Four months ago, he ranked among the biggest question marks on the New York Giants' offense. But for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad, rookie right tackle Justin Pugh has turned out to be one of that offense's few known quantities.
The Giants' first-round pick from the 2013 draft, Pugh has started every game this season at right tackle. As befits a first-round rookie asked to start immediately, he's had some good days and some bad days, and he and the team enjoy the fact he's made steady progress.
"I think my knowledge of the playbook has gotten better each and every week, so I'm better at that," Pugh said Monday when asked how he's improved from Week 1 to Week 17. "I have to keep working on my hands and doing the right things with my hands and feet. That's just something you keep getting better at so you have that confidence to go out and and do the things you need to do. I still have a lot to learn this offseason. It's going to be a big offseason for me."
It's going to be a big offseason for the Giants' offensive line in general. Pugh and left tackle Will Beatty, who's been very disappointing in the first year of his five-year free-agent contract, are the only two current starters who are sure things to return in 2014. The line must and likely will be a prime focus for the Giants in free agency and the draft, and Pugh's place in the plans for 2014 and beyond is only one very interesting aspect of the whole situation.
The Giants are happy with Pugh at right tackle and could very well decide to leave him there. But the reason they drafted him in the first round this year wasn't necessarily to make him a starting right tackle right away and forever. It was because they didn't know what their line needs were going to be next year and into the future, and they believed Pugh to be the kind of smart, versatile, all-around talent who could play several positions. Many evaluators said prior to the draft that Pugh was better suited at guard at the NFL level due to relatively short arms. The Giants don't necessarily agree, but if they were to, say, draft a big-time tackle in the first round (where they'll pick somewhere between ninth and 15th), they could move Pugh inside. If he's effective at tackle, he could be downright dominant at guard, and adding a first-round talent at tackle would strengthen the talent level of the line overall.
And inside is where they need help. Injured starting center David Baas is a likely cap casualty. Longtime right guard Chris Snee is as well, and Snee has had enough hip surgeries the past two years to make one wonder if he might decide to retire. Kevin Boothe, who has played left guard and center this year, is a free agent. James Brewer doesn't look starter-ready, Jim Cordle didn't look like a long-term answer at center prior to his injury, and Brandon Mosley played one series before breaking his hand, so it's hard to know what they have there.
My guess is that they cut Baas loose and get a center on the free-agent market. I think they re-sign Boothe, since they like him and he's happy here, as a possible starter or at least a versatile backup at several positions. But on the right side, it's a mystery. I know what I think they should do, which is the thing I just said about drafting a tackle and moving Pugh inside. But I don't think they will do that, since it would be more in-character for them to use such a high pick on a marquee position like wide receiver or pass-rusher. So my early guess is that they look for economical solutions at guard and center on the free-agent market and leave Pugh at right tackle while hoping Beatty gets better.
The one issue that stands out as interesting on its own is that of Snee, who is the son-in-law of head coach Tom Coughlin and, as such, has ties to the organization that others don't. That dynamic, combined with the extent of Snee's service to the team, could affect the way the team makes decisions about that particular player. And the solution on Snee, whatever it turns out to be, will have a ripple effect across the line.