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Why are the Giants starting Jon Halapio at center?

That question keeps coming up, so let’s try to answer it

NFL: New York Giants at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Jones played reasonably well for the New York Giants a season ago when he stepped in at center for Weston Richburg, providing somewhat of a bright spot on an offensive line that was a mess in 2017.

Thus, it was interesting in the spring to see the new Giants coaching staff increasingly leaning toward the idea of using Jon Halapio, a converted guard who has never played center in a regular-season game, at the position.

Coach Pat Shurmur told us not to read into the fact that Halapio took all the first-team reps during mandatory mini-camp. It is, however, hard to ignore that it looks for all the world like Halapio is the starter. He has, through five training camp practices, taken every starting rep.

So, what is it that the Giants like about Halapio, a 2014 sixth-round pick of the New England Patriots who saw his first NFL action with 10 games (6 starts) at guard last season for the Giants?

I asked Shurmur that a couple of practices into training camp. Here was his response:

“The closer you are to the ball, the more you need to communicate. I think he’s done a good job communicating, getting us going in the right direction. We are fortunate enough in practice to see a lot of looks, which will help us and serve us well as we move forward and he has done a good job with that. He also has to do what every lineman does – block his guy and then work in conjunction with the guys next to him and he has done a good job with that as well.”

As a player, Shurmur was a three-year starter at center for Michigan State University. So, he knows the position and knows what he is looking for.

“When you look at a guy, you can tell if he is able to play center or not,” Shurmur said. “Certainly, he’s able to snap the ball and communicate.”

So, how did Halapio learn the position?

In a twist of fate, it is actually Jones who introduced Halapio to the center position back in 2016 when the two were working out. Halapio spent some time during training camp last season working as the team’s third center, but didn’t become a full-time center until the Giants put him there during OTAs.

“He taught me how to snap. I hang out with him all the time,” Halapio said of Jones. “Big credit to Brett for helping me out.”

Both making calls and blocking from a different setup that Halapio had been used to required adjustments.

“It’s different because you’re out of a balanced stance. You can’t really put any weight forward, and there’s more mental gymnastics to it,” Halapio said. “You’ve gotta think more, you’ve gotta make calls and read coverages, stuff like that. It’s a lot different.”

NFL: New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals
Brett Jones snapping ina 2017 game.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Friends first

Jones was expected by most to be the starting center, and likely expected that himself. Halapio, though, said there is no animosity between the two.

“As far as me and Brett we’re friends we help each other out in the film room, on the field, outside of football we’re still hanging out, nothing’s awkward between us,” Halapio said. “It’s just pure competition.”

Jones would, of course, love to be the starter. Being a good teammate and friend, though, are also important to him.

“Coming from Canada and coming from the CFL there’s been a lot of people in the locker room that helped me. It’s always been like that in my life, if anyone every gave me an opportunity I want to repay it,” Jones said on Monday.

“Jon was on the practice squad and I was the backup center. I was going to help him out any way I could. I think that’s what a good teammate does. That’s what I strive to do and in the long run it’ll pay off for you. I just try to do what’s right and that’s what I was doing. He’s my friend and it’s been fun for us. I’m excited for both of us.”

Halapio’s winding path

The 27-year-old Halapio has certainly worked for his opportunity. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, and was let go in final cuts before the season started. He has also been with the Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Patriots a second time and finally to the Giants as a practice squad player in 2016.

Oh, and did we mention the two stints in the short-lived Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL). In-between NFL jobs, Halapio played for the Boston Brawlers in 2014 and the Brooklyn Bolts in 2015.

“Every time I got cut I had not game film, really. I was just trying to get some game film out there,” Halapio said. “I heard about that Experimental League and I wanted to give it a try. I don’t know if it helped, but I don’t regret the decision.”

It certainly didn’t hurt.

Getting back to the ‘why?’

If you judge purely by the Pro Football Focus data, which should really be used as part of the equation and not the whole answer, Jones is not only the far more experienced center but also graded out in 2017 as the better player.

Jones had a 63.9 overall score from PFF, 18th among centers. His pass blocking score of 83.2 was third among centers, and his pass-blocking efficiency of 98.7 was also third at the position. His run-blocking grade, though, was a pedestrian 47.9. That was 23rd among qualifying centers.

Halapio’s 44.0 PFF grade was 52nd among guards, with a run-blocking grade of 38.9 and a pass-blocking score of 54.2.

I believe, however, we should be inclined to trust the evaluation of someone like Shurmur who has played the position and coached offense in the NFL for a long time over an analytical web site’s numbers.

We have talked many times about the Giants’ desire to improve their running game, and the belief appears to be that the run game emphasis is a big part of the reason the Giants favor Halapio.

Jones is listed at 6-foot-2, 312 pounds and Halapio at 6-3, 315 but see them next to each other and it is apparent that Halapio is the bigger player. The Giants won’t say it, but perhaps they believe Halapio will be a better anchor in the middle of their running game.

The easy, safe thing for Shurmur and the Giants to have done here was to give the job to Jones, the guy everyone on the outside figured was going to get it. The Giants, though, have chosen to have faith that the traits that led them to move Halapio to center full time will help lead to improved play along the revamped offensive line.

It is, without doubt, somewhat of a gamble. We will see if it pays off.