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Giants' young offensive line sure learned a lot during trying season

Nick Gates of the Giants leads the offensive

Nick Gates of the Giants leads the offensive line during the second half against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 29, 2020, in Cincinnati. Credit: Getty Images/Jamie Sabau

There are two types of players for whom Giants offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo says he has no use or patience.

"Rookies and kickers, they all go in the same bucket with me," he said just before the 2020 season ended. "They’re all over there. Rookies and kickers are their own little grouping of individuals. You need them, they’re necessary, they are very important to your program, but . . . "

His point was that they can’t always be counted on. But in his half-season with the Giants, DeGuglielmo found himself hip-deep in first-year players. He was in charge of a group that was headlined by fourth overall pick Andrew Thomas and also included Shane Lemieux and Matt Peart, who saw plenty of action.

Throw Nick Gates in that group, too. This may have been his third NFL season, but he came into 2020 having made only three starts. He had never before played center, a position at which he lined up for every single snap this season.

"Listen, those are young guys," DeGuglielmo said. "Their clay has yet to be molded. They just got a nibble of what the NFL is."

The Giants, though, got enough of a taste to believe that the biggest issue that has plagued them for most of the past decade is on the verge of being resolved.

The next time the Giants take the field, those rookies won’t be rookies. A year of unprecedented turbulence put them through perhaps more turmoil than any other position group in the NFL. In addition to the pandemic, which led to what seemed to be a permanent change in the lineup, did anyone else have three different position coaches in 16 games? But they emerged from it carrying the aspirations of the franchise.

"We've got some really nice young pieces," general manager Dave Gettleman said this past week. "I think this offensive line can compete . . . The offensive line showed very good progress. They're big, they're young, they're strong and they're tough and smart. This O-line has a chance to be pretty damn good."

That certainly wasn’t the sentiment when the Giants left the field after their opening night loss to the Steelers, completely overwhelmed and able to carve out only 29 rushing yards. And there were plenty of times during the year when Thomas looked completely overmatched. He was the first offensive tackle taken in the draft, but the ones who followed him — Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs and his new neighbor with the Jets, Mekhi Becton — seemed much more NFL-ready than he was.

"Obviously, it didn’t start out the way I wanted it to, but being a rookie player, left tackle in the NFL, it’s a tough deal," Thomas said. "It just took time."

As for comparing himself to the other first-round rookies, Thomas said: "I want all those guys to be successful, but for me, I want to be the best player I can be, the best player I can be for the Giants, for my teammates, and that’s what I’m working to be . . . That means running my race, not paying attention to what’s going on in the other lanes, just focusing on what Andrew has to do, what he has to do to get better. That’s what I’ve been doing."

By the end of the season, Thomas was playing a stout left tackle in a win over the Cowboys.

"We lost to the Cowboys the first time, didn’t have a great game the first time we played them," Thomas said. "I had a chip on my shoulder, I wanted to go in and have a good game. Even though it didn’t turn out the way we wanted to by making the playoffs, still wanted to go and put on a good show for the fans."

While Thomas’ progress was encouraging — and Lemieux's ability to step in for Will Hernandez after the latter was diagnosed with COVID-19 and never relinquish the job was a positive — perhaps no player represented the season-long arc of the offensive line better than Gates.

"I'm way ahead of where I was in Week 1," Gates said this past week. "I was not very good for the first four or five weeks. I don’t think it clicked until the Rams game."

That was when he stood his ground against Aaron Donald, both during the snaps and after, as the two players got into a fairly heated physical exchange that drew penalty flags late in the game. It was the first illustration that the unit was not doing to be pushed around by anyone.

That continued right through the Week 17 game against Dallas when Daniel Jones was knocked out of bounds and Gates was there to defend him.

"You have to be a tough, gritty kind of guy to play offensive line and you have to have a little bit of attitude and you have to get after guys if they hit the quarterback," Gates said. "You have to set the tone and tell them that this stuff isn’t going to happen. And I’m going to be there if it is."

Now the Giants hope Gates will be there — as their starting center — for a long time. They signed him to a two-year extension last offseason, taking a gamble on him as a starter at a new position. They also rolled the dice on the offensive linemen they drafted. That seems as if it also might pay off.

Their first year together featured very little in the way of coherence and consistency. The Giants had a practice of rotating linemen in and out during games. Their offensive line coach for the first half of the season, Marc Colombo, was fired during the bye week and replaced by a man they had never met before in DeGuglielmo. In Week 17, DeGuglielmo tested positive for COVID-19 and assistant Ben Wilkerson took over the job against the Cowboys (and eschewed the player rotation, sticking with the starting five throughout the game).

Then there were the obstacles that everyone in the league faced. Offensive linemen are well-known for their weekly dinners and outings, going everywhere and doing everything together to foster chemistry and camaraderie. This season that was all verboten under the COVID-19 regulations.

Even guard Kevin Zeitler’s annual Thanksgiving turkey feast for his fellow linemen was scratched.

"It’s unfortunate," Zeitler said. "Looking back over my past couple seasons, being able to get together in the offseason or for dinners, that’s some of the most memorable times of your NFL career. Obviously, this year the O-line was diligent. We wanted to follow rules. We always wanted to be available for the team this year. We had to put it to the side. God willing, next year when we get to OTAs, we can do that stuff again."

And, perhaps, be better for it.

Zeitler, strangely enough, may not be back to see it. At 30 years old and with a $14.5 million hit against a shrinking salary cap in 2021, he could be an offseason cut for the Giants. That would leave the two guard positions to Hernandez and Lemieux.

Cam Fleming, a career backup who started every game at right tackle, seems unlikely to return to the team and, if he does, certainly not with that job. Ideally, Peart will develop enough to replace him.

That would leave the Giants with five players on the offensive line, none of them with more than three years’ experience but all of them having shown promise at times. It also would leave the Giants without having to spend energy or capital on quick fixes for the offensive line for the first time in years.

"I love this group," Thomas said. "We went through a lot this year, obviously with COVID, different position coaches, not playing the way we wanted to as a unit, and we stuck together, we continued to fight, we continued to push for each other, and I’m excited to play with this group."

Best of all, they no longer will be rookies.

Now if only something could be done about those kickers . . .

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