What's Next for New York Giants Offensive Line After Latest Releases?
Shortly after drafting offensive lineman Ereck Flowers in the first round last year, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese expressed hope that the final piece of what had been a multiyear puzzle for the offensive line was finally in place.
As would be the case often enough with the Giants, that plan never did come to fruition, and the offensive line, perhaps one of the most important units on a football team, still remains a work in progress to this day.
To quickly recap what happened since then, Flowers was initially drafted to play right tackle. When left tackle Will Beatty suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the offseason, the Giants were forced to move the rookie to left tackle, where he had some struggles cutting his teeth.
Meanwhile, at right tackle, Marshall Newhouse, who the team had signed on the cheap for depth, was thrust into a starting role.
Also on that right side, Geoff Schwartz, finally back at right guard—a position where he had one of his best career years in 2013 with the Kansas City Chiefs, per Pro Football Focus—struggled with some leftover issues relating to his broken ankle the year before, until a broken leg in Week 12 finally ended his season.
Fast-forward to the present. Both Beatty and Schwartz were part of a salary-cap purge made by the Giants on Wednesday, a purge that also saw linebacker Jon Beason retire, as expected.
Focusing on the offensive line, where do the Giants go from here?
Let’s break it all down.
Yes, Ereck Flowers struggled last season. Per Pro Football Focus, he not only had the worst overall grade of all offensive tackles (both right and left) who played in at least 75 percent of their team's offensive snaps (45 players), but he also allowed the most quarterback hurries (47) and the second-most quarterback hits (17, behind Rams left tackle Greg Robinson’s 19). He was also tied with several others who allowed five quarterback sacks.
With all that said, we need to note a couple of things. First, Flowers was a rookie last season, and his pass blocking certainly showed its warts as the season went on.
That Flowers allowed three of his five sacks on the season in the second half of the games played could point to two things.
First, the rookie dealt with a bum ankle for most of last year, an injury he bravely tried to gut out. Despite his efforts, though, it was clear that the injury was causing him to struggle more than he should have.
More importantly, one would have to question whether the coaching that Flowers received resulted in the improvement the team was seeking.
Now, former offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, an original member of former head coach Tom Coughlin’s assistant staff, was not retained by new head coach Ben McAdoo, which is rather telling considering McAdoo did retain several of Coughlin’s former assistants.
Per Tom Rock of Newsday, the new offensive line coach is Mike Solari, who was most recently the assistant offensive line coach in Green Bay. Solari, as Rock noted, has worked with Hall of Fame offensive linemen such as Walter Jones, Willie Roaf and Will Shields.
For better or worse, Flowers is the left tackle for the next several years. Whether Solari can help erase some of his pass-protection issues remains to be seen, but at this point, it can’t hurt.
In a perfect scenario, Justin Pugh, who last year moved to left guard after playing the first two years of his career at right tackle, will stay right where he is.
Of course, this is the Giants we’re talking about, and it’s rare that the perfect scenario they envision ends up coming to fruition.
Thus, at left guard, two other potential scenarios could play out in addition to leaving Pugh where he is.
The first would be to plug someone already on the roster in at left guard, which would allow Pugh to kick out to right tackle.
The two candidates who are under contract and on the roster include John Jerry, who has had experience playing the position before, and Brett Jones, the former CFL star who spent last season on injured reserve.
Let’s talk a little more about Jones, who was a standout center in the CFL. With Weston Richburg in place, there’s little chance of Jones unseating him.
Again, with a new offensive line coach said to be in place, everyone on the offensive line is going to start from scratch to a certain degree to learn new techniques aimed at polishing their game.
If Jones, listed at 6’2”, 318 pounds, progresses at a rapid rate, he could potentially compete for a spot on the starting line, where left guard would be the natural fit.
And if he can win the job, his presence would give the Giants an offensive line where the oldest member would be Pugh, who turns 26 in August.
As an added benefit, a young offensive line of homegrown talent stands a good chance of remaining together for several years, much like the great offensive line of 2007 to 2010.
The other scenario is to sign a young free agent to play left guard, which would allow Pugh to slide over to right tackle.
One such prospect who could hit the open market is Kelechi Osemele (6’5”, 330 lbs), who is set to be an unrestricted free agent.
Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun believes that Osemele’s price range could exceed the Ravens’ budget. With the Giants set to have upwards of $50 million to spend, would it make sense to drop some of that pot of gold on Osemele?
It might. Per Pro Football Focus, Osemele (13th) ranked one spot ahead of Pugh (12th) on the list of guards who took at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps last season.
In pass protection, Osemele, a second-round pick in 2012, allowed just one sack, two hits and 17 pressures in 993 snaps, which isn’t too shabby.
The no-brainer of the group, Weston Richburg, who last season moved to center after beginning his NFL career at guard, will continue at center for the foreseeable future.
In pass protection, Richburg allowed no sacks, one hit and 11 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, who ranked him as the third-best center in the NFL last season (among those who took at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps), behind Minnesota’s Joe Berger and Dallas’ Travis Frederick.
Richburg also did a fine job of orchestrating the protection calls. The Giants allowed 18 sacks last season, tying for 20th in the NFL in terms of fewest sacks allowed.
A young leader in the making who has steadily shown signs of having that Shaun O’Hara type of presence, the Giants should be set at center so long as Richburg is on the field.
Although, at first, the release of Geoff Schwartz, last year’s starting right guard, might have been surprising to some, given what the Giants coaching staff saw from rookie Bobby Hart last year in limited action, the handwriting was pretty much on the wall regarding what to expect once 2015 ended.
And so the prediction came to fruition. Schwartz was sent packing—he wasn’t even approached for a salary reduction, according to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com, who added that the Giants just opted to move on.
That thinking, if true, would seem to support the belief that Hart, last year’s seventh-round pick, is the heir apparent at right guard.
In 155 offensive snaps split between right guard and right tackle, Hart allowed just 10 total pressures. Pro Football Focus also gave him a positive grade for his run blocking, something that should improve with additional coaching and practice reps.
While Hart figures to be the primary candidate for the position, he’ll still have to come in this spring and show the coaches that he’s willing to work for the opportunity.
The identity of the Giants' starting right tackle is perhaps the biggest question mark heading into the offseason.
Last year, it was held down by Marshall Newhouse, who is under contract for one more season. However, he is unlikely to be penciled in as the starter this year, as the Giants will almost certainly look to upgrade the position.
As previously noted, one possibility would be to move Justin Pugh from left guard to right tackle, if the Giants were able to identify a replacement for Pugh at left guard.
While this idea is a long shot, after seeing how well Ereck Flowers fared with Pugh alongside of him, perhaps the coaching staff might look to see if Pugh can work similar magic with Bobby Hart if the latter does indeed become the new right guard.
A more realistic scenario for the Giants will be to pursue a right tackle via free agency.
Two possibilities include Mitchell Schwartz of Cleveland (Geoff’s younger brother), who was the highest-graded right tackle, per Pro Football Focus, and Joe Barksdale of San Diego, the 10th highest-graded right tackle. Both players are under the age of 28.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.