The primary drive of every NFL team, every offseason, is to improve. Dave Gettleman’s only objective for the New York Giants is to be better in 2018 than they were in 2017.
I want to use the lull between the draft and the mandatory part of the Giants’ off-season program to take a look at the Giants’ roster, position-by-position, and try to figure out if and where they have improved.
We have already looked at the quarterback position, so now it is time to take a look at the unit everyone has agreed that the Giants need to improve going in to 2018: The offensive line.
2017 Starters - Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry, Bobby Hart
Backups: D.J. Fluker (G), Brett Jones (C), Chad Wheeler (T)
2018 Starters - Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Brett Jones, Patrick Omameh, Chad Wheeler
Backups: Jon Halapio (G), John Greco (C), Adam Bisnowaty (T)
Thoughts: I have a bit of a hard time comparing the two lines because, by all appearances, the Giants’ coaching staff refused to field their best line-up last year. It was clear from the second preseason game on that Fluker was the better option at right guard, and from the first week of actual NFL play that Bobby Hart was not, actually, the best right tackle in the NFL, and that Justin Pugh was a far preferable option.
If I had my druthers, the offensive line would have been: Flowers, Jones/Jerry, Richburg, Fluker, Pugh.
Solder is an obvious upgrade over Flowers, but not the massive one he is made out to be. Offensive line specialist Duke Manyweather told our own Ed Valentine on the LockedOn Giants podcast that Solder is (no longer) prone to catastrophic failures in protection, he is “in that third tier” of offensive tackles. Fellow OL expert Brandon Thorn told the podcast that Solder is “solid” and “reliable,” but would also need to be schemed help against more talented pass rushers.
While coach Pat Shurmur said that the Giants would be trying both Omameh and Hernandez at both left and right guard to determine the best line combination, I am projecting Hernandez to the left. That’s for the simple reason that he was a left guard in college, and putting the rookie in the position he knows best will help put him in position to succeed soonest. It also puts him next to a long-time veteran in Solder, and puts a veteran guard next to Wheeler. In all likelihood, Hernandez will be an upgrade over either Brett Jones or John Jerry at guard. It is somewhat more ambitious to say that he would be an upgrade over Justin Pugh, who proved himself to be among the very best left guards in the NFL when able to play consistent snaps at the position. But compared to 2017, the position has probably been upgraded.
It became pretty obvious that Weston Richburg would be playing for a new team in 2018 when Brett Jones proved himself to be a capable starting center.
The issue has nothing to do with play and everything to do with economics. Richburg has proven himself to be an excellent starting center since moving to his natural position in 2015. That year he was excellent in pass protection and run blocking, arguably the top center in the league (and certainly in the top-three). His run blocking took a step back in 2016 when he played through a torn ligament in his snapping hand, and next to John Jerry at right guard (rather than the much more powerful Geoff Schwartz), but his pass protection was still elite.
The Giants don’t need Jones to be an upgrade over Richburg.
Instead, they need him to play at the level he showed he was capable in while remaining healthy. Jones missed his rookie season with an MCL injury suffered in pre-season, then missed out on his opportunity to impress at left guard after suffering a calf injury while filling in for an injured Justin Pugh.
Jones has twice been lauded for his play in the CFL — first as the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie, then as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Lineman. It is a big ask for him to be among the best centers in the NFL, but as long as he executes his job well and stays healthy, any individual drop-off shouldn’t be too noticeable.
At right guard, the Giants are going from a combination of John Jerry, D.J. Fluker, and John Halapio to Patrick Omameh (my projection). It’s difficult to say whether Omameh will be an upgrade. He has only practiced at the position sparingly, and changing sides isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Everything a player knows is backwards — from their footwork and hand usage to landmarks and targets — and that takes time and effort to re-learn.
It is possible that Omameh emerges as an upgrade over Jerry and Halapio, and the Giants should be satisfied if he plays at a level roughly equal to that of Fluker. After all, the Giants fielded one of the league’s more effective and efficient rushing attacks in the brief window in which he was a healthy starter.
Whether Omameh is able to change sides and play at that level remains to be seen, however.
Right tackle might be the wild card on the line.
I am not currently counting on Ereck Flowers to be a part of the Giants moving forward. Moving him from left tackle to right tackle really just puts him in position to fail as he has a lone off-season in which to completely re-learn how to play the offensive line. If he can pull it off, it would be a coup for the Giants, but as of now, that seems like a long shot for a player with technique issues who has never played the position. It is probably more likely that the Giants will move on from him by final cut-down.
Chad Wheeler proved himself to be an upgrade over Bobby Hart last year. Perhaps not a self-evident long term answer, but when paired with Fluker (on the right) or John Jerry (on the left in week 17), he played like a viable starter. He looked over-matched when playing next to Halapio, but the flashes of upside are intriguing nonetheless. Wheeler has good feet and hand usage, and easy movement that suggest that he should be able to remain a tackle. However, he does have injury concerns and it certainly looked like adding strength would help his game tremendously.
Justin Pugh was probably best described as “adequate and dependable” at offensive tackle — left guard is, by far, his best position — but Wheeler would still need to take a significant step forward to match him.
That isn’t to say Wheeler can’t match Pugh’s play, but if he doesn’t the right side would be a definite area of concern.
Have the Giants “fixed” the offensive line?
It’s difficult to say. They have added a pair of upgrades in Nate Solder and Will Hernandez, and are counting on Brett Jones to continue to improve. But they also have a pair of question marks in Patrick Omameh (particularly if he winds up at right guard) and Chad Wheeler.
If those questions come up with affirmative answers, then the Giants are in good shape up front. They will likely still need to be schemed help (something Ben McAdoo rarely did), and their depth on the offensive line is scary however the starters shake out.
If those questions come up as negatives, then they will have work to do next off-season as well.
Complicating matters is that they let their three most talented offensive linemen leave in the process of rebuilding the offensive line. They reasons to move on from each — Pugh’s health, Richburg’s cost, and Fluker’s mobility (assuming Pat Shurmur wants to use more outside zone running plays). But that doesn’t change the fact that they watched three talented players — two of whom are among the best in the NFL at their positions — walk out the door.
So, have the Giants succeeded in improving their offensive line? It’s likely that they will certainly play better this year — especially considering they never fielded what could have been their best line-up last year. Whether they are a definitive improvement remains to be seen.