The beginning of the 2018 NFL season is just a few days away. As we collectively let that sink in, let’s continue our examination of our foes in blue, red and grey. The offensive line will certainly be the group that makes or breaks this season for the Giants. As Eli – who was never a mobile quarterback to begin with –continues to age it becomes ever more imperative to protect him. The front office also invested the highest pick the Giants have had in decades on darling new running back Saquon Barkley. As we determined last week, the 2017 run game was a disappointment, despite average blocking. You’ll notice below that the New York O-line wasn’t all that bad in pass protection either. The new look New York offensive line will also have a new coach in 2018. Hal Hunter is joining the team after spending 11 years in the NFL, coaching offensive line in various capacities.
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The operative statistic above is the time to throw. Former Head Coach Ben McAdoo regularly implemented short-pass heavy offensive game plans to mask the deficiencies along the offensive line. Think back to Week 3 of last season when Odell Beckham Jr. seemingly caught 100 slants against Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas. The team also avoided running the ball like the plague. Manning threw for a league high 38 times per game. In new Head Coach Pat Shurmur’s run-first scheme, that just won’t cut it. New GM Dave Gettleman had his work cut out for him revitalizing his collection of so-called “hog mollies”. Early in his tenure in New York he was quoted saying: “we’ve got to fix the O-line . . . let’s not kid each other.” While Gettleman was successful in acquiring some new talent, the group also lost their top two lineman from last year, as well as some key depth players.
Gone are Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, D.J. Fluker and Bobby Hart. Pugh had durability concerns; Richburg’s play made him too expensive to keep, especially coming off a season ending injury; D.J. Fluker’s mobility was cause for concern, and Bobby Hart was never a fan-favorite. On the other side of the coin: Pugh was the team’s best run blocker, and his versatility proved invaluable when injuries began taking their toll; Richburg was hands-down the team’s second-best lineman, and had been impressive since the Giants drafted him in the second round of the 2014 draft; Fluker was the team’s best depth player and a bright spot in a dismal 2017 campaign, and Hart was one of seven tackles to not allow a pressure all season (on 49 pass blocking snaps). The team also recently traded away Brett Jones, who many thought would be the team’s starting center for Week 1 against the Jaguars. It is reasonable to question if Gettleman did enough to recoup his losses.
The first major addition for the 2018 season is former New England Patriot Nate Solder. Per all accounts, Solder is a more-than-reliable option, and was tasked with protecting Tom Brady’s blindside for over half a decade. The Giants made him the top grossing left tackle in the league, giving him a four-year $62 million contract. It remains to be seen if he deserved a contract of that magnitude, however, Gettleman needed lineman and paid the price to secure the top tackle on the market. In 2017, Solder struggled to begin the season while dealing with some personal off-field issues. After Week 9, he was Pro Football Focus’ second-best rated left tackle. Still, the 30-year-old allowed a total of 51 pressures last season – not exactly top of the class. At 6’8” 325lbs, the man is imposing by nature, but wins more with length and athleticism than brute strength.
Playing left tackle for the Patriots comes with a certain prestige, nevertheless, Solder has never been named to the Pro Bowl, and has not graded in PFF’s top 30 tackles in years. The Patriots are notorious for cutting off loose ends and their cast-offs rarely have similar success elsewhere. There are two prevalent questions that surface when scrutinizing the new Giants left tackle. The first: how much was Solder’s pass-blocking aided by Bill Belichick’s game planning and Tom Brady’s quick release? The second: coming from a team that runs the football in such an unconventional way, how will Solder fare in a run-heavy, play-action offence? These queries should be answered early in the season. The Giants lineman are in for some immediate challenges facing off against the Jaguars, Cowboys, Texans, Panthers and Eagles in consecutive weeks.
The second free-agent acquisition by the new General Manager is former Jacksonville Jaguar Patrick Omameh. Looking to slot in at right guard for New York, Omameh has been a journeyman for most of his career after going undrafted in 2013. This will be his fifth NFL team. After spending top dollar on Solder and whiffing on top guard free-agent Andrew Norwell, I’m left to wonder if Omameh isn’t something of a consolation prize. He started 13 games at left guard for the Jags last season, but has played nearly the same amount of games on the right side. The transition back to the right side isn’t as worrying as having to play beside another transitioning lineman in Ereck Flowers. Omameh was aided last year by being a part of the league’s best rushing team and 5th best pass-blocking O-line (per Football Outsiders). Displaying strong hands and a good motor and drive off the football, he doesn’t have the athleticism to chase down athletic assignments. If he can get his hands on an opponent, he is able to lock them down, but that is an if. He has a short set in his pass blocking, and I worry about the combination of he and Ereck Flowers – who is a work in progress in terms of pass protection. According to local Giants reports, Omameh has not been spectacular this summer. He is the same age as Justin Pugh, but is less polished and as of now, does not seem to be an upgrade. He may, however, be an upgrade over John Jerry, who also started some games at guard last season and will come off the bench this year.
After using their top pick on Barkley, the Giants narrowed in on their rushing attack, drafting road-grader Will Hernandez at the top of the second round. Hernandez followed up the best college PFF rating of any guard ever with a dominant showing at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine. In his last two seasons at UTEP, Hernandez allowed a total of four pressures. The young man is a rough-and-tumble, rock’em-sock’em kind of player whose tape is full of pancakes and bus rides. He consistently blows people up at the point of attack in the run game. If the 37 reps of 225lbs on the bench press at the NFL Combine doesn’t impress you, watch at 0:50 as he manhandles his opponent. You can also see Hernandez’s ability to get to the second level of a defense through traffic (0:33). This is something the Giants struggled to so last season, as indicated by their second level yards. In terms of pass blocking, I think that being able to completely overpower every opponent may have instilled a few bad habits, but his performance at the Senior Bowl against superior talent would suggest otherwise. According to PFF, he was the second-best pass-pro lineman at the Senior Bowl behind Patriots’ Isaiah Wynn. At 1:33, he is a tad slow getting out of his stance, but his unbelievably strong anchor will save him more often than not. His footwork should get faster in a hurry. In fact, Hernandez is lauded for his plus athleticism, and is very capable of pulling and getting in front of screen passes. His attributes should fit perfectly into Pat Shurmur’s inside zone run scheme. The last thing he bring to the table is attitude. Per Eli Manning at non-contact OTAs: “Will Hernandez has already been in five fights. I love it.”
Now we come to the known entities in the New York Giants’ offensive line room. Until last week, Jon Halapio was buried behind former-CFLer Brett Jones. While Jones’ sendoff suggests some confidence in Halapio, it was a bit of a surprise. He played guard last season, and is still learning the center position, which he has never played at the professional level. This was evident in preseason. Last season he earned a PFF grade of 44.0: 52nd among guards and 13 points lower than his line-mate Ereck Flowers. When asked about Halapio getting the nod, Pat Shurmur said: “I think he’s done a good job communicating . . .[he has to] block his guy and then work in conjunction with the guys next to him and he has done a good job of that.” Shurmur was a former college center and may have more insight into the position than most coaches. Nonetheless, Halapio was a worse lineman than Brett Jones in every facet except one. The numbers don’t necessarily show it, but the former guard is a bigger man than Jones. Perhaps the Giants feel that Halapio is a better mainstay in the middle of a new-found run-happy team. Both men are a step below Weston Richburg.
The final starter is maligned former first-round pick Ereck Flowers. The young man – he is only 23 – has been a disappointment so far in his career. He did show improvement last season, recording the second longest snap streak without conceding a sack of any tackle. After a dreadful performance in Week 2 against the Lions, Flowers turned it around and looked like a serviceable starter for the first time in his career. Now he will have to abandon his progress and relearn the right tackle position: one that he hasn’t played since his freshman year at University of Miami. Known as a strong run-blocker coming out of college, he has sacrificed a step in that facet in order to focus on his pass protection. After getting habitually beat by faster edge rushers, Flowers widened his stance to facilitate a quicker post step. He will probably have to continue this on the right side of the line, where he will face the likes of Brandon Graham and Demarcus Lawrence twice a year. I think the most telling statement comes from his former coach Ben McAdoo: “[Ereck] can’t bend . . . you can run around him on that side just like you can on the other side. Eli just gets to see it.” Perhaps a move to the right side will facilitate a bounce back in a big way for Flowers, but I just don’t see it happening.
This go into terrible depth about the Giants’ backups, because they don’t really have any of merit. Chad Wheeler may step in at right tackle if Flowers struggles, but he has already lost an off-season battle to the worst starting tackle in the division. He can be decent with good guard play, but has injury concerns and needs to add play strength. New York then has a pair of 30-year old Johns manning the number two guard and center positions. Jerry is a guard who struggles as a run blocker, often whiffs and will only continue to get slower and weaker. He is an above average pass blocker, but not a game changer. John Greco is a 33-year-old backup center. That’s about it.
Best Case: While I do think the attitude adjustment and new faces were needed, I think this overhaul will take more than a year to come to fruition. If this group can improve their run blocking, something it seems poised to do, that will do wonders for their success in 2018. Shurmur will probably look to get the ball out relatively fast regardless, but providing Eli with a hair more than 2.5 seconds will also go a long way. I can’t see this O-Line cracking the top 10 on the PFF rankings, but they should finish better than the 25th place ranking they are pegged at for the 2018 season – if only just. Week 1 against the Jaguars will be a telling test.
Worst Case: Nate Solder is an upgrade at left tackle, absolutely; however, at this point in his career, and perhaps at any time during his career, he is not a one man show. Moving Flowers to the left side doesn’t guarantee his play will improve. I’ll admit I liked Will Hernandez coming into the 2018 draft, and I expect him to be a solid starter for the Giants. However, we rarely talk about guards as a game defining position. He should at least add some grit to the run game. Patrick Omameh doesn’t necessarily fill the hole left by Justin Pugh – he will almost decidedly be a downgrade. Trading away Brett Jones indicates some faith in Jon Halapio, but yet again, he will almost certainly be a step down from Weston Richburg. Despite the confidence the football world shows in Pat Shurmur’s ability to get the most out of his players, this group could in fact be worse in 2018.
Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports