and the play. More importantly, Wheeler sustains his block despite Houston’s repeated attempts to counter and make a play on the running back.
Finally, Jones works off the combo block with John Jerry on the nose tackle, somehow managing to avoid 99’s sprawling feet as he gets to the second level. Once there, Jones mauls linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who comes up to fill the B-gap, but gets shoved clear out of the play.
A DB is finally able to bring Wayne Gallman down, but this was a great play by the Giants’ offensive line
Q3 - 3:34 - 2nd and 5 (KC 34-yard line) Giants 6, Chiefs 3
Sticking with the run game, the Giants go even heavier, using a “13” or three tight end set.
Wheeler’s role in this play gets a bit hard to follow after his initial combo block with Fluker.
That, however, deserves mention. The Giants ran plays that saw Wheeler and Fluker work together in combo blocks. The two worked together very well, almost always driving their defender backward.
After they execute the double-team, Wheeler works up to the second level to block a linebacker (it appears to be number 56, Derrick Johnson). Wheeler shows a surprising amount of core strength and basically shoves him out of the way with one hand before engaging him on the left side of the scrum.
The run ultimately only goes for three yards, as the defender Fluker is blocking manages to get under his pads and disrupt his balance. Gallman might have been able to jump-cut back against the grain, but he is following his blockers and the design of the play. Ultimately the seam collapses, but it’s encouraging to see the teamwork between Wheeler and Fluker, as well as the “nasty” at the second level.
Q4 - 11:04 - 2nd and 4 (NY 9-yard line) Giants 6, Chiefs 6
Finally we have one last pass.
The Giants are in their two tight end package, with both Evan Engram and Rhett Ellison in-line. Both tight ends, as well as running back Orleans Darkwa, release into routes and the Chiefs only bring four rushers. After quickly scanning the middle of the field, both to see that Ellison is covered and keep Marcus Peters in the middle of the field, Manning throws to Darkwa back behind the line of scrimmage.
Thanks to the route combination there is plenty of room for Darkwa to pick up the first down.
Now, about the offensive line: This isn’t as clean a rep as Wheeler would probably like to put on tape.
Once again he is tasked with blocking Houston and the veteran gives him a rough go of it. Thanks to Houston’s alignment and the route run by Engram, Wheeler isn’t able to be as aggressive as on other reps. Houston capitalizes on this by starting to run a wide arc, setting Wheeler up for an outside rush, then quickly reversing course with the inside move. He times the move perfectly, just as Wheeler’s hips open all the way up and he is perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.
At that point he is effectively beat.
The rookie does manage to recover well, getting both hands on Houston’s outside arm and pushing him across the pocket and away from Manning (and his throwing lane).
All in all, this isn’t a terrible rep, but it probably went down as a pressure. Wheeler will want to continue to work on keeping his hips from opening that much and giving himself the chance to mirror the defender back inside. But, despite being beat he manages to not stay beat and salvage some of the rep.
As it so happens, I had been planning to take a deep dive into Wheeler’s college tape after the season was over. He fit the profile of a player who’s warts caused him to slip through the cracks, but might have a legitimate upside.
Wheeler getting his chance with the starting offensive line, and playing well enough to earn another opportunity this Thursday, will likely change that future post.
Just looking at Wheeler in his first action, a couple things stand out. First is how... “svelte” he is compared to the Giants’ other offensive linemen. And that isn’t just compared to the mammoth D.J. Fluker next to him. Compared to the other four linemen, the 6’7,” 306-pound (combine measurements) Wheeler looks as though he is built more along the lines of a tight end, and it’s particularly evident when there is a TE in-line next to him.
Coming out of the draft there were concerns about his play strength, and it shows up when he is asked to block against power. Even when he plays with proper leverage and solid technique he loses ground. Considering that he spent the previous off-season preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and not NFL games, certain allowances should be made, and he should be able to make strides once he is able to go through a proper off-season program.
It is too soon yet to say whether or not Wheeler will be a solution at right tackle for the Giants. He played well against a talented opponent in his first game, but that is a small sample size and Wheeler had the advantage of being a relative unknown to the Chiefs’ defense.
He shows promising traits, but his future is anything but certain. For now, though, he has certainly earned the right to remain a starter for Thursday Night Football.