What position Justin Pugh fills on the New York Giants offensive line has been a constant topic of conversation since he was drafted 19th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. It started in rookie camp last May and continued well into the 2013 season.
Despite all of this talk, Pugh actually ended up playing only one position, right tackle, for all 16 games last season. And that is exactly where he should stay in 2014, despite chatter of him moving inside to guard still circulating.
Why right tackle is the ideal spot for Pugh next season boils down to two major factors—the transition he’ll need to make moving to guard and the ordeal that will be created trying to backfill right tackle.
Pugh exclusively played left tackle in his three years at Syracuse. He started receiving buzz publicly as a potential guard in the NFL in the months leading up to last April’s draft, mainly because of his short arms. However, when center David Baas sprained his ACL late in the preseason, a subsequent reshuffling of the offensive line to fill his spot left Pugh at right tackle.
In a December conversation with Giants.com Senior Writer Michael Eisen, Pugh explained how tough the transition was moving from the left side to the right:
Everything is just opposite. I’m not used to double team blocks with your left foot. I guess people wouldn’t see it if they’ve never played the position before but to switch everything - you have to protect your inside, because it’s the quickest way to the quarterback. So when you’re switching from that left side to the right side, now all of a sudden everything is opposite, so your left hand, which used to be the outside punch, now becomes the most important part of your technique. Just pushing your weight off a different foot, it’s very different. But I’ve definitely learned through the weeks and playing against guys. I’ve gotten better and better each week and now I feel very comfortable there.
Pugh’s actual performance backs up his last two sentences—he played much better in the second half of 2013 after a shaky first eight games. The chart below shows how his overall play improved and, specifically, his ability to protect Eli Manning.
|Timeframe||Overall Rating||Quarterback Hurries Allowed|
|1st Half (8 Games)||-4.9||29|
|2nd Half (8 Games)||12||14|
Pro Football Focus
Pugh’s top-notch second half was good enough to earn him a spot on the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie team. Currently, he is the best player on an offensive line that includes potential cap casualties at center and right guard, an underachieving left tackle in Will Beatty and unrestricted free agent left guard Kevin Boothe.
Why mess with the only player who can be counted on in a unit that is otherwise littered with question marks?
Let’s say you somehow answer this question with “why not?” Then the problem of finding a right tackle to replace Pugh is created. The solution contains several possibilities, none of which are ideal.
If Pugh is moved to guard, two logical possibilities exist to fill right tackle.
The first is simply draft or sign a right tackle. The second involves the more complicated maneuver of switching Beatty to right tackle and filling left tackle through the draft or free agency.
I’ll analyze the second option first because it is easily the more ludicrous and can be quickly dismissed. First of all, this option would have Beatty fill a position he hasn’t played with any regularity since 2009. Along with Pugh learning to play guard, that is simply adding too many unneeded variables to an already unstable unit.
Also, finding a good left tackle is extremely difficult.
All of the quality unrestricted free agents at this position, like Branden Albert, Jordan Gross, Eugene Monroe or Jared Velheer, will either be retained by their current team or likely command an annual salary of at least $7 million on the open market. The Giants should know, since that is approximately how much they are paying Beatty in 2014.
Should the Giants move Justin Pugh to guard?
It is also probably wishful thinking that New York can get a Week 1 starter at left tackle with its 12th pick in the draft. Only two tackles in the draft are even worthy of consideration to protect Manning’s blind side right away—Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Auburn’s Greg Robinson—and both of them are currently projected to be off the board when the Giants are on the clock in the first round.
This leaves the option of finding a right tackle, which is less complicated but equally unappealing.
The free-agent market for this position does not contain anybody with the combination of performance and youth that Pugh provides. Sure, Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens is a big name and only 27 years old, but he also hasn’t registered a positive PFF rating since 2009. The New Orleans Saints’ Zach Strief had an excellent 2013 season, with a 28.9 PFF rating, playoffs included, but he’ll turn 31 in late September.
As for the draft, Big Blue could select either Michigan’s Taylor Lewan or Notre Dame’s Zach Martin in the first round to play right tackle. However, both were left tackles in college, so New York would once again have to hope that its first-round pick can learn a new position on the fly. It worked with Pugh, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will for Martin or Lewan.
There is no question that rebuilding the offensive line should be the Giants' top priority this offseason. The way to address this crucial weakness, though, is through draft picks and free-agent acquisitions that strengthen both guard and center.
The Giants should appreciate the fact they have some stability at tackle.
Pugh, if left alone, could be a Pro Bowler in 2014. As for Beatty, he is coming off a rough season that saw him register a subpar minus-6.3 PFF rating. However, he was one of the best left tackles in the NFL two years ago and is still relatively young at 28 years old. Chances are that he is at least adequate this upcoming season, if not once again a strong blindside protector for Manning.
*All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro-Football-Reference.com. Contract information, unless otherwise noted, is courtesy of Spotrac. Draft information, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of CBSSports.com.