Through the first nine games of the 2019 NFL season, the New York Giants had the same five starters along the offensive line, but Week 10 was a different story. Both right tackle Mike Remmers and center Jon Halapio missed the cross-town duel against the New York Jets. The uncertainty with the situation was exacerbated by Nate Solder’s injury after 16 snaps on Sunday, which left the Giants with Eric Smith at left tackle, Spencer Pulley at center, and Nick Gates at right tackle. The latter was one of the few bright spots in the embarrassing loss to the Jets, and I felt he was the best Giants offensive linemen on the field. Pro Football Focus had him ranked No. 2 behind Kevin Zeitler with an above-average run-blocking grade and an average pass-blocking grade.
Gates was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2018 out of Nebraska. He provided versatility to the Cornhuskers offense by playing both tackle positions and earned honorable All Big-10 team nominations in 2016 and 2017. The big knock on Gates coming out of the draft was his arm length, which is only 32 inches. The ideal arm length of a starting NFL tackle is about 34 inches and many believed he could not play tackle in the NFL. His sub-optimal athletic testing did not help either, even though he did test in the 78 percentile for his agility drills in the 3 Cone. Gates spent his rookie season on the Injured Reserve list and evinced his value during the 2019 preseason and training camp, which earned him a roster spot.
Was Sunday’s loss to the Jets yet another bleak realization about this franchise’s true state? Yes, but there were positive signs with some young players, and Gates was one of them. The Giants rushing offense has been way more than abysmal. They rank 22nd in the NFL on the season with 94.2 rushing yards per game (RYPG), which isn’t bad at all. But in the last three games, they rank 31st in the league, averaging 67.7 yards, and that’s with Daniel Jones averaging 29 RYPG through that span.
Gates happened to be a bright spot on Sunday blocking for the run, and that’s an encouraging sign for a much-maligned, and injured, unit.
In the first clip, a first-and-10, the Giants run a draw play, which assists Gates with his execution. Since it was a draw, Jets defensive end Henry Anderson went up the arc and tried to beat Gates through his outside shoulder. This effectively removed Anderson from his rushing responsibility. Are Gates’ hands a bit low and wide before contact - yes, but I love how he plants that inside foot right as the handoff happens and then transfers his weight through his hips upon contact with Anderson, while almost simultaneously positioning himself between Anderson and the rushing lane that was his responsibility.
The second clip was a first-and-10 that happened to be an illegal formation on Gates (he also had a false start in the game), but I don’t want that to detract from the execution he performed on this block. He’s uncovered on this play and he’s tasked to climb up to linebacker Brandon Copeland at the second level. Gates positions, locates, and wins the pad level battle against a much smaller player in space, while targeting the inside shoulder of Copeland, which allows Gates to work half the man and push him up field and away from the gap. A very good rep here from Gates that is floundered by his own mental error, but seeing that execution in space with the timing, leverage, and strength is a welcomed sight.
Kyle Phillips does a good job setting the edge in the third clip. Phillips is wide off of Gates, who is the play side tackle, and Gates struggles with sealing the edge here for an outside run, but I believe Barkley’s first landmark may have been Gates’ inside leg. Upon contact with Phillips, Gates gets his hands inside the chest plate of Phillips, uncoils his hips, then adjusts, acquires the inside shoulder of Phillips, and finds the strength to continue with his lower leg drive to create a hole in the B-Gap. If Eric Smith and Spencer Pulley executed their respective cut and scoop blocks, and if Hernandez saw James Burgess was the unblocked defender from the weak-side, then the Giants may have had a huge gain with Zeitler and the wide receivers blocking out front.
Let’s take a look at him in pass protection.
The Giants are in single-back personnel with a 4iT in Kyle Phillips. Gates shows a lot of positive traits in this first clip. Phillips starts inside and Gates stays low, wins the pad level battle, and stays square to the defensive end who attempts to go back outside with a long outside arm move, but Gates re-sinks his center of gravity and mirrors Phillips all the way up the arc with powerful punches the knocked the defensive player off-balanced.
The first touchdown pass from Daniel Jones to Darius Slayton was an impressive rep for Gates.
If you have Game Pass, I implore you to check this play out in slow motion (first-and-5, 12:33 left in the second quarter). The Jets are a team that stunts and twists a lot upfront to generate pressure; it’s a staple in Gregg Williams’ defense. Watch Gates’ eyes when Phillips gets to his third step up the arc; he subtly glances inside to the B-Gap to ensure there is no looper coming from the other side of the line of scrimmage and also to make sure Zeitler is alright with Steve McClendon’s rush. Gates did this while engaged with a pass rusher because he was in full control and because he knew he had pass protection help with the running back. That is a play that shows confidence and smarts from an offensive lineman making his first career start.
Phillips is the 4iT again in the 2nd clip, but Gates assignment is different; he’s tasked to handle Tarell Basham who is in a two-point stance wide of the inline tight end. Since Basham is wide, Gates has to vertical set him at a depth that puts Gates on an island, effectively providing Bashem a three-way option of attacking inside, outside, or through the young offensive linemen. Again, Gates’ hands are a bit low, but he’s able to win the leverage battle, use a strong base, and explode through Basham once he leaves his feet. The two-hand swipe of the pass rusher does little to Gates and his ability to readjust through a rep is very evident and encouraging.
Henry Anderson is lined up as that 4iT in the next clip, which is, of course, the play where Jamal Adams stripped Jones of the ball, but it wasn’t the fault of Gates. Despite allowing Anderson to attack the half-man and initially earn his outside shoulder, Gates does a good job positioning his hand inside, dropping his weight, utilizing strength, and hand fighting Anderson throughout the rep. Was there a tiny hold towards the end of the play, it’s possible.
The last clip was Gates’s vertical setting against Brandon Copeland in an obvious passing situation. This is another touchdown play for the Giants. He gains depth fast up the arc, squares up to the defender, and stones him on the rush. Copeland attempts to drive through Gates at the top of the arc, but it was not happening for the linebacker. While these pass protection reps are refreshing to watch, it doesn’t always tell the whole story about a player in pass protection, since there are so many other aspects to protecting a quarterback. Communication and cohesion are two of the bigger ingredients to a successful offensive unit, and that takes everyone carrying their own weight, especially against twists and stunts.
Above you see an end tackle stunt, with Jordan Jenkins (48)as the penetrator, and Tarell Basham (93) as the outside looper. Jenkins’ angle is very wide on Gates, which provides the defender with momentum. Gates is able to do a very good job absorbing the contact from Jenkins then creating space on Jenkins with a strong push to avoid getting chest to chest with the defender. In this situation, getting chest to chest is not a good thing for the offensive line, since there is an outside looper that is recognized by Gates, so he creates that space and transitions to pick up Basham, while Zeitler takes Jenkins. I love seeing the communication, mental processing, low center of gravity, and hip fluidity to open and close on targets quickly, which he really displays in the second clip. In the third clip, he recognizes the stunt and doesn’t bite inside on the wide penetrator, instead waits for Anderson to come around to him. That is just a solid showing of awareness. One thing that wasn’t a huge problem for Gates, but did rear its head, was a lack of anchor on certain reps.
Here are some reps in the clip above that show some deficiencies with his anchor. The first clip is the more concerning one because it comes from the 4T position, where Anderson bull-rushes through the chest of Gates, putting him on skates. There were a few other instances in the game where pass rushers got inside of Gates, from a much wider angle, and were able to push the young tackle backward.
Throughout the game, Gates showed toughness and competed through the whistle, with occasions of finishing blocks strongly and punishing his defenders on the ground. Who doesn’t love a mean streak from their “Hog Mollies.” He displayed an awareness at the point of attack and an ability to adjust. I am encouraged by what I saw from Gates’ first start in the NFL, and I hope after reading this article, you feel the same way.