J.D. Walton has gotten himself into a bit of a routine every time he sets the Giants’ offensive huddle.
Just before Eli Manning ducks his head inside and gives the play call, Walton holds his hands out in fists to his left and right. Simultaneously, guards Brandon Mosley and Geoff Schwartz match his with their own, tackles Will Beatty and Justin Pugh, too.
Manning then leans forward, calls the play and the team marches to the line of scrimmage.
The ‘fist bump’ or ‘pound’ is nothing new, but it’s one way Walton is working on developing chemistry across New York’s rebuilt offensive line.
“We need to get in a routine and get comfortable with each other,” Walton said. “That’s part of it. We’re trying to get confidence, get reset, get focused for this next drill and what we’re able to do.”
For the past 10 years, the same familiar faces have paved the way for running backs and kept defensive linemen off Mannings’ back. Sure, some were replaced, but there was always someone that was the same.
When Rich Seubert and Shaun O’Hara left, there was still Kareem McKenzie, David Diehl and Chris Snee. When McKenzie hung up the cleats, there was still Snee and Diehl.
Then Diehl retired in January and Snee the day the Giants reported to camp. Now? 29-year-old Will Beatty and 23-year-old Justin Pugh are the ‘veterans’ up front. The once familiar faces are gone, replaced with free-agent and drafted acquisitions.
Over the years, New York’s once proud and powerful offensive line had become bruised and battered. In 2008, two players -Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward – rushed for over 1,000 yards. Last season? Manning was sacked a career-high 39 times and running backs averaged the fourth-worst rushing yards per game.
Snee and Diehl have been replaced by the likes of Walton, rookie Weston Richburg, Schwartz and Mosley. While the group is well aware of the prior generation’s accolades, Walton says they’re collectively trying to create their own history.
“They won two world championships the last 10 years and another two the decade before,” Walton said. “But we’re trying to make our own identity. We want to become a great line ourselves and we’re busting our butt out here every day to do that.”
For Walton, he’s been ‘busting his butt’ ever since an injury cost him the last two seasons of his NFL career.
Drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Walton was viewed by some as one of the best centers available. He had the strength to match up with any defensive tackle, along with agility to get to the second level.
He struggled in the early portions of his career. Just as he began to put it all together, it all fell apart. In 2012, Walton suffered a gruesome dislocated ankle versus the Oakland Raiders. Walton, who said prior to the injury had never missed a practice at any level, has yet to play since.
“It was rough mentally,” Walton said. “You just try to stick with the family. Go up to the facility as much as possible and sit in the meeting rooms. Just be around the guys because they’re your brothers.”
Walton was waived by the Broncos on Dec. 13, 2013 and then signed by the Washington Redskins a day later. He never played a down. Entering free agency this season, he didn’t know what to expect. Sure, Walton knew he could still play. But did other teams?
At the time of his injury, the 27 year old had just been starting to scratch the surface of what he was capable of doing. The Giants saw that and thought he was worth a risk. When Walton’s agent let him know New York was interested, there was not a doubt in his mind.
“It’s the New York Giants,” Walton said. “It has that lure, that credibility and everything you look for in a franchise. It has the name, being able to play for ‘Big Blue’ and Coach Coughlin. It’s a great franchise.’”
This Sunday in the Giants’ Hall of Fame game versus the Buffalo Bills, Walton will have a chance to show New York its gamble was safe. While for some it’s just another preseason game that doesn’t count, to Walton it means the world.
The last time he stepped foot on the field, he left on a cart.
“I’m very, very excited. It’s been a long time coming for me,” Walton said. “Just to be able to knock off all the rust and get back going. It’s gonna be fun.
“I’m a little jittery, but once you get on that field, that’s your comfort zone. For us players, once you get out there on the field, that’s it. There will be a little extra for me because it’s been so long, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s gonna be a good time.”