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Building a championship Giants roster: Offensive line

Andrew Thomas has a big payday in his future, but how should the Giants allocate money across the OL?

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Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
Andrew Thomas in action against the Dallas Cowboys
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The surprising 2022 New York Giants sit today at 7-2, tied for the second-best record in the NFL and ranking at the moment as the top Wild Card playoff seed. The Giants’ record is better than that of the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cincinnati Bengals. Imagine going back in time and telling that to a Giants fan in March. It hasn’t always (or even usually) been pretty, but the combination of excellent coaching and some smart personnel decisions has worked wonders.

That having been said, even the most optimistic fan has to admit that the Giants are a work in progress. There are holes throughout the roster that need to be filled to make the Giants a true contender in 2023 and beyond. At the same time, the current roster has some definite “keepers” who hopefully have long-term futures wearing blue. During the bye week there was considerable chatter about the Giants locking in some of their better young players with long-term second contracts. Nothing got done, though, setting up a very interesting offseason for Giants General Manager Joe Schoen.

The problem is that the NFL is a salary-capped league. You can’t pay everyone what they think they deserve or what their agents think they can get elsewhere. “Home-town discounts” are mostly wishful thinking when it comes to extending top-tier players. How does one build a championship team under these financial constraints?

The biggest offseason personnel questions the Giants have are at quarterback and running back. We have no idea how the Giants’ coaches view the futures of Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley. Bringing both of them back will have big implications for the Giants’ salary cap space going forward. Everyone has an opinion, but there is little else to be said about that at the present time.

Some positions are of less value than others in today’s NFL and thus command less money. The Giants need another tight end to complement Daniel Bellinger, but that can easily be accommodated in the draft. The same is true of off-ball linebacker, where the Giants have both cheap veterans and rookies but should still look to draft one in 2023. Safety is a position at which the Giants appear to be set; Xavier McKinney and Julian Love will likely get second contracts, but that position does not break the bank, and Dane Belton is on a fourth-round rookie contract for the next three years.

Let’s focus instead on position groups of need that are crucial to winning, involve multiple players, and require at least some big contracts. This post focuses on the most obvious of these, the offensive line.

How much does a top-ranked offensive line cost?

Pro Football Focus recently ranked the NFL’s top offensive lines through the first nine weeks of the season. This is a partly subjective exercise, but PFF’s placing of the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, and Kansas City Chiefs in the first three slots is not unreasonable. Offense depends on more than just the OL, but these teams are currently No. 4, 5, and 2 in yards per game in the NFL, so they are reasonable goals for the Giants to aspire to for their own OL looking to the future. Below is a chart showing the 2022 performance of the starting offensive lines for each team, as well as for that of the Giants, from Pro Football Focus. The specific names are the players who have gotten the greatest number of snaps. Also listed are the cap hits for each player for 2022, 2023, and 2024, from Over The Cap. (A zero cap hit indicates that the player is not signed for that year.)

Data from Pro Football Focus and Over The Cap

Offensive line performance is a combination of the every-down, little things that contribute to the success of each block and may often go unnoticed by the average fan, and the higher profile bad or disastrous plays that affect the quarterback’s ability to make or complete a pass. The chart above tries to capture both, with overall PFF pass block and run block grades plus specific stats on sacks and total pressures (QB sacks + hits + hurries). Some of the boxes are color coded green and pink to highlight better and worse performance, respectively. The chart also indicates whether each player was drafted by his current team (“x”) or not.

Some of the lessons we can take from this chart are:

  • Even the best offensive lines are not great across the board. Most of the Eagles’ and Browns’ starting OLs are at or above-average, but each line has its weakness. For the Eagles that is left tackle Jordan Mailata, who has been average in blocking overall but has already given up 4 sacks and 17 total pressures. (The Eagles’ Monday night game is not included.) For the Browns it is left tackle Jedrick Wills, who has a similar line as Mailata but with 24 pressures surrendered. For the Chiefs, right tackle Andrew Wylie has underperformed across the board and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. hasn’t done much better. If you can find a couple of elite offensive linemen and complement them with a couple of average or slightly-above average players, that’s enough to compete for a championship.
  • The Giants on the other hand have been subpar or barely average at four of five positions on the offensive line, with only LT Andrew Thomas excelling. Their PFF grades on average are 7-15 points lower than those of the best offensive lines, with little noticeable difference between run and pass. The line has been pretty good avoiding disastrous pass plays, though. In particular Ben Bredeson played fairly well before being injured, allowing no sacks and only six pressures. The Eagles’ line is as impenetrable as they come, but the Giants’ OL has given up as many sacks as the Browns’ and the Chiefs’ lines, and they have allowed about as many pressures overall as that of the Browns and many fewer than that of the Chiefs.
  • The teams with the top-tier offensive lines show that their is no single way to build a great OL. The Eagles start an entirely home-grown group, obtained through the draft, with a mix of young players and veterans. The Browns and Chiefs by contrast have gone outside for 60 percent of their starting lines, as have the Giants.
  • None of the best teams are spending an inordinate amount of money on their starting OLs...this year. Each is in the $28-29M range, compared to the Giants’ $20M. In future years, though, this changes dramatically for Philadelphia and to a lesser extent for Cleveland. Not all of this money is guaranteed, though, so these teams decided in the offseason to make a Super Bowl push this year and pay the piper in the future. That payment will come in the form of releasing one or more of their starters (e.g., none of Lane Johnson’s salary is guaranteed beyond this season), adding void years, extending their contracts, or biting the bullet and paying them at the expense of needed improvements elsewhere on the team.

An OL strategy for the Giants

Joe Schoen has bitten the bullet this year to try to create a good cap situation for the Giants in 2023 and beyond. The question is to what extent he is willing to play the cap wizardry games that so many NFL GMs do. A second question is whether it is even possible to avoid these games of pushing costs into the future given the market for players at vital positions and a cap that rises more slowly than the top end of that market does.

There is close to zero probability that the Giants do not sign Andrew Thomas to a second contract. He has become perhaps the best left tackle on the planet, he has worked hard through early adversity and caused no problems, and he mans what might be the second most important position on an NFL team. His performance this year dictates a top-of-the-line salary. Here are the top 10 LT salaries at the present time from Over The Cap:

Data courtesy of Over The Cap

It’s hard to believe that Thomas will be willing to sign a contract that does not place him at or near the top of this list, with most of the money being guaranteed. To be at the top of your profession at age 23 gives him all the leverage. Six years at $150M total value, with $100M guaranteed, would be all-time highs in total value, average annual value, and fully guaranteed money, while tying for the second longest left tackle contract ever (Tyron Smith of the Cowboys signed for eight years in 2016.)

Evan Neal is not yet a good NFL right tackle, although he is already the 11th highest paid RT by virtue of being a No. 7 draft pick:

Data courtesy of Over The Cap

Neal has improved since his first game, and it is reasonable to expect him to continue to do so when he returns to the lineup. From a financial standpoint it would be better if his ceiling is as a good rather than great tackle, because that would limit the value of his second contract. But if we assume that he becomes a top-tier right tackle, then after the 2024 season Schoen will probably need to offer him something in the $100M total value range. The fact that Schoen was willing to use a high first-round pick on him suggests that he will. For the next two-plus seasons, though, Neal will be a bargain, with cap hits of $5.5-7.8M, if he reaches his potential.

If both of these occur (only the 2024 Eagles have two OL players scheduled to make $20M in the same year), that puts the Giants in the $45-50M per year range in a few years for only 40 percent of their starting OL. That is already a hefty fraction of what the salary cap will be. If that happens, and if Schoen chooses not to defer a major portion of the costs to future years as his predecessor was criticized for doing, then he will really only have two choices: Pick up the fifth-year option for Neal and then replace him via the draft, or more likely, fill out the interior offensive line with much cheaper alternatives.

That is really the big question about Schoen’s philosophy of roster construction. The NFL is in the middle of a revolution in players’ control over their salaries. Is there a way to build a sustainable championship contender under today’s NFL salary cap structure, or is it necessary to take a shot to try to grab the ring now and accept cap-imposed mediocrity in the future? (See: Los Angeles Rams, 2022). Is it possible to do it with players who spend their entire careers with one team? Or is the era of second contracts drawing to a close? We will begin to see Schoen’s answers to those questions in a few months.

Schoen’s only free agent “splurge” in 2022 was a three-year, $6.1M per year average contract to free agent right guard Mark Glowinski. That may seem a bit rich considering Glowinski’s play this season, but only $11.4M of his contract is fully guaranteed, none of it in 2024, so he could well be gone after 2023. Starting center Jon Feliciano is on a one-year contract with a $2.9M cap hit. What you see is probably what you are going to get from both players.

But that is not necessarily the case elsewhere on the IOL. The Giants actually have an intriguing set of young guard alternatives, all of them very cheap and a couple with the potential to play center: Bredeson, Shane Lemieux, Joshua Ezeudu, Nick Gates, and Marcus McKethan.

Can two players out of this list develop into above-average IOLs and a third at least a marginally effective player with good coaching from OL coach Bobby Johnson? If so, the Giants may already have all the ingredients on their roster for a future Super Bowl-worthy offensive line. If Schoen and the Giants’ coaches do not see such potential, then expect them to use a 2023 draft pick on an IOL, but not in Round 1.