Think of it this way, if you will: If the Giants looked at their offensive line, as presently constituted, and decided, “Not nearly good enough,’’ it would be an indictment of what they put together one year ago.
Lest we forget, the Giants came out of the 2020 draft with three offensive linemen — taking one in the first (Andrew Thomas), third (Matt Peart) and fifth (Shane Lemieux) rounds. If all three are not in the plans in a major way a year later, something is wrong with that draft haul, and the evaluators who came together to make those selections have some explaining to do.
Guess what? All three are in the plans, in a big way. This is the main reason why the Giants did not select an offensive lineman with any of their six picks in the 2021 draft.
They did not go into the three-day event steering clear of this position group. They had a few offensive linemen lined up, but their value of the player never matched up with the grade on the draft board. They liked Liam Eichenberg from Notre Dame, but he went to the Dolphins at No. 42 in the second round, the pick the Giants gave up to drop down to No. 50.
There was absolutely no hint of desperation that, “We have to get one somewhere in this draft.’’
There is a simple explanation for this: As general manager Dave Gettleman stated, succinctly, those inside the building — the front office and coaching staff — believe in their offensive linemen a great deal more than anyone outside the building.
Gettleman said he is extremely pleased with the talent he added during the “roster-building season.’’ Daniel Jones, entering Year 3, gets to throw to marquee free-agent signing Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney — in addition to handing the ball or throwing it to Saquon Barkley, coming back from knee surgery.
Can the Giants protect Jones sufficiently? There has been little in the way of renovation to the offensive line. They released Kevin Zeitler, the steady 31-year old right guard, saving $12 million on the salary cap. They welcomed back veteran tackle Nate Solder, who opted out in 2020, but only after Solder accepted a significant slash in his salary.
The Giants believe they addressed their needs, as far as adding experienced players for depth purposes. Solder (127 NFL starts) is the swing-tackle backup, and Zach Fulton (90 starts) and Jonotthan Harrison (42 starts) are the primary reserves on the interior. The quality of this depth is up for debate.
The way things shape up in early May, the Giants, from left to right, line up with Thomas, Lemieux, Nick Gates, Will Hernandez and Peart as the starting group.
If this is the five-man starting unit, can it get the job done?
“I think they can,’’ Chris Snee, a four-time Pro Bowl guard for the Giants and most recently an offensive line scout for the Jaguars, told The Post. “Obviously the Giants organization thinks they can, so I hope they can. Myself and all the guys that have worn the colors have kind of been rooting for that unit to get back to what it was. It has been down for a while.’’
The line was ranked No. 31 (out of 32) in 2020 by Pro Football Focus, but the Giants are not buying into that evaluation. They think it is time for their youngsters to play. Gates and Hernandez are 25, Peart and Lemieux are 23 and Thomas is 22.
“I turn around and I say to myself, ‘OK, we rushed for 164 [actually 190] yards against the Seattle Seahawks, and we did a lot of really good things as the season progressed with the O-line,’ ’’ Gettleman said this week on WFAN. “Yet the perception persists that this group of guys is not good enough. Obviously I have a different opinion. And we, the Giants, have a different opinion. We have a number of young, talented players. It’s learning how to play the NFL game, understanding that every week you’re gonna play a guy who’s gonna try to rip your lungs out. So it’s a matter of putting on the big-boy pants, so to speak.’’
The Giants anticipate seeing significant progress from the three 2020 draft picks. Thomas will start again, at left tackle, after a rookie year filled with early struggles and later improvement. Lemieux is the favorite for the left guard spot, the role he filled as a starter nine times in his first season, his run blocking far more effective than his pass blocking. The outside expectation was for Peart to spend Year 1 indoctrinating to the NFL, but he was used in 11 games and received 150 snaps on offense, mostly at right tackle, and at times looked as if he truly belonged.
Peart could be the key to the entire deal. He is one of the players you select coming off the bus, a sleek 6-foot-7 athlete with a huge wingspan, gaining bulk and strength to his 318-pound rookie weight.
“He was a guy I visited three years consecutively at Connecticut,’’ Snee said. “As a sophomore when I saw him I immediately said, ‘Who’s that guy?’ He had everything you looked for from a physical-attribute standpoint. He moved well enough. He needed to get stronger. Athletic enough to play right tackle. The thing that I saw with him, and a lot of these young guys, especially the tackles, is the way they use their hands, that needs to be improved across the board. That will come with proper coaching.’’
Another key to the operation meshing: What is the deal with Hernandez? A 2018 second-round pick, he showed signs in 2019 of becoming the bullish guard the Giants envisioned him to be but 2020 was a lost season. He was not playing well early, missed two games after contracting COVID-19 and never regained his starting job. The Giants have not given up on him, though.
“I wouldn’t put him aside,’’ Snee said. “I wouldn’t, at all.’’
The Giants acknowledge, quietly, that the handling of their line in 2020 was not optimal. Marc Colombo was fired at the Week 11 bye week after an ugly confrontation with head coach Joe Judge, who did not feel Colombo was getting the most out of the young players. The replacement, Dave DeGuglielmo, arrived from outside the organization, a grizzled veteran coach with his own high-strung ways of doing things. He did not return and was hired to coach the offensive line at Louisiana Tech.
To rectify this unsettling situation, Judge has as much personnel assigned to work exclusively or in part with the line as there were Beatles. Rob Sale is the new offensive line coach, making his NFL debut. Ben Wilkerson returns as the assistant. Also set to spend time with the line: Freddie Kitchens, the senior offensive assistant, and Pat Flaherty, a two-time Super Bowl winner as the line coach with the Giants, brought in as a consultant.
There are not many fallback options remaining on the market. The Giants seem more interested in help at guard than tackle. The most attractive player out there is Trai Turner, a five-time Pro Bowler with the Panthers, a player Gettleman took in the third round of the 2014 draft for Carolina. Turner, 27, started nine games in 2020 for the Chargers. James Carpenter, 31, is a former first-round pick of the Seahawks and is on the market after the Falcons made him a salary cap dump.
Perhaps a veteran shakes loose this summer and the Giants take a look. If Solder, 33, is rejuvenated after a year away from the game, maybe his experience allows him to beat out Peart at right tackle. The Giants are committed to their youth movement but will make sure they put the five best players on the field.
“These guys have the ability to be really good,’’ Gettleman said. “To be a really good group.’’
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