The New York Giants have faced some outstanding defensive linemen this season.
Calais Campbell of the Jacksonville Jaguars. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans. Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints. Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles. Jason Pierre-Paul of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
All of that, though, may pale in comparison to Khalil Mack and the Chicago Bears, which offensive line coach Hal Hunter said on Friday “may be our biggest challenge.”
The Giants revamped line has played better recently, most notably in the three games since Jamon Brown was awarded to the Giants via waivers from the Los Angeles Rams and inserted at right guard. It’s no coincidence the Giants have averaged 29.0 points over that span.
The line, of course, features three starters who didn’t begin the season in the lineup — Brown, center Spencer Pulley and right tackle Chad Wheeler.Pulley was awarded to the Giants via waivers before Week 1 and Brown before Week 8.
“We’re far from a finished product,” Hunter said. “We’re making some improvement and working in the right direction, but we are not even close to being a finished product in terms of where we need to go.”
Let’s look at each of the players on the starting offensive line.
Nate Solder (LT)
The popular narrative is that Solder was a bad signing, that he has not played well and that the $34.8 million in guaranteed money the Giants gave him on his four-year, $62 million free agent contract was money poorly spent.
Is that, however, really accurate?
Solder surrendered six sacks in his first eight games. In his last three, however, he has allowed only one sack and one pressure. For the season, Solder has surrendered 22 pressures. At that pace, he would give up a career-low 32 pressures for the season. His 75.3 PFF score is almost identical to his 75.5 with the New England Patriots a season ago, and right in line with what he has done throughout his career.
“He’s a good player,” Hunter said. “The one thing you do in the NFL as you’re preparing, I see a dozen tackles every single week because I’m looking at other teams play and there’s probably 30, maybe 31 other teams that he would start for, maybe 32 teams. He’s a really quality player.
“Nobody’s going to play a perfect game, everybody’s going to have a couple bad plays. In 36 years, I’ve never had a player play a perfect game. What he brings to the room, what he brings to the offense, everything about him on and off the field in the meeting room, out of the meeting room – he’s playing really good, playing at a high level, tough, aggressive, he’s exactly what I expected him to be. It’s what I saw on tape all those years at New England.”
Solder had a rough outing against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 7, giving up a pair of sacks early in that game. Hunter revealed that Solder, who faulted his preparation that week, had not practiced during the week due to an injury.
“He had one bad game everybody was beating him up on, that was after he had that unbelievable burner. He had a neck issue and he didn’t practice all week, he walked-through and then he went out there and was a little tentative in the first half,” Hunter said. “I give him a little mulligan on that one because I’ve been that soldier before.”
The Giants generally leave Solder to fend for himself.
“We don’t do anything to help him -- you’re on your own, big boy. We’ll help these other guys but not you,” Hunter said.
Solder is not the game’s premier left tackle, despite the premium paycheck. If he continues to give the Giants the kind of play he has the past three weeks, though, that should quell some of the complaints about his signing.
Will Hernandez (LG)
The rookie second-round pick has allowed five sacks this season, but not since Week 7 vs. Atlanta.
Hernandez is Pro Football Focus’s 30th-ranked guard. Quenton Nelson of the Indianapolis Colts, the only guard selected before Hernandez (No. 6 overall) is 12th.
“Nate and Will Hernandez are starting to get in sync, they’re starting to play together a little bit,” Hunter said. “When (Nate) was in New England, he played with Logan Mankins for about six or seven years, so they knew each other inside and out, so that’s what they’re starting to develop right now.”
The Giants, obviously, still have work to do on the line. Left guard, though, does not figure to be a problem for a number of years as long as Hernandez remains healthy.
Spencer Pulley (C)
The season-ending injury to Jon Halapio led to John Greco getting an opportunity at center, and when Greco moved to guard to replace Patrick Omameh, to Pulley taking over in the middle.
Waived after starting all 16 games for the Los Angeles Chargers a year ago, Pulley has now started five games for the Giants. He has allowed only one hurry in 98 pass-blocking snaps over his last three games.
“I really miss (Jon) Halapio, he was playing really at a high level when he got hurt, but what I like about (Spencer Pulley) is that he’s smart and he’s tough, and he plays with great effor,” Hunter said. “He’s a little bit on the light side, he’s not quite as big as some of these other guys but he makes up for it with his tenacity. He’s a really tough guy, a smart guy. He figures out all that substance stuff and gets it straight.”
The jury is out on whether Pulley, 25, is the 2019 answer for the Giants at center. Maybe that will be Halapio. Maybe it will be a free agent or someone the Giants find in the 2019 NFL Draft. For now, though, Pulley has at least stabilized that spot and given the Giants a chance.
Jamon Brown (RG)
The biggest jump the offensive line made was when the Giants lucked into getting Brown off waivers from the Rams — and, let’s face it, they were lucky. No one plans to have the worst record in the league so they can claim a starting guard off waivers in the middle of the season.
Brown had two solid games, then struggled against the Eagles when he allowed a sack and six total pressures. Still, his talent and his upbeat attitude have been welcome additions for the Giants.
“I remember him when he was coming out of Louisville, I was at Indy. I really liked him coming out, he played both tackles there, kind of played the open side tackle. He wasn’t quite as big as he is now but he’s a good athlete and he was tough, and that’s two things I liked about him,” Hunter said.
“When he showed up here, he’s a little bit bigger, but he’s a good athlete and he’s tough. He brings a real toughness to the group and I like his athleticism for a 348-pound guy. He’s a smart guy, you tell him once and he gets it right. He was here for a couple days and played for us and hasn’t had one MA (missed assignment) in 60-something snaps, so it shows you he’s a smart guy. He fit into the group really fast. I like his attitude, we like his attitude, all that stuff. This ain’t his first rodeo, he’s got a lot of snaps under his belt from LA, too, so it’s progress.”
The 25-year-old Brown can be a free agent at the end of the season. It would be startling if the Giants don’t make a strong effort to keep him off the open market.
Chad Wheeler (RT)
The former undrafted free agent took over the job Week 3 when the Giants mercifully gave up on Ereck Flowers.
It hasn’t been pretty for the 24-year-old. He has surrendered 30 pressures, three sacks and is ranked 60th by PFF among 61 qualifying tackles.
Hunter offered praise for Wheeler’s development.
“Chad is slowly but surely, play by play, getting better and better and better,” Hunter said. “The one thing about the NFL, you say give me a great left tackle, but everybody in this league has got two great rushers and what they’ll do is they’re looking for matchups, they’ll flip guys back and forth all over the place. He gets matched up with a quality player every single week, and he hasn’t given up a sack in the last two or three weeks matched up against really good guys. He fights and he’s tough and he’s smart, he’s improving week by week.”
Long term Wheeler is likely not the answer as the Giants’ starting right tackle. It would be a surprise if free agency or the draft doesn’t bring the Giants a new player at this spot. Wheeler is battling, though, and the line as a whole has played better with him as part of it than it did with Flowers at right tackle. For now, that’s all the Giants can hope for.