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Giants positional battles: Who will be primary guard-center reserve?

Nick Gates? Shane Lemieux? Kyle Murphy?

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Oregon at Washington State Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The interior offensive line of the 2020 New York Giants may still perturb even the most ardent and optimistic Giants’ fan, especially the center position. The guards are set to start for the foreseeable future. Will Hernandez on the left side had a poor sophomore year, but he wasn’t surrounded by a lot of talent. Kevin Zeitler is, arguably, the most talented offensive lineman on the team, so the concern shouldn’t be with the guard position.

The center spot is a different story. Spencer Pulley is the projected starter and the availability of the incumbent starter, Jon Halapio, is still uncertain due to the Achilles injury he suffered against Philadelphia in Week 17. As currently constructed, the Giants roster has only Pulley as a center, with a few names that are being mentioned as possible centers, although they have limited, or no, experience at the position.

In my opinion, the center is the foundation of the offensive line. The Giants have upgraded the tackle spots and brought in a few late drafted/undrafted rookie free agents who are guards who can compete at center; due to COVID-19, the likelihood of a smooth transition in an abbreviated offseason with a new coaching staff is unlikely. I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if the Giants add a center, either through trade or a free agent like Daniel Kilgore or Tony Bergstrom. The reality of COVID-19 may have halted this option from being pursued. If not, the Giants will enter the season with a few interesting names to watch. Here’s the case for the best swing interior offensive lineman, a player who could fill in at both guard or center.

Front runner: Shane Lemieux

Lemieux started 52 games at left guard for the Oregon Ducks. He’s uber-experienced, mean, and the exact type of interior offensive lineman that the Giants needed: someone who can move a big body off the line of scrimmage to open holes. He packs a powerful punch with his heavy hands and does a good job framing his blocks while engaging his core and lower body to maximize strength and push at the point of attack.

He’s the easy choice to be the go-to backup for Will Hernandez while also figuring to be the next in line player to see the field if something happens to Zeitler. The Giants have been missing powerful guards like Hernandez and Lemieux for some time now and the combination of both of them playing, with a functional center, would improve what was a dismal inside rushing game in 2019.

There have been a lot of assumptions going around the Twittersphere that Lemieux is cross-training to be the starting center in 2020. I’m very dubious of his ability to successfully do this in the coming year. The lack of experience, questionable athletic ability, and the shortened offseason will make that an almost unattainable goal. However, I do believe there’s a possibility of developing into that position, but for 2020, at an effective level, it seems unlikely.

Even with my questions about a full-fledged transition to center, I still hold high hopes for Lemieux as the primary swing interior offensive lineman. He should excel in a phone booth and bring a physical nature to the Giants’ offensive line that it has sorely missed over the last few seasons.

Potential candidate: Nick Gates

We saw Gates fill in for Zeitler last season against Miami in Eli Manning’s farewell victory. He seemed to struggle with the power of Davon Godchaux and Christian Wilkens in the trenches and, from the eye test, several running plays weren’t blocked correctly because of the lack of strength at the point of attack. This concerns me about Gates, who was a 2018 undrafted rookie free agent out of Nebraska.

Even with my concerns, Gates is a 24-year-old player who did more than many people expected. Pro Football Focus graded his Miami performance out to be his best overall game with both pass and run blocking, and there’s something to be said for that. I still have some reservations for the 6-foot-5, long-legged, guard as a long term answer as an interior offensive lineman. I think he can be adequate in this role, but someone a team would look to replace.

With that being stated, I think Gates fits much better as a tackle. He frames his blocks well on an island, has good feet, can kick-slide (something some former Giants’ tackles just couldn’t do), and he does a good job hand fighting. He was able to handle wide rushers well and didn’t overextend himself. His anchor wasn’t great, but it was serviceable and I honestly feel like Gates is a better tackle than he’s given credit for - see his first start against the Jets.

It’s shocking to think that even as a tackle, Gates would still be 4th on the pecking order behind Andrew Thomas, Cameron Fleming, and Nate Solder. I wouldn’t say it’s an embarrassment of riches, but it’s a great “problem” to have. As for the interior offensive line, Gates’ versatility will allow him to play if needed, but I think he’ll be better off as a tackle in terms of play effectiveness. In terms of center, it’s similar to Lemieux; the lack of experience is going to hurt him in that department, especially with this turbulent 2020 offseason.

Underdog: Kyle Murphy

There are currently six interior offensive linemen, including Gates who’s more of a tackle, on the roster and one of them is an undrafted rookie out of Rhode Island named Kyle Murphy. At Rhode Island, Murphy was a versatile team captain who drew a ton of buzz around the scouting community, yet fell out of the draft which may have been a product of his lack of height (6-foot-3) and his lackluster bench reps (19, 10th percentile).

Murphy is short for an NFL tackle, but he also started games at guard and center. Outside of Pulley, Murphy is the only other player who has started collegiate games at center within the last 5 years. The unknown with Halapio may lead to Murphy earning a roster spot as a center. He’s a smart player which does help, but he’ll have to get stronger.

I believe that the Giants will add another center before the start of the season and this may relegate Murphy to the practice squad. The NFL now carries two extra roster spots on game day that are meant for practice squad players who don’t need to pass through the waiver system. Murphy may find himself in that role for the 2020 season. Either way, Pulley does not have a firm grasp on the center position, and the Giants love versatile, so it’s not crazy to think that Murphy outright earns a spot on the roster.

Final thoughts

The Giants have one really foundational guard that they can grow within Lemieux, as well as another versatile player that can play guard in Gates. Murphy too is incredibly versatile but is only an undrafted free agent, but his presence on the roster may be dictated by the lack of interior offensive line depth. If Halapio can return healthy, then he is certainly an option to compete for the center job as well.

Joe Judge and his coaching staff have made it known that they want versatile players who can execute many roles and Murphy proved he could do that in college, but will it translate to the next level? Training camp may be telling for the answer to that question. As I previously stated, I do believe the Giants will have to add another veteran center to legitimately push Spencer Pulley at the position. Pulley hasn’t yet earned the spot of center and is receiving it by default. That could prove to be a perilous move, especially if these younger players with limited to no experience at center fail to make the transition, which seems to be likely in 2020.