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Is the New York Giants’ offensive line really better this year?

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It looks better on paper, but we still don’t know anything for certain

NFL: New York Giants-Rookie Minicamp
Will Hernandez
Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants’ projected offensive line for 2018 is vastly different than the one the Giants opened the 2017 season with. There are four new players, and the only holdover from last season is playing a new position.

Is this projected group better than the one it replaces? We asked this question back in early May, but now that we have seen spring practices let’s re-examine it.

There is an assumption that by bringing in different hog mollies GM Dave Gettleman has made the line better. Fans have bought in, you see it in the narrative on social media. Even media members have bought in as, when you are around the team, you sometimes hear questions that begin with a statement along the lines of “since the offensive line is better ...”

Are we sure that the line is better? On paper, it “should” be better. But, on paper the Giants should not have been 3-13 a season ago. On paper, the U.S. should not have beaten the Soviet Union in hockey in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On paper, the Giants should not have beaten the New England Patriots in two Super Bowls.

Paper is for burning in fire places, which is why whatever is written on it so often goes up in smoke.

What matters is performance, and when it comes to offensive line play we have seen absolutely nothing yet in terms of real performance. We have seen some work on hand and foot placement, some half-speed jousting among big bodies sort of throwing blocks as they practice in their underwear — shorts and t-shirts with just a helmet and no pads. We have seen Will Hernandez and Damon Harrison — stupidly — square off in a melee that nearly got Nate Solder injured. Really, though, we have yet to see anything truly significant when it comes to judging the Giants’ offensive line play.

That will come later, in pads and against defenses not also wearing Giants’ uniforms. For now, what we have seen throughout the spring is encouraging but no guarantee that different will mean better for the Giants on the offensive line.

“They have better talent for sure,” NFL analyst Brian Baldinger told me via Twitter. “The left side could be very good.”

Let’s go position-by-position along the line and offer some thoughts on whether the Giants should be improved at each spot.

Left tackle

2018 — Nate Solder
2017Ereck Flowers

Advantage Solder. No questions asked. Nothing to really think about. Solder instead of Flowers protecting the blind side of Eli Manning is a massive upgrade for the Giants.

That is not to say Solder is a great player. He is not. Entering his eighth season. he has never made a Pro Bowl or been voted All-Pro.

Solder is a solid, dependable pro. His worst work has been substantially better than the best work put together by Flowers (last season’s 51.5 Pro Football Focus grade). Here are Solder’s 2017 PFF numbers:

  • Overall grade: 75.7 (32nd out of 81 OTs)
  • Pass Block Grade: 69.8 (T-45th)
  • Run Block Grade: 83.2 (T-12th)

In 2016, Solder’s overall PFF grade was 81.7.

“Nate’s a productive left tackle in the league, quality player, he’s done a great job protecting [Tom] Brady’s back,” offensive line coach Hal Hunter said early in the spring. “Unlike a lot of left tackles in this league, he can run block. I am thrilled to death to have him, he’s a quality guy.”

Here is what PFF said when the Giants signed Solder, who turns 30 this season:

Shifting Flowers to right tackle should alleviate some of the obvious pressure on the former ninth-overall pick, while Solder will serve as an immediate upgrade in pass protection for Eli Manning and quite possibly the Giants’ heir to Manning in the coming years.

After pushing through a slow start to the 2017 season, Solder allowed just 25 total pressures across his 358 pass-block snaps in his final 10 games (including playoffs), ranked tied for eighth in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency (94.7) among offensive tackles with 250 pass-blocking snaps in said span.

There is also the fact that Solder is a veteran leader who understands what it takes to play championship-caliber football. The Giants haven’t had that since Chris Snee and David Diehl saw their bodies give out and their NFL careers end. Solder has already been a positive influence on both Flowers and second-round pick Will Hernandez, who recently called Solder “a future Hall of Famer ... a great player ... a great coach ... a great teammate.”

Left guard

2018 — Will Hernandez
2017Justin Pugh

Pugh had a pretty good five-year run with the Giants, at times looking like a guy on the verge of becoming a top-tier player. Pretty good, yes, but not nearly as good as it could have been. Pugh didn’t play enough, missing 17 games over five seasons and making it through a complete 16 games only once. The Giants also didn’t win enough — with only one playoff loss in Pugh’s five years.

Perhaps it is surprising that analysts I’ve talked to who are willing to make a choice before seeing the young man play in a game believe Hernandez will be an upgrade over Pugh at left guard.

Despite the lack of padded practices, Hernandez’s toughness has been on display. The practice fights he has already been in with teammates are evidence of that, although you could argue he needs to tone that down a bit. His comments about being the body guard for Saquon Barkley illustrate the fact that he wants to be a dependable teammate.

His desire to learn is apparent.

“I’m always learning. I’m learning every practice,” he told me during OTAs. “I appreciate the length of every practice, I need as many reps as I can in my opinion to get everything down the way I want to do it.”

In its 2018 NFL Draft Guide, Inside the Pylon offered both one- and three-year projections for Hernandez:

One-Year Projection: Will be starting guard in a Gap blocking scheme from Day 1. He comes pro-ready when it comes to technique and can contribute right away in the run game. Will upgrade a good amount of NFL offensive lines, and bring an attitude to any team that drafts him.

Three-Year Projection: Will be a Pro Bowl guard in a Gap scheme. Can develop into one of the best run blockers in the NFL with All-Pro potential. His competitive toughness will be felt throughout the league.

My view is that Hernandez, provided he stays healthy, will have a better Giants career than did Pugh. Can he be better than Pugh, who did play some good football for the Giants, right out of the gate? Since this is the Optimism Season, I guess I will drink the Kool-Aid.

Advantage: Hernandez

Center

2018 Jon Halapio or Brett Jones
2017Weston Richburg

In a league with a hard salary cap, teams have to make difficult decisions. The Giants made one of those this offseason, letting Richburg sign with the San Francisco 49ers for five years and $47.2 million, while bringing back Jones, his backup the past two seasons, for one year and $2.914 million.

They have put Jones and Jon Halapio (1 year, $555K) into a competition for Richburg’s old job.

Neither Jones nor Halapio is probably going to be as good as Richburg, though Jones played well during 13 starts last season. The savings of nearly $44 million at center, though, helped the Giants land Solder for the important left tackle spot. So, perhaps an overall net gain.

On it’s face, though, Richburg vs. Halapio/Jones is a loss for the Giants.

Advantage: Richburg

Right guard

2018Patrick Omameh
2017John Jerry

The Giants are Omameh’s fifth team in an NFL career that began with him making the San Francisco 49ers practice squad in 2013. He has started games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he spent the last two seasons.

When the Jaguars signed All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, they didn’t really compete for Omameh in free agency. The Giants happily snapped him up.

“Tough, hard-nosed, grind it out, gritty, get in your face tough guy,” Hunter, the new offenive line coach, said of Omameh. Also, he’s a man, grown-up, adult, dependable, quality person.”

The Giants didn’t sign Omameh to a three-year, $15 million contract to compete with Jerry. They signed him to replace Jerry, a guy who has always been a better pass blocker than run blocker. Jerry, at least while media was in attendance, did not receive any first-team reps with the offense this spring.

Advantage: Omameh

Right tackle

2018Ereck Flowers
2017Bobby Hart

At the beginning of the 2017 season, Hart told media that “I know I’m the best right tackle in the league.”

He then went out and spent the season proving the foolishness of that remark. He ended up playing in just 10 games (7 starts), compiling a 37.7 PFF grade — in the “poor” category — and being cut by Gettleman before the season finale after reportedly showing no interest in playing in the meaningless game.

Of course Flowers, learning curve and all at a position he has not played since a handful of games as a college freshman, is an upgrade.

Flowers did not show enough improvement over three season at left tackle for the Giants to keep him there. He did, however, show some improvement. Most significantly, his quarterback hurries allowed dropped from 50 in 2016 to 27 a year ago.

Flowers, of course, skipped the early portion of voluntary offseason workouts. He has, however, been a solid citizen since returning to the fold.

“He’s been great,” Shurmur said during OTAs. “He’s been communicating well, he looks like he’s having fun playing out there, he’s worked in with the offensive line and he’s done everything we’ve asked and I anticipate that will continue.”

While we have often explained why switching sides is no guarantee of improvement for Flowers, many have long argued he is more suited athletically to that side. This season, we find out.

Advantage: Flowers

The bench

We saw a season ago how important quality depth is along the line. Each week it seemed there was a new combination on the line, with only Flowers remaining healthy enough to play most of the season — he was inactive Week 17?

Do the Giants have that quality depth?

The loser of the Halapio/Jones competition at center will likely be first interior lineman off the bench. Jerry, if he makes the team, and John Greco are capable reserves at guard. Chris Scott has 45 games and 12 starts worth of NFL experience. Where the Giants might be lacking is at the tackle spot, where inexperienced second-year man Chad Wheeler is currently the likely choice for swing tackle. On the current roster, no other tackle sticks out as an obvious candidate to make the final 53-man roster.

Final thoughts

Going through this exercise, you can make arguments that the Giants should be improved at four of the five starting positions. They could also have adequate depth, especially if they can find a veteran swing tackle to add to the roster before the season begins.

What we don’t know is how the pieces will fit together once the games begin. How will these individuals perform as a group?

Is the offensive line better than it was a year ago? Probably. I don’t, however, believe we can say that definitively until we see the group under fire in games that count.