While the New York Giants are dealing with a lost season right now, they also have to be concerned with a number of pressing questions for their future.
The future of Eli Manning and their quarterback position. The impending free agency of Odell Beckham Jr., and, eventually, Landon Collins. Any front office and coaching staff changes that get made between now and when the construction of the 2018 Giants has to begin.
There is a lot to be waded through for the Giants going forward.
Lost in all of that is the fact that four of the Giants’ five best starters on the offensive line are free agents after the season. Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, D.J. Fluker, and Brett Jones.
Jones is a restricted free agent, so he will almost certainly be back next season. However, that still leaves the Giants’ starting left guard (or right tackle), center, and right guard all hitting free agency in the same period.
At this point the feeling here is that Pugh has proven himself as almost absolutely necessary to re-sign. He is a solid right tackle and a very good guard, a leader on the offensive line, and the kind of lunch pail worker the Giants can (and should) build around. It also helps that he would be one of the best linemen in free agency.
But what to do about Fluker, Jones, and Richburg?
Former Giants’ center Shaun O’Hara was complementary of Jones’ work coming off the bench for the injured Richburg.
"I think Brett Jones has actually done a really good job. I think he's been phenomenal in the run game and he's a little spark plug. He's like the size of a fire hydrant, but he’s got really run action,” O’Hara said. “One of the things we always say as o lineman is 'get your feet out of the hole.' It creates movement in the run game, but also protects you from guys falling on your ankles, that's how you get hurt. He does a great job getting his feet out of the hole on back blocks and a lot of those 'A' gap runs that we saw Orleans Darkwa bust against Denver."
Jones has caught my eye whenever he has been on the field, and as the Canadian Football League’s “Most Outstanding Rookie,”, and “Most Outstanding Lineman,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that he is good. However, people might forget just how good Weston Richburg is as well. Playing through a torn ligament in his hand he was still one of the best pass protecting interior linemen in the NFL in 2016, and arguably the best center in the league in 2015.
He is on the injured reserve with a concussion (and I certainly hope he is listening to the doctors and taking the time to heal fully — brain injuries are nothing to mess around with), and if he is able to resume his career, that might make him affordable for the Giants.
But has Jones done enough to make Richburg just another in the long list of linemen drafted by the Giants in the second round to depart after their rookie contracts?
And what about D.J. Fluker? The free-agent addition was an afterthought in the clamor by fans for someone — ANYONE — not named “Ereck Flowers” to play left tackle. However, since he secured a starting job his power and enthusiasm have helped the Giants rediscover a long dormant running game.
There hasn’t been much to be excited about in the Giants’ offense since 2015, but of late their ability to run the ball has been fun to watch. While leaning on the run game is a necessity in the absence of OBJ, the presence of Jones and Fluker on the line is being credited for its recent success.
But have the two done enough to make themselves viable options for the Giants after this season?
Let’s go to the tape.
Play - 1
1st Q - 10:49, 1st-and-10, Giants’ 33-yard line
We’ll start with the first play of the Giants’ second drive and in terms of pure, old school football, this was one of the best drives of the last two years. It was balanced, methodical, and decidedly physical. Everything we have longed to see from the Giants.
The play itself will be very familiar to you very shortly (if it isn’t already). The Giants are in their “12” personnel package, with Orleans Darkwa as the single running back while Rhett Ellison and Matt LaCosse are the two tight ends. It is a simple inside zone run to the right, which has formed the basis for the Giants running game. They have also added a “Pin and Pull” concept, which sees John Jerry pulling from his left guard position around to the right, which is something you would normally see in a man-gap blocking scheme and not a zone scheme.
We’ll focus on Jones first. He has the incredibly unenviable task of having to block Aaron Donald, but he does a good job. Jones quickly identifies Donald, and — as O’Hara mentions — gets his feet clear of the “junk” at the line of scrimmage. Keeping a nice, wide base, dropping his hips to absorb Donald’s rush with leverage. There is a quick hand battle between the two and Jones is forced back about half a step or so. But, he keeps Donald out of the backfield and keeps him from disrupting the timing of the pulling guard. All in all, count this as a win for Jones.
Moving on to Fluker, he gets to block nose tackle Tanzel Smart. Fluker fires off the ball with his usual gusto, practically blind-siding Smart with his block. Fluker jolts the smaller defensive tackle, driving him back and creating plenty of room for the blocks to his right to open the running lane. The big guard’s hand usage looks solid, getting inside Smart’s frame followed by a snap of the hips to move him back and away from the hole. It looks as though Fluker winds up tripping on Jones’ right leg, but the play is already past him.
Play - 2
2nd Q - 14:52, 1st-and-10, NYG 25-yard line
Spinning ahead a bit, let’s get a look at Wayne Gallman running the ball.
Once again we have an inside zone run, to the right, out of a “12” personnel package (with Ellison and LaCosse), and a pull from the right guard. The Giants have run this play several times already, and the Rams appear to be ready for it, with their linebackers reading the pulling guard and coming around to attack the right B gap. That would be the right move, except that Gallman doesn’t follow the guard. Instead exploding through the A-gap, between Jones and Fluker, while the linebackers are sucked out of the gap.
This play is pretty much made by Jones, who gets a great block on Smart, once again using his leverage, getting under the defensive tackle’s pads and turning him perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, opening the hole and taking him out of the play. His hand use appears solid, winning the position battle with his hands inside, giving him control over the DT.
Fluker doesn’t get a great block on Alec Ogletree, almost sliding off him in the open field. However, he easily moves him out of the hole and does get enough of him to keep the athletic linebacker from getting in pursuit of Gallman and possibly running the play down for a modest gain.
It would have been nice to see Fluker bury Ogletree in the turf, but he does his job and there is a definite hole for Gallman to run through. It should be noted that Bobby Hart does a decent job of blocking Donald. The All-Pro DT does manage to get a hand on Gallman as he explodes through the hole, but he just runs through the arm tackle — which is saying something, considering it is Donald.
Play - 3
2nd Q - 14:17, 1st-and-10, NYG 39-yard line
This is the very next play in the drive, and the core concept of the play should look awfully familiar by now: 12 personnel, inside zone run with a pulling left guard.
However, this time the Giants use a bit of trickeration to move some Rams’ defenders out of the tackle box and away from the play.
First, Sterling Shepard motions from the left side of the formation to the right, then releases into the flat, drawing Mark Barron in coverage. Tight end Rhett Ellison also pulls from the left side, but instead of blocking, he too runs a decoy route. Forced to honor the passing game, the Rams cover him and it pulls Ogletree as well as safety John Johnson out of position. John Jerry’s pull is also wide of the right tackle, further moving defenders, as they can’t be sure whether the run is following the pulling guard or not.
Fluker and Hart get the double team block on Aaron Donald. The motion by Ellison brings Ogletree directly into Fluker’s zone, where he is able to get the block on him, working off the double-team block.
Jones is once again matched up on Smart, and it is a repeat of the last play. Jones’ technique is really good, maximizing his power and leverage to force the nose tackle out of the hole and making him a spectator in the play.
Overall, this is an interestingly schemed play that was well executed.
Play - 4
3rd Q - 6:27, 1st-and-10, NYG 25-yard line
To shake things up a bit, we’re going to a more “normal” zone run, without a “pin and pull” concept. The offense is still in a “12” package however, and is using a zone blocking scheme.
The offensive line gets the defensive front flowing toward the sideline, opening up a pair of potential running lanes. The first is through the left A-gap, and the second (which Darkwa takes) is the right B-gap. Just before the snap, the nose tackle shifts slightly, lining up in a 1-technique. He gets double-teamed by Jones and Fluker, who easily move him off the line of scrimmage. Each blocker takes “half-man” leverage, blocking one shoulder each. Once they get to the second level, Jones works off his block and takes Barron while Fluker takes over blocking Smart by himself.
The run is initially blocked up well and Darkwa is easily able to get to the second level once committing to his running lane. However, Ogletree is left unblocked (I don’t know if Jerell Adams is supposed to work off his initial block and take Ogletree or if he is the running back’s responsibility), and he is able to make the play and limit the run to a five yard gain.
This was a great show of teamwork by Jones and Fluker, who easily overpower Smart and definitely do their parts in opening up a running lane for Darkwa.
Have Jones and Fluker done enough to make themselves part of the Giants’ future as well as their present? To a large extent, that depends on the Giants’ front office and coaching decisions going forward.
However, I like what both of them have brought to the team. Neither is an elite pass protector (right now), though Jones was credited with a clean game against the Rams by Pro Football Focus.
The top graded centers in Week 9— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 7, 2017
NFC East pic.twitter.com/3u638Xxk1C
However, both players bring an energy to the offensive line and a definite physicality and “nasty” in the run game. Fluker has seemingly cemented himself as the right guard, and in my opinion, should provide an affordable long-term solution to the position. Jones has played well at center, and if he is able to build on Sunday’s game against the Rams, would prove to be an incredible find in free agency. He could even provide leverage with Richburg in free agency.
The Giants are going to have to watch their cap situation closely this offseason. Not only will they have to have the resources to retain Odell Beckham Jr. and Landon Collins, but also be aware of the looming CBA negotiations. Jones and Fluker could both provide solid value for the Giants’ money.