When Dave Gettleman was hired as the New York Giants general manager before the end of the 2017 season, he made the offensive line his top priority.
And Gettleman did follow through on that priority, pouring resources into the line in a wide-ranging bid to improve it. The Giants traded EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul to free up the money used to make Nate Solder the highest paid tackle in the NFL, they signed OG Patrick Omameh to a (relatively) rich contract, traded center Brett Jones to open the door for Jon Halapio (and Spencer Pulley), and spent significant draft capital on Will Hernandez (2nd round), Andrew Thomas (4th overall), Matt Peart (3rd round), and Shane Lemieux (fifth round)
Unfortunately, despite all the resources, the results just haven’t been there for the Giants.
In their ongoing preview of the 2021 season, analytics outlet Pro Football Focus has graded the Giants’ offensive line as the worst line in the NFL.
Let’s take a look at what they have to say in support of their ranking, and then see what it means going forward.
32. New York Giants
Giants offensive linemen have combined to produce the fifth-worst overall grade in the league over the past two years, and they rank in the bottom eight in both pass blocking and run blocking.
Starting left tackle Nate Solder opted out in 2020, which hurt the team’s depth up front. First-rounder Andrew Thomas started at left tackle and struggled to a 62.4 overall grade. His 54.7 pass-blocking grade also ranked just 82nd out of 89 qualifiers. Solder is currently in the mix to start at right tackle, a position he hasn’t played since his rookie year in 2011. In his two years in New York, Solder has posted a solid 75.7 grade and a career-low 64.9 mark. He could be a cap casualty before the season.
Matt Peart, a 2020 third-rounder, is competing at right tackle after grading out at 69.7 overall on 150 snaps as a rookie. Peart enjoyed a good career at UConn and is young at the position, so he has starting potential at some point.
On the interior, Nick Gates returns after moving to center for the first time in his career in 2020. He managed just a 59.7 grade, though, ranking 29th among centers. Guard is wide open, with several players battling for the two starting spots. Will Hernandez is a three-year starter at left guard, although he hasn’t graded over 60.0 since his rookie season. Shane Lemieux played 504 snaps there last year and struggled to a 32.2 overall grade. Zach Fulton is also in the mix after recording a 63.0 overall grade last season, ranking 44th among 86 qualifying guards.
For perspective, former Giants starter Kevin Zeitler earned a 65.9 overall grade, though that’s the only time in his career with a season mark below 73.0. Kenny Wiggins and Jonotthan Harrison also have starting experience, but neither has graded above 62.1 in any season in their respective NFL careers.
The bottom line is that the Giants’ offensive line is a massive question mark. They need their young players to develop and their veterans to provide career years just to rank in the middle of the pack for 2021.
Do the Giants really have the worst offensive line in the whole NFL? I think I’ve made my general feelings regarding PFF’s normalized number grades fairly clear, so I’m not going to go there.
However, the points PFF raises in support of their ranking do track with concerns regarding the Giants’ offensive line. The team finished worst in the league in Pass Block Win Rate (the rate at which linemen were able to hold their blocks for longer than 2.5 seconds) at 46 percent, per ESPN.
They were better at run blocking, with both Will Hernandez and Andrew Thomas finishing in the top 10 of their respective positions and their work as a unit landing them 18th in the NFL with a 70 percent success rate — though that was still only 3 percent better than the Jets, Chiefs, and Chargers, tied at the bottom of the NFL at 67 percent.
Likewise, Daniel Jones was sacked 45 times in his 14 starts, up from 38 sacks as a rookie, despite throwing fewer passes in 2020 than in 2019.
The Giants’ moves over the 2021 offseason — such as adding contested catch specialist Kenny Golladay, speedsters Kadarius Toney and John Ross, and cannon-armed backup Mike Glennon — suggest that they want to move toward a more vertical passing offense.
In the running game, the decision to replace Wayne Gallman Jr. with Devontae Booker, as well as the return of Saquon Barkley, suggests a move back to more of a zone blocking scheme.
Both of those desires could be problems for the offensive line. While we know that deeper passing (generally in the 10-15 yard range) is more valuable for offenses and generally results in more points, it places more strain on a team’s pass protection to hold up longer.
And while the Giants were able to run the ball with success in the second half of the season, much of that could be attributed to the hyper-efficient nature of Gallman’s game and the switch to a down-hill power run game to accommodate him. The Giants struggled with zone blocking in the first half of the season and were forced to use a specific sub-package to have success in the second half. While that might have helped to keep defenses off balance, we don’t know how the new-look offensive line will hold up when asked to block in that fashion full time.
Frankly, the Giants have a young offensive line with plenty of questions, at least some of which are going to be answered poorly. The team would likely prefer to have at least a couple veterans on the line to scaffold the unit while the young core solidifies. However, Nate Solder is likely the only veteran anyone really wants to see take a snap, and where to play him becomes a thorny question. Do the Giants play him at left tackle, moving Thomas to right tackle (resetting his development) and moving Peart to the bench (putting his development on pause)? Or do they play Solder, who gave up 20 sacks in two years at left tackle, to a new position, while moving Peart to the bench (again, pausing his development)? Or do they just leave Solder as a highly-paid back-up and mentor and ride out the bumps in the road with Will Hernandez as the most experienced player on the offensive line?
There is good news in all this, however.
The Giants have a lot of young linemen, but they have the upside to make strides in the coming year. They also have new offensive line coach Robert Sale, who comes from Louisiana with a strong reputation as a teacher and a history of turning less-than-stellar recruits into NFL caliber players. Andrew Thomas did show improvement in the second half of the season, reacting better to speed, with less of a tendency to over-set and expose the B-gap (except for when Haason Reddick ate his lunch in week 13). Matt Peart flashed the upside he showed at UConn when he was on the field, and he should have the opportunity to build upon those flashes. Finally, it’s possible that at least part of Will Hernandez’s struggles were related to the after effects of COVID-19, which he contracted at the end of October.
There are reasons to believe — or at least hope — that the Giants offensive line won’t be the problem it could be in 2021.
However, the team desperately needs the unit to improve. After years of pouring resources into their line, they need to be able to get off the hamster wheel and start investing in other areas of the team if they want to take steps forward as a franchise.