Based on what you see in the comment sections right here at Bleacher Report as well as on forums and Reddit, there does seem to be a strong belief among New York Giants fans that improved play from the offensive line could be the key fix for a team that is running out of time to redeem itself after missing the playoffs four times in five years.
And there's no doubt that better play from the line will help. During the first nine years of his career, Eli Manning was never sacked more than 30 times. But in 2013, he went down on 39 occasions. Injuries to veteran interior linemen Chris Snee and David Baas were tough to overcome, as was a string of putrid performances from highly paid left tackle Will Beatty.
|Eli Manning's biggest beatings|
|Pro Football Reference|
So it's a good thing that the Giants made a very real effort to bolster the line in the offseason. Veterans Geoff Schwartz and J.D. Walton were brought in, likely to start, and well-reputed Colorado State center Weston Richburg was added in the second round of the draft.
But a lot of folks wanted Big Blue to use that first-round pick on a lineman, something yours truly opposed based mainly on the fact that they had already invested heavily in Beatty (financially) and Justin Pugh (with last year's top pick).
Again, the line struggled last year. No doubt about it. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) assigned 32 of Manning's 39 sacks to the line, while giving that unit the second-worst pass-blocking efficiency grade in the NFL.
|Pro Football Focus: NFL's worst pass-blocking lines, 2013|
But Manning's problems weren't entirely line-related. The reality is that the game's best active pocket quarterbacks—Manning, his brother Peyton, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady—are good regardless of who is (or isn't) blocking for them.
PFF ranked the 2011 Giants line dead last in terms of pass-blocking efficiency, but that didn't stop New York from winning the Super Bowl.
In 2007, 2008 and 2010, Peyton Manning's line in Indianapolis allowed more pressure than all but a handful of other units, yet Manning was MVP in '08 and a Pro Bowler the other two years. In that 2010 season, Charlie Johnson, who was graded by PFF as the fourth-worst pass-blocking left tackle in the league (min. 12 games), manned Peyton's blind side.
In fact, during his entire 13-year run with the Colts, Peyton only ever had two offensive linemen—Jeff Saturday and Tarik Glenn—make the Pro Bowl. Glenn, who was the only strong tackle he ever played with, was gone by 2007.
The only Pro Bowl tackle Brady ever had was Matt Light, but Light isn't around now and he wasn't a Pro Bowler until after New England's glory years.
Charles Brown was an absolute disaster on Brees' left side in 2013, grading out at PFF as the seventh-worst tackle among 77 qualifiers. Yet Brees went over 5,000 yards with a 104.7 passer rating in an All-Pro-caliber season.
Jammal Brown, Logan Mankins, Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, Ryan Clady, Louis Vasquez, Light and Saturday all earned All-Pro nods at one point or another while blocking for those aforementioned quarterbacks, but none of those lines were ever considered to be much better than average. And in six seasons, Aaron Rodgers has never worked with an All-Pro lineman.
These guys are good enough to succeed without studs along the offensive line, and their teams have usually known that. That explains why the Colts drafted only one first-round offensive lineman during Manning's time there and why the Patriots have done so only once during Brady's reign. Since Brees arrived in New Orleans, the Saints have drafted just one offensive lineman ahead of the third round.
The point is that when you have a quarterback like Manning, Manning, Brees, Brady or Rodgers, you don't have to worry a whole lot about your line. I know, Eli hasn't been as successful as those other guys, at least when it comes to individual accomplishments. But he does have a similar style and shares similar traits as a quarterback.
Manning reads coverages as fast as any quarterback in the game. He's smart, and he has a quick dropback and a fast release. Like Brady, Rodgers, Brees and his big brother, as long as his backs and receivers are on task, he'll be successful. It's about rhythm and timing, which is only sometimes affected by the offensive line.
Despite all of the problems that line had last year, it took Manning a relatively low 2.65 seconds to throw, according to PFF. That ranked just behind Brees (2.62). It was only five one-hundredths of a second slower than his rate from 2012 and was one one-hundredth of a second faster than in 2011.
In Green Bay, under the partial tutelage of new Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, Rodgers was in the exact same range in 2011 and 2012 before improving on that average in 2013. Watch for Manning to benefit greatly from McAdoo's quarterback-friendly touch this season, regardless of what the five guys in front of him bring to the table.
And it's not as though this past season for Manning was substantially worse than any of those comparisons. In 2013, eight qualifying quarterbacks—including Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson—were pressured more frequently than Manning.
|Most pressured quarterbacks, 2013|
|1. Terrelle Pryor||158||46.9|
|2. Case Keenum||126||45.5|
|3. Russell Wilson||220||43.8|
|4. Mike Glennon||203||43.4|
|5. Geno Smith||217||42.0|
|6. Matt Schaub||160||41.8|
|7. Matt Ryan||290||41.3|
|8. Carson Palmer||249||40.3|
|9. Eli Manning||240||40.3|
|10. Jay Cutler||151||39.0|
|Pro Football Focus|
For the Giants to get back on track in 2014, it'll require a concerted improvement from the entire offense. Manning's timing with his receivers, particularly second-year LSU product Rueben Randle, was abysmal last season.
That'll have to improve. Randle and Hakeem Nicks caught just 55.7 percent of the passes thrown their way, which is disgusting. Part of that is on them and part of it is on Manning, who had accuracy issues regardless of pressure. Even after weeding out a lot of factors that a shoddy line brings to the table, PFF graded Manning as the least accurate qualifying quarterback in the league last season.
Improvements along the line won't cause Manning to throw the ball straighter on a consistent basis, and they definitely won't help receivers run better routes. They might help the running game, but that's also on the backs—and it's yet another area in which the Giants will have to improve regardless of line play.
New York ranked 30th in the NFL last season with just 3.5 yards per carry. They had a league-low four runs of 20 yards or more, which made it extremely tough to keep opposing defenses honest. Former top pick David Wilson couldn't deliver, which is why Rashad Jennings is now getting a shot.
If guys like Jennings, Randle, Victor Cruz, top pick Odell Beckham and whoever wins the starting tight end job can't pick it up, and if Manning himself doesn't turn a corner (with or without help from McAdoo), it won't matter what the offensive line looks like.
The good news is that means the offensive line won't sink this team. The bad news? It also won't save them.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.