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Position preview: Giants’ offensive line in state of upheaval

Preseason has brought uncertainty, raised level of concern

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Matt Peart (74) and Andrew Thomas (78) are important players for the Giants in 2021.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

For months, the New York Giants told us they believed in their offensive line.

Here is GM Dave Gettleman on Jan. 6, just days after the end of the 2020 season.

“I think this offensive line can compete. You can cherry pick here, cherry pick there, in terms of which game you want to pick and how the offense did. The offensive line showed very good progress,” Gettleman said. “They’re big, they’re young, they’re strong and they’re tough and smart. This O-Line has a chance to be pretty damn good.”

The Giants then doubled down on their young group. They cut veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, a move necessitated by the salary cap and made palatable because the Giants believed in Shane Lemieux and Will Hernandez.

They did not sign any big-name free agent offensive linemen. They did not draft a single offensive lineman. They passed on highly-regarded Rashawn Slater at No. 11, trading down to No. 20 and selecting wide receiver Kadarius Toney.

After the draft, Gettleman said this:

“It’s really apparent that we have a little more confidence in our offensive linemen than you guys do.”

So, let’s examine the offensive line situation as we go position-by-position through the 2021 Giants before they face the Denver Broncos in Week 1 of the 2021 season.

Where they started

When training camp began, here is what the Giants had and how they envisioned things playing out.

LT Andrew Thomas — After a rough rookie season, the Giants thought the 2020 No. 4 overall pick would settle in and become a fixture at left tackle.

LG Shane Lemieux — He has toughness and run blocking ability. The Giants counted on him to be the left guard, and figured experience and consistent coaching would help his pass blocking.

C Nick Gates — He settled in nicely last season at a position he had never played before. Despite his multi-position versatility, there was no indication the Giants thought he would do anything but anchor their line from that spot.

RG Will Hernandez — After the roughest season of his three years with the Giants, they asked Hernandez to move to right guard. The career left guard hasn’t been on the right side since high school.

RT Matt Peart — The Giants fully expected Peart, after a year of sporadic playing time and a chance to add some muscle to his body via an NFL weight program, to step up and solidify the right tackle job. That is why they used a third-round pick on him a year ago.

The Giants entered training camp with Nate Solder, Zach Fulton and Jonotthan Harrison penciled in as backups. They quickly signed Joe Looney. Veterans Kenny Wiggins and Chad Slade were also still around as added insurance.

Things have not gone as planned. Not even close.

Where they are now

Current roster

Starters: LT Andrew Thomas, LG Shane Lemieux, C Nick Gates, RG Will Hernandez, RT Nate solder/Matt Peart

Backups: Billy Price, Ben Bredeson

Practice squad: Jackson Barton, Jake Burton, Brett Heggie, Kenny Wiggins, Matt Skura

Here is where things stand.

The Giants are still expressing confidence.

“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in our guys up front,” offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said on Thursday. “We have a young group, they’re getting better, they’re working hard, they’re working the right way.”

They just aren’t acting confident.

Fulton and Looney retired, of course, throwing a monkey wrench into the Giants’ plans. Lemieux has barely practiced since injuring his knee at the beginning of camp. Harrison and Slade are gone. Wiggins is on the practice squad. Ted Larsen, added during training camp for depth, is on injured reserve. So, too, is second-year interior lineman Kyle Murphy.

The Giants have traded for two players this week — center/guard Billy Price and guard Ben Bredeson. They have added former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Skura to their practice squad.

There were also indications from reporters in attendance at Thursday’s practice that, just in case the Giants decide to shuffle some pieces around, Gates has been taking some reps at guard.

“I don’t want to deal in any hypotheticals. We’re always trying to get our team better, we’re trying to help the players who are here get better and we’re going to evaluate those players against each other, but also against the league. That’s when you make the decisions that we’ve made,” Garrett said. “There are some guys out there that we liked, we wanted to bring in. We’re going to give them a chance to get themselves acclimated and then we’ll decide who we think our best five are, what’re the best combinations and then we’ll go.”

As we did above, let’s go back through the positions and see where things stand.

Left tackle — Thomas is still the guy. And he is going to be the guy, unless he gets hurt. After drafting him No. 4 overall, making him the first offensive tackle taken in a deep and talented tackle class, the Giants have little choice.

Question is, which guy is he going to be?

Is he going to be the Thomas who was terrible the first half of last season? The Thomas who showed improvement the second half of 2020 and looked like a competent player with a chance to get better?

Training camp and preseason gave us confusing results.

Thomas was solid most of camp, with things around him seeming pretty quiet. He was good in 18 snaps against the New York Jets, earning a 100.0 pass blocking efficiency grade and an overall 76.0 score from Pro Football Focus.

He was abominable Week 3 vs. the New England Patriots. He gave up 1.5 sacks, several pressures and had an unacceptable 92.0 PFF grade in pass blocking efficiency. His overall score in 39 snaps vs. the Patriots was a barely passable 53.4.

Here is offensive line coach Rob Sale on the issue that plagued Thomas vs. New England:

Last year, Thomas often would “over-shoot his target” to the outside on pass rushes. That’s how former offensive line coach Marc Colombo phrased it last year, calling it a “cardinal sin” for an offensive lineman to lose inside leverage.

Now Thomas’ issue is that he’s not properly firing out wide enough in his pass sets, which led to most of the pressures he gave up against the Patriots. Giants offensive line coach Rob Sale referred to it as Thomas’ “Achilles heel” and said it’s also been an issue for right tackle Matt Peart.

Thomas is not “throwing his hips, punching and sliding his feet in transition,” Sale said on Thursday. “Everybody across the board has something: This is his weakness, this is their weakness. Andrew knows that. My job is to get him in drills and get him to stop doing that. That’s why I’m here to coach that out of him, to get him to punch, slide his feet and fight off the edge.”

I have said this before and will reiterate it — as the fourth overall pick and left tackle, Thomas is the single player who can change the narrative about the offensive line. If he is dependable, there are enough other pieces that things should fall into place in an acceptable way for the offensive line. And, much of the heat will be removed regarding the Giants’ offensive line decisions. If Thomas is terrible, if he spends a lot of the season playing as poorly as he did against the Patriots, things will get ugly. Games will be lost. Jobs will be lost. The season could take a bad turn.

Thomas knows the score.

“There’s definitely pressure, but I put pressure on myself,” he said after Sunday’s poor performance vs. New England. “I know I’ve been given this role and I have worked hard to be here. I have to step up and go do what I have to do to play well.”

Left guard — Lemieux suffered a partially torn patellar tendon in the first few days of training camp, throwing that position into turmoil. The Giants have lauded Lemieux’s toughness, which is one of the reasons they drafted him in Round 5 a year ago, and say that he intends to try and play through the injury.

That, though, is not going to be easy. From what I have been able to learn, this is an injury that can be played through without surgery depending upon the location and severity of the tear. It cannot be a good sign, though, that Lemieux has basically been shut down for the past couple of weeks after returning to practice for a few days following an initial absence of a couple of weeks.

Judge has said there may be rotations at some positions on the offensive line. With Lemieux’s health uncertain, left guard is a logical place to expect that.

The Giants got through the preseason with Wiggins and Larsen at left guard, but found both wanting.

That is where Price and Bredeson come in. How quickly both get up to speed on the Giants’ offense, and what the Giants think of them once they see them up close, are the questions. Bredeson was on the field Thursday. Price is apparently still going through COVID-19 protocol and won’t get on the field until next week.

The other factor is, with both Price and veteran Matt Skura (practice squad) now in the fold, would the Giants consider moving Gates to guard? We will talk more about that in a second.

Center — Gates is a solid center. Based on his performance, there is no reason to consider moving him from that spot or replacing him. Yet, he has the positional versatility to capably handle either a guard spot or right tackle. Gates has reportedly been taking some reps recently at guard. Perhaps the Giants’ best lineup will end up with Price or Skura at center and Gates at left guard.

I wonder, though, about Gates as the eventual right tackle if the Giants end up unhappy with the work of Solder and Peart. In 2019, Gates played 198 snaps for the Giants at right tackle and 77 at right guard.

Honestly, I would rather not see Gates move at all. Considering that they now have center depth, though, it has to be an option to get the best five linemen on the field.

Right guard — How Hernandez would handle a move across the line to the right side was one of the biggest questions heading into training camp. So far, so good. Hernandez was terrific in 39 snaps vs. the Patriots, earning an elite 92.2 grade from PFF. In 39 pass blocking snaps this preseason, he earned a perfect 100.0 pass blocking efficiency rate. In 18 run blocking snaps he graded at 82.9. Only four guards graded higher than Hernandez (87.0 overall) in the preseason. It is a small, but encouraging, sample size.

Right tackle — This position is almost certainly going to feature a rotation between Solder and Peart at the beginning of the season. That will likely last until one of the two grabs the job, or plays himself out of the rotation.

The Giants hope that Peart, the 99th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, will bookend with Thomas to give them solid tackle play for the next several years. His play this summer, though, was marked by inconsistency.

In the first preseason game, he surrendered a sack on the Giants’ first possession, but rebounded to play pretty well overall.

Things sort of went south for Peart Week 3. He had what most consider, seemingly including the Giants, an up-and-down pair of practices against the Patriots. That led to Solder being moved to the starting role. Peart’s overall PFF grade in 50 preseason snaps was a pedestrian 58.9. When Peart is good, he’s very good. In the NFL, though, two or three terrible reps per game can be the difference between winning and losing.

Solder is working on the right side for the first time since his rookie year of 2011. He is coming back at the age of 33 from opting out last season. He has drawn praise from Judge throughout the preseason.

Truth is, though, Solder wasn’t good for the Giants in 2019. Two years later, two years older and switching sides for the first time in a decade, it’s hard to have confidence. In an extremely small sample size of 11 snaps vs. New England, PFF gave Solder a 39.7 pass blocking grade.

Final thoughts

I am not anywhere close to being ready to toss in the towel and call the Giants’ decision to go all-in on their young, unproven offensive line a failure. We still have not seen anything that counts.

I am, though, admittedly concerned.

At the tackle spot some inconsistency from Peart is, I think, to be expected. My $.02 is that I think he will be fine in the long run, if being yanked in and out of the lineup in a rotation with Solder doesn’t destroy his confidence. It’s Thomas’s awful week against the Patriots that worries me. He was the fourth overall pick in the draft. If he can’t be relied upon to be a solid pass protector, the Giants will be in a world of hurt.

The Giants are unsettled right now at left guard, right tackle and — depending on what they decide to do with Gates — perhaps center. The uncertainty of who will play where is a major concern this close to season-opening games against the Denver Broncos, who have Von Miller, and Bradley Chubb, and a Washington Football Team that features Chase Young and Montez Sweat.