At 1-7, the New York Giants are a mess and one of the biggest culprits has been the offensive line. It’s looked like the worst unit in the league and there might not be a close second. Even though the offensive line was a focus in the offseason, it has still been as big or more of a disappointment as it was in 2017.
A common defense for this is that the Giants only had limited options and it wasn’t possible to rebuild the line in one offseason. But what if it was possible? Could the Giants, if different moves were made throughout the offseason, have rebuilt the line for 2018? Let’s retrace some steps and find out.
The following exercise is an experiment to see how much and how well the line could have been rebuilt in one offseason. Each of the moves are intended to be as realistic as possible at the moment without hindsight shaping the decision, though we will mention how the present is playing out.
What the Giants did: Signed left tackle Nate Solder to a four-year/$62 million contract with $34.8 million guaranteed. Signed guard Patrick Omameh to a three-year/$15 million deal with $5.5 million guaranteed.
What the Giants could have done: Sign right tackle Chirs Hubbard to a five-year/$39.5 million contract with $12 million guaranteed.
When the Giants hit free agency, they went to the top of the market and backed up a Brinks truck or two in front of Nate Solder. The problem, as we’ve seen, is Solder is fine at best and when he struggles like he did last season and parts of this year, he’s nowhere near worth the top of the market price the Giants paid. Instead of making a 30-year-old tackle the highest paid offensive lineman in the league, they could have gone after someone younger, cheaper, and with similar production in 2017 — Chris Hubbard, then of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Per the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac, both Solder and Hubbard had a penalty or blown block on 3.5 percent of their snaps.
Last season, Hubbard started as a backup, but became the starting right tackle in 10 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers and played over 70 percent of the offensive snaps. Hubbard hit the free agent market and signed a five-year/$36.5 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. It came with just a $4 million signing bonus and just $9 million guaranteed at signing with another $15.15 guaranteed for injury. This wouldn’t have been a hard contract to beat if the Giants wanted to do it. For this exercise, let’s give Hubbard a little more money up front and add $3 million to his signing bonus. Here’s how the Solder and new Hubbard contracts would compare:
OT Cap Hits
Hubbard turned 27 in April so a four-year deal would only take him through his age-30 season — Solder’s current age. With so little fully guaranteed money, he’d also be cuttable after two years if he didn’t work out and the flexibility would allow the Giants to look for an alternative option. This deal would save the Giants between $3.6 million in the first year of the deal and $9.6 million in the fourth with an extra year of an $8.9 million cap with Hubbard’s five-year deal opposed to Solder’s four.
While the play was close in 2017 before each hit the market, it hasn’t been the case this season with their new teams. Through Week 7, the last time ESPN updated its new Pass Block Win Rate metric, Hubbard had a win rate of 85 percent, while Solder was among the league’s worst tackles at just 66 percent.
The difference between signing a right tackle and left tackle shouldn’t matter all that much, the difference between the two positions is minimal and the money saved on the deal could have been used elsewhere to add more to the roster. Again in an attempt to make this not look revisionist, I talked about this exact scenario for these two players before free agency opened.
In free agency, we can also have the Giants re-sign John Greco like they did as a place-holder at guard and potential depth in the interior.
What the Giants did: Drafted guard Will Hernandez in the second round, 34th overall.
What the Giants could have done: Drafted guard Quenton Nelson in the first round, second overall, and drafted guard Will Hernandez in the second round, 34th overall.
Everything that has been reported about the Giants’ thought process with the second overall pick was that it was Saquon Barkley and Saquon Barkley only. But for the sake of this exercise let’s say there was an alternate option. We can even use Dave Gettleman’s own qualifications for what he was looking for — a “gold jacket player” — to justify Nelson’s selection.
Nelson was a wildly popular draft prospect and was routinely brought up as one of the best prospects in the draft regardless of position. SB Nation’s Dan Kadar had him in that conversation. So did Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports. Pro Football Weekly had him at No. 1. The Ringer’s Robert Mays called Nelson a generational guard prospect. We can end with this line from Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com draft profile:
Nelson has the traits and talent to become an All-Pro guard for years to come.
If you take a look at the list of offensive lineman with multiple All-Pro seasons who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, you’ll find a bunch of soon-to-be Hall of Famers. The full list of players since the merger is full of Hall of Famers.
The selection of Nelson also wouldn’t preclude the Giants from taking Will Hernandez in the second round like they did. It’s the strategy the Indianapolis Colts actually used after taking Nelson. They look guard Braden Smith of Auburn 37th overall and he slid in on the right side with Nelson on the left. The Colts also now the second-best run-blocking offensive line per Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards through Week 8 and the fifth-best by Adjusted Sack Rate. They were also 11th in rushing DVOA with two fourth-round picks and a fifth-round pick running behind that line.
Hernandez is currently the Giants’ starter at left guard, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion when he was drafted. Throughout training camp, Hernandez was getting snaps at both left and right guard. Giving him all the snaps immediately at right guard could have smoothed the transition and should not have been a problem for the UTEP product.
What the Giants did: Nothing.
What the Giants could have done: Traded the 69th overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for tackle Trent Brown and the 223rd overall pick.
When the San Francisco 49ers selected Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth overall in the first round, the Niners’ incumbent tackle Trent Brown became expendable. At around 9 am the morning after the first round/morning of the second and third rounds, ProFootballTalk reported San Francisco was having discussions with the New England Patriots for Brown. At just after noon, Patriots owner Robert Kraft announced a trade had been made for an “offensive lineman from the west coast.”
That timeline would have given Dave Gettleman around three hours to call San Francisco general manager John Lynch and beat New England’s offer. The trade was eventually for the Patriots’ third-round pick, 95th overall. The Giants had two third-round picks, the worst of which came 69th overall, quite the difference from the Patriots’ pick. Even if the Niners and Patriots were deep in discussions, it would be hard for San Francisco to ignore the better pick offered. Per the Approximate Value draft value chart from Football Perspective, the difference between the 69th overall pick and the 95th overall pick is 2 AV (Pro-Football-Reference’s metric to put a single-number value on a season) over five years, the equivalent of the 166th overall pick. If the Giants felt the 69th overall pick was too big of an increase over New England’s offer — almost a round of difference — they could have asked for San Francisco’s sixth-round pick (184 overall, 1.4 AV over five years), but here we’ll just moderately close the gap and take the 49ers’ seventh-round pick, which was 223rd overall (0.2 AV over five years).
Trades for veteran players might be the league’s biggest market inefficiency. Even if a third-round pick feels high for someone like Brown, it really isn’t. The 69th overall pick is worth an average of 7.6 AV over five years. Last season alone Brown was worth 5 AV and it was 7 AV in 2016.
A former seventh-round pick, Brown started 10 games at right tackle for the 49ers in 2017, but ended the season on injured reserve after shoulder surgery. Per FOA 2018, he had a penalty or blown block on 3.1 percent of his snaps. Brown is just 25 years old and 2018 is the final year of his rookie contract with just a $1.9 million cap hit.
Brown played right tackle for San Francisco, but after he was traded claimed he would be comfortable playing either side, via Nora Princiotti of the Boston Globe:
“I’ve always played both sides,” Brown said. “I started out in college playing left. I played left in high school. I really started playing right when I got to the University of Florida. But switching sides has never been a real big issue for me.”
The switch did happen and Brown is currently New England’s starting left tackle. He had an 81 percent Pass Block Win Rate through Week 7.
If this is how the offseason played out, the Giants would have opened the season with Brown at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Brett Jones at center (let’s assume some of the cap savings would have allowed the Giants to keep him), Hernandez at right guard, and Hubbard at right tackle. Jon Halapio, John Greco, Ereck Flowers, and Chad Wheeler would be on the roster as backups.
Is that a “fixed” offensive line? Maybe. Is it better than the current line? It would be hard to say no.
Of course, there are consequences to this rebuilding path. There’s no Saquon Barkley and probably no B.J. Hill. Possibly there’s no Lorenzo Carter if the Giants’ targets change in the third round after going for guards with the first two picks. The Giants could have used that pick for a running back — maybe Royce Freeman — or instead used some of the added cap space to target a running back in free agency, like Dion Lewis.
It’s arguable how much better this could make the Giants’ offense (possibly much) or the future outlook (same), but it could have been possible. It would have taken a little more creativity and a full concerted effort on nothing other than rebuilding the line. Worst case, it doesn’t leave the Giants with the worst offensive line in the league with few answers heading into 2019. Unfortunately, that’s where they are and this is a process they’ll have dive head first into again this offseason.