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Better or worse? Will the Giants improve at center, guard?

New York counting on young players after letting veteran guard Kevin Zeitler go

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New York Giants are fully aware that their main priority, other than winning football games, is to ensure that 2019 sixth-overall pick Daniel Jones is given the chance to succeed in New York. Jones has flashed in his two seasons, but the 2020 offense was still stagnant for too long.

GM Dave Gettleman and company knew that Jones needed more help, so they allocated assets to bring in skill position players for Jones to throw to. These were, of course, wise investments to make, but the wide receivers weren’t the only issue in 2020.

The Giants offensive line surrendered 218 pressures last season while ranking (by grade) dead last in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. The line was young and made too many mistakes that halted drives in their tracks. The offensive line went through some turmoil when former coach Marc Colombo and head coach Joe Judge didn’t see eye to eye, leading to Colombo being replaced midseason by Dave DeGuglielmo.

The tackles were a mess for much of the season - Andrew Thomas stabilized a bit down the stretch of the year - and the left guard spot struggled mightily in pass protection. The run blocking improved after Colombo was let go and Lemieux joined the lineup.

PFF had the Giants ranked 23rd in run blocking on the season; had the Giants ranked 21st in successful play rate with a slightly below average “success rate over average” efficiency. COVID-19 plagued Will Hernandez and tackle Matt Peart, which may have led to some late-season struggles from the two players.

Let’s look specifically at the interior offensive line, where New York is going to be relying on several players to take a step forward. This is a somewhat bold ask filled with reasonable hubris, but surmising that the offensive line may be more stable with Rob Sale taking over as offensive line coach is fathomable. However, not adding anyone in the draft while losing a player like Zeitler and bringing in a declining veteran in Fulton may lead to serious depth issues if injuries happen.

Key losses: Kevin Zeitler, Cam Fleming
Key additions: Zach Fulton, Jonotthan Harrison

Why the Giants could be better

Nick Gates is a 2018 undrafted tackle out of Nebraska who made a magnificent transition to center last season despite a truncated offseason. Gates processed the position well mentally, did a good job on combo blocks, and was impressive kicking into space on screens and pulling plays, all while learning a new position against the best in the world.

The cards seemed stacked against Gates last year, but he was able to be an adequate starting center in an unstable situation - this at least partly suggests that he can grow and take his game to the next level. I wish things were that simple, but Gates displayed the traits necessary to have success playing center in the NFL. He just needs to sink his center of gravity a bit and develop a bit more power at the point of attack.

Hopefully, with Sale in the house, Gates can develop even further as that would help Lemieux and Hernandez. The former will more than likely stay on the left side, whereas the latter is transitioning to the right - something he has never done. Lemieux was one of, if not, the worst pass-blocking guards in the NFL last season. From this standpoint - hopefully - he can only get better.

Lemieux struggled to initially handle power and counter moves while in a phone booth. Lemieux surrendered five sacks and 25 pressures in just 299 pass-blocking snaps. That’s above an 11 percent pressure rate from the interior. Defensive coordinators took notice of his early struggles and started scheming to manipulate the left side of the Giants protection packages. They would occupy Gates and scheme pressure, whether it be five men or stunts/twists, at Lemieux and Thomas.

This led to a lot of Daniel Jones not even hitting his back foot before pressure was in his face. If Lemieux can get marginally better with his pass protection, then the Giants could be in a much better position for Jones to find his shiny new toys and his old effective ones. From a run blocking standpoint, Lemieux’s tenacity and toughness, as well as his ability to execute traps, counters, and pulls, were important down the stretch of the season. If Lemieux just repeats this ability, then the Giants can still maintain some semblance of a rushing attack.

Zeitler was a more experienced and more refined player than Lemieux or Hernandez - that can’t be understated. If, however, Hernandez reaches the talent and potential that I believe to be there in his game, then New York may find a better, stronger, and more athletic version of Zeitler.

Hernandez has been guilty of lethargy at times in his tape; I don’t know if it was due to underestimation or fatigue, but there were snaps in 2019 of him looking a bit enervated. His 2018 tape set a foundation of potential that he hasn’t lived up to. He’s strong, has a firm anchor, fluid hips, and he’s solid when down blocking - he is just maddeningly inconsistent with these positive traits.

Hernandez reportedly lost some weight this offseason which can help with his ability in space. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that, if developed and keyed in, he can be a better version of Zeitler. That is a big if, though. It’s his contract year, so it’s incredibly important to Hernandez’s wallet as well.

The backup center position is now, presumably, owned by Jonnotthan Harrison — a big upgrade over Spencer Pulley. Kyle Murphy and Brett Heggie will also have a shot in training camp, but Harrison is a better option than Pulley was as a backup.

The trio of Gates, Lemieux, and Hernandez is a projection that hasn’t been proven successful. There are reasons to detract and reasons for optimism. The development, and the coaching, will be paramount for these three players heading into this season. The offense needs these three to raise their level to something around the average point of the NFL if this team wants to compete. This is doable, but not certain.

Why the Giants are worse

Losing Zeitler hurts, but it was a necessary move to create salary cap space. It didn’t take long for Zeitler to find a new home in Baltimore. Zeitler tailed off towards the end of the 2020 season, but he was playing next to an inexperienced Matt Peart and an experienced, yet ineffective, Cam Fleming.

Lemieux and Hernandez, who split time at left guard for the Giants, combined would total the most pressures allowed by any guard in the NFL. They would also be tied for second in sacks allowed. The only player who allowed more sacks than their combination is the insurance policy that New York signed in former Texan Zach Fulton.

The depth behind the trio of young players is concerning. Harrison hasn’t seen snaps since 2019 and he’s a center only. Fulton surrendered 11 sacks last season for the Texans, but he can play both guard and center if asked. Fulton at least had a lot of solid tape with the Chiefs from a few years ago, but his time in Houston was unfruitful.

Last year, the Giants had Hernandez as their swing guard by the end of the season. I would feel much more comfortable with him as our swing IOL rather than Fulton. Fulton may have just had a bad season in a bad situation, but the Giants 2020 offensive line situation wasn’t much better than the Texans; plus, Zeitler’s departure means that one of the only stable pieces of that 2020 line is no longer here.

Judge and the Giants are hoping that these young linemen can be developed by Sale and his staff. If Peart starts over Solder Hernandez would be the line’s elder statesman — and he’s only 25! Youth anchored by effective veterans is an important way for offensive lines to develop cohesion and avoid errors. The weight on this offensive line’s shoulders is massive. The Giants need to develop these players and hope injuries don’t happen because the depth isn’t great.

Final thoughts

New York hopes the development of this line can transpire under Sale and with a year of snaps under all their belts. It’s certainly possible, but there are too many variables at play here. Not only do the Giants need Gates, Lemieux, and Hernandez to stay healthy and progress, but they also need both tackles to do the same. It’s a lot to ask from a young line, but the group’s development may determine whether the Giants will be the successful team we all hope they can become.