EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There were whispers at the NFL scouting combine in early March that general manager Dave Gettleman and assistant Kevin Abrams were telling people the New York Giants could potentially have five new starters on the offensive line. That would be a complete overhaul from the start of last season and would involve a whole lot of maneuvering in free agency and the draft.
It almost came to fruition. They weren't far off. The only holdover from last year’s starting group at the beginning of last season is Ereck Flowers, and he’s been shifted from left to right tackle.
The Giants’ first-team offensive line at minicamp last week was: LT Nate Solder, LG Will Hernandez, C Jon Halapio, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Ereck Flowers. Solder and Omameh were free-agent acquisitions. Solder is the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. Hernandez was a second-round (No. 34 overall) pick. Halapio was a reserve with the Giants who started the final six games at guard. Flowers is a first-round pick who has struggled early in his career but is slightly better as a run blocker than pass protector.
It’s clear where they are headed with this group, especially after Halapio slid into the first team this spring. The Giants want a big, physical offensive line that can pound the ball when necessary and use the threat to set up play-action passes for quarterback Eli Manning. Four of the five linemen who worked with the first team at minicamp are listed from 325 to 327 pounds, with Halapio (315) the only exception. Their 324-pound average would have ranked third behind only the Raiders and Chargers entering last season.
The goal is offensive balance. The Giants haven’t had that between the run and the pass for several years, in part because of their personnel on the offensive line. They took care of that this offseason and then spent the spring evaluating what the coaching staff had to work with -- including rookie running back Saquon Barkley who was selected with the No. 2 overall pick out of Penn State -- in hope of laying the groundwork for a better running attack.
With Shurmur as the play-caller, that likely means a varied approach built around zone-blocking schemes.
“Typically we like to be multiple in our schemes,” Shurmur said recently. “I think it starts by running zone plays.”
It’s all starting to make sense. Gettleman’s desire to get “hog mollies.” Shurmur’s desire to have physical offensive linemen. Even the decision to have Halapio at center instead of Brett Jones, who started most of last season and was believed to be the frontrunner to start at the beginning of the offseason. Jones is listed at 6-2, 312, but that seems a stretch. He looks significantly smaller standing next to Halapio, who is the bigger, more physical player.
With this in mind, it's not hard to see why the Giants allowed center Weston Richburg and guard Justin Pugh to walk this offseason. They didn’t call Pugh and weren't in on Richburg either. Both former early-round picks of the Giants signed lucrative deals elsewhere where their athleticism and ability to get out in space were prioritized.
The Giants apparently had something else in mind. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter said earlier this offseason the coaching staff was taking a wait-and-see approach with the running game. They needed to see what running backs and linemen would fill out their roster. They signed Omameh and Solder, drafted Barkley and Hernandez.
Barkley was the No. 2 overall pick for a reason. He can do it all. He had success running in different schemes in college, including inside zone. It gives the Giants options.
“In Coach Shurmur’s offense, we have the ability to do a lot of things. We just want to still have the ability to do those things, but zero in on things that we’re good at up front, that Saquon is good at, all of our running backs and just have that mix of things that we’re going to be good at, but also do enough stuff where we’re versatile and keeping teams off balance,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Like I said, we’re still in the middle of that step, but as we get into training camp, we will start zeroing in on the things that we can hang our hat on.”
The Giants relied heavily on a power scheme last year with pulling guard and inside zone for lead back Orleans Darkwa. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry but the Giants rarely were consistently committed to the run. They finished 25th in rushing attempts.
Only the Jacksonville Jaguars ran the ball more than Shurmur’s offense with the Minnesota Vikings. The Giants should be more committed to the run this season in Shurmur's first season as head coach, even if they are still likely to be a pass-first team with Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram on the roster.
But when they do run the ball, it will be behind a bigger and more physical offensive line. And that will be by design.