Pat Shurmur said earlier this offseason that if a franchise can call its offensive line a strength of the team it will always contend for a championship.
The Giants have certainly spent enough time in recent years proving the opposite to be true.
But how close are they to being able to put Shurmur's corollary to the test?
“I think they’re getting there,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said on Wednesday after the second of three minicamp practices this week. “You want those guys to be your leaders. I think as we continue through the offseason and once we get into training camp and get everybody back healthy, I think we’re going to see more and more of that.”
The rebuild of the engine that will be driving the Giants forward, in other words, is nearly complete. At least all of the pieces are in stock. Projected starting tackles Nate Solder (knee) and Mike Remmers (back) are still sidelined after surgeries, but they are both on track to return for the start of training camp. Kevin Zeitler, acquired in the trade that sent Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon to Cleveland, has jumped in at right guard almost seamlessly. Will Hernandez is expected to make a big jump in his performance and consistency in his second NFL season. And the Giants will have a camp battle between Jon Halapio and Spencer Pulley for the starting center job.
All of them are new, it’s just a matter of degree. Halapio is the only one who was with the organization as recently as 2017, when he was a practice-squadder. The Giants do not have a player on the offensive line who played a snap when Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese were running the Giants 18 months ago.
“I think the guys that we’ve added over the course of last season and this season have brought a lot of character, competitiveness, intelligence, integrity to that room,” Shula said. “We’re going to be leaning on them. They’re going to be the starting point of our offense. Everyone knows we have Saquon [Barkley] and we want to run the football. We want to be balanced. But to do that it’s got to start with the offensive line. We want to run the ball when we want to run it, we want to throw the ball when we want to throw it. To do that it starts with the line.”
Barkley, for his part, seems eager to get behind the new group. Last year the left side — Solder and Hernandez — played every snap of the season while the other three spots rotated. Barkley said his hope this year is to have a starting five that sticks.
“As a running back, it’s just getting the feel,” he said. “Running is like an art. I was talking to the line [recently]. Whether it is an inside zone, outside, whatever kind of run it is, it is just a feel for each other. Understanding how can I set them up and what kind of blocking do they like to do. Just adding those guys who are pros and have done it at a high level definitely helps, but to be able to have them here now and to be able to have them mesh and start it off early, it is definitely going to help when the season comes along.”
The offensive linemen know that the fate of the team rides on them. In some ways, the fate of the franchise does. If they play poorly and get off to a slow start, that could hasten the change from Eli Manning to Daniel Jones at quarterback.
They seem intent not to let that happen, at least not because of their own doing.
“They made an emphasis to fix us, and we’ve made it an emphasis to come together and work hard and actually do what’s expected of us,” Hernandez said. “We’re a bunch of guys who want to win, who hate to lose, and want to go out there and dominate the entire time.”
If they can do that, they can become something the line hasn’t been for the Giants in a long time: a strength as opposed to a handicap.