With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Offensive Line
2016 YEAR IN REVIEW: Entering 2016, the New York Giants offensive line was expected to take a major step forward. While the right-side was still composed of journeymen right guard John Jerry and right tackle Marshall Newhouse, the left side and center were composed of two first-round and one second-round draft picks. With all five returning together, greater chemistry and cohesion was expected. And new offensive line coach – the well-respected Mike Solari – was supposed to make an impact.
Simply put, the offensive line continued to disappoint. Left tackle Ereck Flowers did not markedly improve and remained a significant liability in pass protection. Left guard Justin Pugh missed time for the third season in a row. Center Weston Richburg did not play as well as expected. In some ways, it was the right side of the offensive line that exceeded what admittedly were low expectations. John Jerry had a decent year and second-year lineman Bobby Hart was surprisingly steady at right tackle, replacing Newhouse after Week 2 until the end of the season. That all said, it would be misleading to say either really “played well.”
It’s always difficult to assess who is mostly to blame for a poor running game. The play of running backs, tight ends, and fullback (or in the Giants case, the absence of a fullback) all matter. But the Giants ground game fell from 18th in 2015 (100.6 yards per game) to 29th in 2016 (88.2 yards per game). The average yards-per-rush fell from 4.0 to 3.5.
In pass protection, Eli Manning survived another year without missing a snap. And his sack numbers declined from 27 to 21. But that is a misleading stat given the West Coast Offense emphasis on the short-passing game combined with Manning’s rapid decision-making and quick release. It appeared to many that Manning simply did not trust his pass protection and played some games more than a a bit gun-shy.
Injuries were somewhat of a factor. Pugh missed five games at left guard, leaving a bit of a revolving door as his replacements such as Brett Jones and Marshall Newhouse also got hurt. At one point, the team was down to their fourth-string option at right guard – Adam Gettis. Hart also missed the last regular-season game with an injury.
In summary, the offense of the Giants was a major disappointment in 2016, and the offensive line deserves a large share of the blame.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Marshall Newhouse signed with the Oakland Raiders early in free agency. The Giants chose not to re-sign Will Beatty, but did re-sign John Jerry to a 3-year, $10 million deal. The only significant addition in free agency was adding D.J. Fluker, who was cut by the Chargers. The Giants re-signed Practice Squad players Adam Gettis and Jon Halapio and added street free agents Michael Bowie and a couple of other players who have already been waived (Khaled Holmes and Martin Wallace). The Giants drafted Adam Bisnowaty in the 6th round and signed rookie free agents Chad Wheeler, Jessamen Dunker, and Jarron Jones after the draft. Bottom line? Newhouse is gone and the only apparent significant additions are Fluker and Bisnowaty.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Media and fans love to complain that Jerry Reese has ignored the offensive line. Spending two #1 picks and a #2 pick says otherwise as does his free agent spending in recent years. The real issue is that despite the significant allocation of resources, Reese has failed to put together a viable unit since David Diehl, Richie Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee, and Kareem McKenzie retired.
Most of the fan and media attention entering training camp will be on left tackle Ereck Flowers, a lightening rod of criticism. There is no obvious fallback plan if he fails to progress, though in an emergency Justin Pugh and maybe even Bisnowaty could play there. But Pugh – who talks a lot and wants a huge contract – has to prove he can stay healthy. Weston Richburg apparently played hurt in 2016 and needs to rebound from a disappointing season.
The right side is more up in the air. For now, John Jerry remains the starter. But he may be pressed by D.J. Fluker, who surprisingly only received spring reps at right guard. That suggests Bobby Hart is the clear front runner for right tackle, though Bisnowaty could be a factor there.
It is the opinion of many that the only thing that can hold back the Giants in 2017 is the offensive line. While this is clearly an overly-simplistic falsehood, the line has been a team weak spot for years. If a team can’t block up front, it is very difficult to consistently move the football.
ON THE BUBBLE: Michael Bowie, Chad Wheeler, Jessamen Dunker, Jarron Jones, Adam Gettis, Jon Halapio, and Brett Jones.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Mike Solari on Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart improving their technique: “Well, just like everything else, you work different drills, you work techniques, and you just keep honing in until you could make it where you don’t have to think about it and its part of your toolkit. The thing is, what we’re excited about, and Ereck is excited about, so is Bobby and not just those two men, everybody. They are committed. Aaron Wellman did a beautiful job in the sense of where they need to improve on. Physically working in the weight room, conditioning aspect, you could tell the difference. I believe you could tell the difference, in the terms of their body types and where they’re at physically at this time of the season. It’s still early, so that’s really encouraging… They do a nice job in the classroom. You’re not privy to that, but they do a nice job in the classroom. They’re into it, they’re learning, they’re into the film study, they’re into their techniques. They know what they are trying to work on, they know what they are trying to achieve.”
Solari on D.J. Fluker: “Big Man. D.J. is a pro, he comes to work every day and he gives everything he has. He’s done a nice job in the classroom, learning and developing and we’re excited about having him when the pads come on… We like him at guard. He’s got experience at tackle, as we all know from Alabama, when he initially came into the league but his strengths are at guard. There will be a point, where we do want to rep him a little bit at tackle, just for versatility, so if he is not the starter, he is able to go to tackle in need. But guard is his strength and guard is where we like him.”
Solari on Weston Richburg’s hand injury in 2016: “That hurts. That hurts you; your hand placement, your ability to grab, ability to work the chest plate is a big part of the game. So that was tough for him, and he worked through it and he performed at the highest level that he could without being able to use that hand at full strength. But it would be a big difference this year.”
Solari on Adam Bisnowaty: “It’s still early. Right now, we got him at right tackle, but he’s a guy that could, he has versatility, he could go to guard. He has played a little guard in his career, obviously at left tackle, but right now, we like him at right tackle. Try to get him as many reps as possible, so when training camp comes, these young rookies are ready to compete.”
PREDICTIONS: There is a very good chance that the starting line will be the exact same line that started the bulk of the games in 2016. And that won’t sit well with many. Media and fans sometimes forget how young both the bookend tackles are. Ereck Flowers is 23; Hart is 22. Both are big, strong, and have been working their tails off. Whether they succeed or fail still remains to be seen, but the tools are there. What will help both is greater stability, consistency, and health from the interior trio. In particular, Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh need to step up and take ownership of this line. I expect the OL to play much better in 2017. I also expect them to look better with Rhett Ellison and perhaps even Evan Engram and Jerell Adams providing more credible blocking on the perimeter. But if Flowers continues to struggle, and Pugh gets hurt again, and Richburg doesn’t rebound, then Jerry Reese is going to look awfully bad. Those three represent three PREMIUM draft picks.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry, Bobby Hart, D.J. Fluker, Adam Bisnowaty, and Brett Jones. (Versatile Adam Gettis and Jon Halapio could press Brett Jones. There is a chance the Giants could carry a ninth offensive lineman. That would help Chad Wheeler’s chances).