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How will Dave Gettleman, Pat Shurmur fix the Giants’ offensive line?

Let’s review the debacle of 2017 and look ahead to 2018

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The New York Giants’ offensive line was a mess in 2017. It has, in fact, been a mess for most of the last six seasons, during which time the Giants missed the playoffs five times.

GM Jerry Reese gambled on improvement and continuity in 2017, rather than trying to find better players. That, as we know, blew up in his face. That decision, combined with the failure to put a functional line in front of a quarterback who does not make plays with his legs, is a big part of the reason why Reese became the first GM in Giants’ history to be fired.

We know that times have changed for the Giants. New GM Dave Gettleman, who was with the Giants when they were winning Super Bowls and had one of the league’s best offensive lines, loves his “hog mollies” and has a reputation for being able to identify good ones.

At his introductory press conference, Gettleman didn’t make it a secret that he would be aggressively trying to improve the line.

“We’ve got to fix the o-line, let’s be honest. Let’s not kid each other,” Gettleman said. “Big men allow you to compete and that’s what we’ve got to fix.”

The Giants now have a head coach in Pat Shurmur who agrees with that philosophy.

During his introductory press conference, Shurmur said he knew he would work well with Gettleman “As soon as he said, ‘Everything starts with the offensive line,’ “ during Shurmur’s initial interview for the head-coaching job.

So, how do the Giants fix this broken unit?

2017 review

The Giants used 10 different starting offensive lines in 16 games. Only one group — Ereck Flowers (LT), John Jerry (LG), Brett Jones (C), Jon Halapio (RG), Bobby Hart (RT) — started more than two games. That group started three. In all, the Giants used 10 starting offensive linemen.

The results weren’t good.

The Giants were only 21st in the league with 34 sacks allowed. Football Outsiders ranked them 10th in pass protection with an Adjusted Sack Rack of 5.8 percent. FO also ranked the Giants 15th in run-blocking with an average of 4.07 Adjusted Line Yards.

The stats, especially the pass-protection ones, were misleading. The Giants spent much of the year protecting that line, having Eli Manning throw the ball as quickly as possible to negate any potential pass rush. Here are some individual grades:

Flowers (51.5, 54th among tackles); Pugh (52.4, 52nd); John Jerry (71.4, 31st among guards); Fluker (42.3, 56th); Halapio (44.0, 52nd); Richburg (71.3); Jones (63.9, 19th among centers).

Despite seeming to have improved somewhat Flowers gave up 6.5 sacks, the most of any season in his three-year career. His six penalties were a career low.

Looking ahead to 2018

Right now, it’s impossible to look at the Giants and identify a guaranteed starter at a single position on the line. Bobby Hart has already been cut. Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg and D.J. Fluker are unrestricted free agents. Brett Jones is a restricted free agent. Ereck Flowers, as he has been since the day he was drafted, remains a polarizing figure.

So, Gettleman and Shurmur have major decisions to make.

“You go to work, it’s that simple. You have no idea what’s going to happen. You have no idea who’s going to be available. People get cut all the time, you say, ‘Whoa!’ you know?,” Gettleman said at his introductory press conference in December. “The bottom line is, there are people available on the street that – the bad habit that people have is, well what’s wrong with him? Wait a minute, don’t look at the negative. What’s right with him? Can he help us? Now let’s see if we can dig around, find out why he got dumped. But no. you can’t put a timetable on it. We’re going to work our fannies off and we’re going to get it fixed.”

Gettleman was speaking about building the entire roster when he said “you’re going to use every avenue. You’re going to build through the draft. You’re going to use trades, waiver wire transactions. You’re going to use every avenue necessary.”

The statement applies to the offensive line, so let’s look at a couple of those avenues.

Free agency

Their own free agents

Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, D.J. Fluker and John Greco are all unrestricted free agents. Brett Jones is a restricted free agent.

Pugh, the Giants’ 2013 first-round pick is a solid, versatile player. Spotrac estimates his market value at $5.9 million annually, expecting him to earn a contract around four years and $23.9 million. Pugh has missed 13 games the past two seasons, and that makes paying him big money a difficult decision. A low-base deal with games played incentives seems logical, but Pugh might get better offers. My guess? Pugh walks.

Richburg also seems likely to walk. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 18th-best free agent and had him with a 98.7 percent pass-blocking efficiency rating in 2017. Jones, though, had the identical PBE. Jones is a restricted free agent and will cost less than Richburg, so it makes sense to keep the less expensive player.

Fluker is an interesting case. He started only six games in 2017, but had a positive impact on the Giants’ running game. His PFF grade of 42.3, though, is not impressive. My guess? The Giants keep Fluker, probably on an inexpensive deal late in free agency — maybe even post-draft.

PFF likes Greco, who graded at 77.6 in just 101 snaps, calling him “annually underrated.” The 32-year-old told me he still wants to play, and he played for Pat Shurmur with both the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns. No harm bringing him to training camp on a veteran minimum deal and seeing if he still has enough in the tank to earn a job as a reserve.

Playing the market

There are two big-name players expected to hit the market, Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell and New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder.

Let’s start with Solder. Obviously, the Giants could use an upgrade at tackle. Flowers is adequate, at best, Hart has already been cut, and neither Chad Wheeler nor Adam Bisnowaty did enough as rookies to be counted on. Problem is, Pro Football Focus lists 14 starting-caliber offensive lineman as potential unrestricted free agents. Solder is the only tackle in the bunch, The Giants, obviously, won’t be the only team hunting for offensive tackle help. Even if they want him, there is no guarantee they can get him. The only guarantee is that Solder is going to wind up massively overpaid.

That brings us to Norwell. Gettleman and his scouts in Carolina uncovered Norwell as an undrafted free agent in 2014. The 26-year-old was named an All-Pro this season. The allure, and the connection between Gettleman and Norwell, are obvious.

The problem, again, is money. Former sports agent and current CBS cap analyst Joel Corry expects Norwell to command more than the $12 million annual salary and $31.5 million in guarantees Kevin Zeitler got from the Cleveland Browns a year ago. That would make Norwell the game’s highest-paid guard. Will the Giants want, or be able, to pay that kind of money for a guard?

On the tackle market, perhaps Cameron Fleming (Patriots) or Seantrel Henderson (Buffalo Bills) could be names of interest. Fleming, 25, has started 20 games in four years with New England, playing every position on the line except center. He started six games in 2017, finishing 28th among tackles in pass-blocking efficiency and ninth in run-blocking efficiency, per PFF. Henderson, 26, has twice been suspended for substance abuse policy violations. He has played only eight games with one start the past two seasons.

On the guard market, 28-year Brandon Fusco (San Francisco 49ers) is intriguing. Fusco had a 74.4 overall PFF grade in 2017, ranking 36th in pass-blocking and 37th in run-blocking among guards graded by PFF.

Draft options

Quenton Nelson, an offensive guard from Notre Dame, is acknowledged to be the premier offensive lineman in the 2018 draft class. He’s a certain top 10 pick, but would the Giants take a guard second overall? If they really want Nelson and don’t want the quarterbacks available at No. 2, might they trade down and select him? That would make sense.

Chris has been profiling draft prospects, and has already mentioned several intriguing names. Among them:

Nevada’s Austin Corbett and Michigan’s Mason Cole are also versatile players who can play more than one position and should be available on Day 2.