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2021 NFL Draft: How much help does the Giants’ offensive line need?

That depends how you feel about the young players they have already invested in

NFL: NOV 08 Giants at Washington Football Team
Matt Peart
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How much attention do the New York Giants need to give the offensive line in the 2021 NFL Draft? With just hours to go until the first pick is announced, that is one of the more hotly-debated topics in the team’s fanbase. Over the months leading up to the draft it has also likely been a focus of discussions amongst Giants decision-makers.

Let’s try to unpack the layers of that decision.

Where things stand

The Giants offensive line did not, overall, play at an acceptable level in 2020. Pro Football Focus ranked the line 31st in the 32-team league. Ouch!

At tackle, the Giants currently appear to be counting on second-year players Andrew Thomas at left tackle and Matt Peart at right tackle. Nate Solder would be the swing tackle.

The Giants, with four highly-regarded tackles to pick from, chose Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick in 2020. He ended up playing far worse than the other three rookie tackles the Giants could have selected — Mekhi Becton, Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs. Thomas, in fact, allowed more pressures (57) and sacks (10) than any tackle in the league.

Matt Peart, drafted 99th overall as a potential right tackle of the future, had an up-and-down rookie season. Peart played really well at times while subbing in at both left and right tackle. His season was interrupted when he contracted COVID-19. He played sparingly over the season’s final few weeks, and finished the year on a down note with a couple of poor performances.

The Giants let their best offensive lineman, veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, go in a salary cap move. “Best offensive lineman” may be a relative description, though, since Zeitler had the worst season of his nine-year career in 2020.

The Giants enter the draft with Will Hernandez, Shane Lemieux and Zach Fulton as the three top candidates for their two guard spots. None was really all that impressive in 2020.

Hernandez is an enigma. He was a universally loved selection when the Giants took him 34th in the 2018 draft. He hasn’t been a bad player. Rather, he simply has not progressed to become the dominant guard many expected. In 2020, Hernandez actually regressed. He pass-blocking score of 50.9 was more than 20 points below that of his first two seasons. He ended up splitting time with Lemieux, lost a few weeks to COVID-19, and barely played down the stretch. Hernandez gave up a career-worst 22 pressures despite playing roughly half the snaps he had in his first two seasons.

The Giants love Lemieux’s toughness and his run blocking potential. His pass blocking, though, was atrocious in 2020. He had a horrific 16.9 PFF grades as a pass blocker, allowed a pressure every 12 snaps and had a poor 94.7 pass blocking efficiency score.

Fulton is a seven-year veteran coming off a career-worst season in which he was charged with 11 sacks and 39 pressures while posting the worst pass blocking efficiency rating (96.1) of his career.

Nick Gates struggled early in his transition to center, but overall appeared capable of handling the position. Over his final 11 games, Gates allowed just one quarterback hit and one pressure as a pass blocker. Over that same 11-game stretch, Gates posted six of his seven highest run blocking grades.

Extenuating circumstances

In many ways, the deck was stacked against the young, inexperienced Giants’ offensive line from the beginning of the 2020 season.

A coaching change that led to a completely new offensive scheme. A once in 100 years pandemic that derailed spring and summer offseason workouts. Solder’s opt out. Those things were difficult enough.

There was also coaching turmoil. Head coach Joe Judge obviously did not like the results early in the season, and he and offensive line coach Marc Colombo butted heads. Colombo was eventually fired, replaced by vagabond offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. He is a good coach, but DeGuglielmo candidly admits he has little use for rookies, who, in his words, belong “over there” somewhere. That, perhaps, made him not a great fit for a line with three rookie starters and a young first-time starter at center.

The Giants are banking on improvement from the young players they invested in just a year ago. They should get at least some, based on experience in the league and with each other, as well as what the Giants hope will be a more stable coaching situation.

Rob Sale, a first-time NFL coach with a reputation for developing young players of various ability levels, is Judge’s hand-picked new offensive line coach. Judge promoted Freddie Kitchens to senior offensive assistant, stating that one of his primary roles will be to work with Sale and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett on offensive line issues. Pat Flaherty, offensive line coach for the Giants during the Tom Coughlin era, has also been hired as a consultant and should lend a hand to the offensive line.

“Rob is an excellent teacher. He’s a great, high energy coach and very detailed on the field. His guys respond to him,” Judge said. “I’ve watched him develop a number of players at different places, whether he was at Georgia, Arizona State, Louisiana, I’ve watched him develop a number of offensive linemen that have been successful.”

The draft class

The Giants obviously believe in their young players and have gone all in to give them every chance to succeed.

“At some point in time, you’ve got to let the young kids play. Listen, every player was a rookie at some point or a young player at some point. At some point in time, you have to have confidence in who’s on your club and you have to put him in there and let him play,’ Gettleman said. “Like I’ve said to some of you, how many of you had Pulitzer Prize-winning articles your first or second year?”

That, though, doesn’t mean that there is not a need to add talent to the group.

When Kevin Gilbride was Giants’ offensive coordinator the team went from 2009, when it selected Will Beatty in Round 2, to a first-round selection of Justin Pugh in 2013 without putting any significant resources into the offensive line. They have tried to rectify that, but in some ways are still chasing the elusive goal of correcting that mistake.

Gilbride brought that up with me in a recent conversation marking his debut in May as a head coach in The Spring League.

“I know that Dave Gettleman is painfully aware of the shortcoming at the end of my time with the offensive line. He’s done everything he can to address that. I know it’s gone maybe a little more slowly than the Giants fans would want, but he certainly made the commitment to getting that problem solved,” Gilbride said.

“That helps the young guy [quarterback Daniel Jones] more than anything else. Then he’s just gotta make that step where he sees things quickly enough that he doesn’t hang in the pocket that long. Some of the misfortune he has experienced is really when he’s trying to make more out of a play than the play is allowing.”

Gettleman has been adamant he if comfortable with Peart starting at right tackle. If, though, Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, the consensus best offensive lineman in the class and the top-rated tackle on the Big Blue View Consensus Big Board, somehow falls to No. 11 taking him could be a no-brainer.

The argument is murkier with the next two offensive linemen, Slater and Vera-Tucker. Both could play tackle or guard, with many seeing them as better long-term guards. With other needs, and the likelihood that there could be some dynamic playmakers available at No. 11, could the Giants justify taking a guard at No. 11?

What has to weigh into that decision is that most evaluators believe that there will be many starting-caliber guards, offensive tackles who could convert to guard, and centers with guard flexibility available all the way into Round 4.

Here are some of the offensive linemen Chris Pflum has profiled:

What the scouts say

In the past couple of weeks, nationally-known draft analysts Dane Brugler, Tony Pauline and Rob Rang have all appeared on episodes of the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast. Here are their thoughts on the Giants’ offensive line.

Dane Brugler (The Athletic)

On Andrew Thomas:

“I don’t know that Andrew Thomas is going to be able to live up to being the first tackle drafted that year, just because I think Mekhi Becton and Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs are going to be high-level players and probably outplay Andrew Thomas.

‘But, can Andrew Thomas be a starter and maybe even an above average starter? Yeah. I think he can be … he could be a guy that you win with, that can help you win football games, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.”

On Matt Peart:

“Very raw player. You feel like once the mechanics and timing become a little more consistent for him it’s really going to unlock everything. It’s going to take some time, i think for matt Peart and there’s going to be some hiccups along thew way but as long as the Giants stay patient with him I think he can get there.

“It’s absolutely fair to look at last year’s draft and say the Giants found their starting tackles.”

Tony Pauline (Pro Football Network)

“Last year was such a strange year, especially for offensive linemen, especially for young offensive linemen with no rookie mini-camps, no OTAs, no regular camps. It put those guys really on the back foot, number one.

“Number two I would have liked to see Matt Peart get more playing time last year to basically see what they have. I think Matt Peart could be a real good offensive tackle, but I would have liked to have see him play a little bit more.

“While the Giants offensive line needs help I don’t think the situation is as bad as many people project it to be be because I think once these guys start to play together more and more and get offseason work they’re going to become a much stronger unit.”

Pauline said he is “not as high” on Rashawn Slater as many draft analysts. He added that he felt Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis would be a “spectacular pick for the Giants somewhere on Day 2.”

“They’re going to be able to get a good offensive lineman, especially an interior offensive lineman, even a tackle because you’ve got enough talent at tackle to last you through the third round.

“The Giants will be able to come away with a good offensive lineman during the second ay, and I dare say even in the fourth round of this year’s draft.”

Rob Rang (FOX Sports/Locked on Seahawks)

“I am a fan of Matt Peart and I am a fan of Andrew Thomas as well. I do expect significant improvement. I thought that Andrew Thomas, at least nationally, has gotten a little bit of a bad rap for struggling as a rookie. I think that he played better than at least the national perception, and I think that he will make big strides in his second year.

“He certainly did that at Georgia, and I expect him to do the same in the NFL.”

If the Giants intend to play Rashawn Slater or Alijah Vera-Tucker at guard, Rang isn’t sure there is a reason to draft one at No. 11.

“To me that is the argument there. I don’t see the justification, I don’t see the value in selecting a guard at No. 11 overall when I think there’s a lot of other good guards that you might be able to find in the second round, or the third round for that matter,” he said.

Daniel Jeremiah (NFL Network)

Jeremiah spoke to media in a pre-draft videoconference. Here is what he said about the Giants’ offensive line:

“Well, obviously you’re not going to replace Andrew Thomas. You’re going to let him roll. I thought Gates played pretty well last year at center. Hernandez is still young.

“To me, Matt Peart, he’s like a swing tackle to me, like that’s kind of where his value is, and I know Solder is back in the mix, but I’m not going to rely on that all that much.

“If Slater is there I would pick him. If Sewell was somehow there I would take him. Outside of that I don’t think it’s something they need to force, and I get letting some of those young guys develop, but if you can get better, get better. That would be my kind of philosophy there.”

Final thoughts

I have laid out the decision the Giants face as well as I can, and given you the viewpoints of a number of highly-respect draft analysts.

My view? I am always a proponent of building your team from inside out — blockers and behemoths on the defensive line who can rush the passer and defend the run — before flashy skill position players.

With that backdrop, I could absolutely support a decision by the Giants to go all in on the offensive line by selecting Slater — and, to a lesser extent, Vera-Tucker. I believe they need to add a starting-caliber player.

I think, though, that the Giants can have their cake and eat it, too, in this draft class. I believe there is enough depth in the interior offensive line group that the Giants could prioritize a dynamic wide receiver/edge rusher/cornerback/linebacker at No. 11 and come away with a player capable of — at least — challenging Lemieux/Hernandez/Fulton on Day 2 or early into Day 3.