– Jim Bearor
It is known that offensive lineman do all the dirty work and get almost none of the recognition. Sure, they get love from their teams and the more hardcore followers of the sport, but the average viewer usually doesn’t see much beyond the quarterback and the pigskin unless it is pointed out to them. Sometimes offensive line play is too great or terrible to ignore, and other times its just easier to blame stuff on them – football’s equivalent of “the dog did it.” But for the most part, what happens up front slides under the radar.
Because there are five of them, and because their success is often gauged by the play of those behind them, offensive line play can be tough to judge, especially if you’re not usually focused on that part of the game. Fortunately, there is no shortage of ravenous football fans, and some of these beautiful people – much like the offensive linemen they study – go out and do the dirty work. They watch individual linemen on a play to play basis, paying careful attention to game situations and what’s happening around them, then they compile all this information into easily-digestible stats and analysis for people like me to cherry-pick. Two of my favorite sites for brushing up on offensive line knowledge are Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders, but there are plenty of places on the internet where you can find valuable insight from these football scholars.
As these two sites and many others support, the offensive line for the New York Giants in 2015 was far from perfect, but it also wasn’t one of the worst units in the league – if you think they were, I’d like to hear your explanation as to how they ended up ranking 8th in yards and 6th in points. The abysmal defense undeniably had an effect on the offense’s workload (10th in total plays run), but the team’s relative success on that side of the ball was one thing you can’t take away from them. Considering the injuries to Beatty and Schwartz, Ereck Flowers’ nagging ankle sprain, and the positional shuffle that made it difficult for this group to really gel, things could have gone a whole lot worse than they did. True to the cliché of the big uglies up front, Big Blue’s line play in 2015 was gritty if nothing else.
The page has been turned though, the 2016 season is already underway and the Giants are starting the same five players that finished the season last year, with no viable backups outside of Bobby Hart (and he’s no certainty either). Mike Solari taking over for Pat Flaherty as offensive line coach is the only meaningful change here (something that deserves a write-up of its own). I stand by the statement that this unit wasn’t among the worst in the league, but it would be misleading not to point out that they were a limiting factor of the offense. As I’ll get into, there are sizable holes up front, and they’re not the good kind. If some of these starters can improve upon their 2015 seasons, the offense has a chance to be truly special. If not, us fans could be looking at another disappointing 6-10 season, or even worse. For the offense to take a step forward, it starts with guys like Ereck Flowers and John Jerry, not Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr.
Here’s what we’re looking at with each of the starters:
LT Ereck Flowers –
Flowers had a frustrating rookie year. It was frustrating for fans and Eli Manning, seeing so much pressure come off the left edge. It must have also been frustrating for Flowers, who was thrown right into the mix after starting left tackle Will Beatty tore his pectoral shortly after the draft. The original plan was for Flowers to get his start as the right tackle, where there isn’t the pressure of protecting his quarterback’s blind side, but it was short lived. So he stepped in for Beatty, and suffered a high ankle sprain in week 1 against the Cowboys, an injury that would mar his entire rookie season. He managed to tough it out and only miss one game all year, but it was obvious he wasn’t at 100 percent. His footwork suffered, and his hand technique – which wasn’t great to begin with – took a hit as well.
He enters the 2016 season healthy, and he still has all his physical prowess (he’s massive and agile), but it’s difficult to see whether or not he’s going to become the franchise left tackle Jerry Reese envisioned when he drafted him. All we have to go off of are the standard offseason words of encouragement from the coaching staff, and his play from a couple series against the Dolphins in week 1 of the preseason. I think it’s safe to say that his technical ability won’t get worse, but I can’t say with confidence that it’ll definitely get better. A year of experience under his belt and a healthy ankle can only benefit Flowers though, and maybe Mike Solari can help him progress in ways Pat Flaherty could not. Here’s hoping.
LG Justin Pugh –
Any time a team drafts a guard in the first round, they’re setting themselves up for skepticism. Pugh has answered the bell though, playing well from the get-go and improving in each of his three seasons. In 2013 and ’14 he was plugged in at right tackle and performed admirably on bad offensive lines, only struggling slightly in pass protection, then made the switch to left guard before last season and took it in stride. Pro Football Focus had him among the ten best guards in the league last year, and I doubt he’ll be changing positions again anytime soon.
Pugh has gained weight this offseason, going from a relatively light 310 pounds to 32o, in order to help with the demands of the position. He’s still doing MMA to keep busy, so I don’t think he just threw on a layer of blubber to thicken up. Pugh, along with Richburg are the foundation of this line on the field and in the locker room, and barring injury, these two positions shouldn’t be a concern for years to come.
C Weston Richburg –
Not a lot of people know who Weston Richburg is (partially attributable to the fact he’s an offensive lineman), or that he was one of the best centers in the league last year. He struggled as a rookie in 2014, but he was also playing a position other than center for the first time in his career. Days before the start of training camp, Chris Snee retired and Geoff Schwartz got hurt, so – like Flowers was in 2015 – Richburg was thrown to the wolves in his rookie year. 2015 saw him transition back to his natural position – where he’s also a better fit physically – and he thrived. I know many of you realize I’m a hopeless Giants homer by now, but please believe I’m not misleading you when I say he’s great. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports declared him better than Nick Mangold, and the most underrated player on his team. PFF has him as the third best center in the league. The guy didn’t allow a single sack last year, and only 19 QB pressures. He’s awesome, just look at this guy.
4th qtr game on the line pic.twitter.com/6G1b04zHeP
— OL Watchdog (@OLineScout) October 13, 2015
As I mentioned above, this is one spot on a spotty line where there’s no need to worry. He’s well rounded, he’s young, and he’s a leader. There’s not much more you can ask of the guy – he’s already doing it all.
Alright, most of the uplifting parts of this article are over, if you want to leave now, ignore the right side of the line, and retain that smile on your face, I completely understand.
RG John Jerry –
Throughout his six year career, John Jerry has been alright. He has started 69 games for the Dolphins and Giants, and has been a pretty solid pass protector. His shortcomings have come on the run blocking side of things, and they’ve been made painfully clear to anyone who has watched New York recently, especially last year, where PFF had him ranked 80th among run blockers. The fact that he has Marshall Newhouse to the right of him probably doesn’t help, but I’ll get to that shortly.
This offseason, Jerry joined Richburg for a six week stay at former Pro Bowler LeCharles Bentley’s offensive line training center, and he called it a “career-changing” experience. If that’s the case, and Jerry is able to grow into something other than a middling guard who just turned 30, it will be a welcome change that would be a huge step towards solidifying the right side of this line that has caused so many headaches, literally and metaphorically. Until we see something different on the field though, it’s not safe to expect anything other than what Jerry has been: a decent pass blocker and a liability in the run game.
RT Marshall Newhouse –
Marshall Newhouse is not a starter-quality right tackle. The issue is, the Giants might not have a suitable replacement for him. I’m in the camp that’s hoping second year tackle Bobby Hart will prove himself worthy of the starting job, but he’s an unknown commodity at this point. McAdoo has already made it clear that he wants Hart to push him for the position, and I take that as a silver lining. Newhouse knows his days may be numbered, and as soon as a replacement arises, he’s likely out the door, but he’s been professional about the whole process, which is consistent with his good reputation and presence as a teammate.
I could list off stats and rankings, but chances are, if you’re reading this far, you’re probably familiar with his struggles. If not, Big Blue View did a thorough job of painting that picture, and I know it’s just the preseason (and I hate that qualifier too), but in the game against the Dolphins, it didn’t look like he had transformed into a completely different player than the one we’ve come to know and loathe.
Not much should be expected from Newhouse, or whoever ends up as the right tackle by the end of the season, but the careers of Flowers and Jerry aren’t quite written in stone yet. A small step forward for each of them could make all the difference in the usually-messy NFC East, but if they don’t progress, and Pugh and Richburg are the only reliable players on the front line, the Giants could be in for another rough year. But as it always is with offensive line play, you’ll have to watch closely – and watch differently – if you want to get the whole story.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)