When Nate Solder arrived in 2018 and usurped Ereck Flowers' job as the Giants’ starting left tackle, he was impressed by the way Flowers handled what many considered a demotion to the right side.
“I have to praise him,” Solder said after a practice that spring that featured the new alignment. “I don’t think it’s been the best of circumstances for his situation. I don’t know how I would have handled that myself.”
We may be about to find out.
Solder, who has spent the past two seasons as the Giants’ starting left tackle, could be on the move if the Giants choose an offensive lineman early in this week's draft. It makes little financial sense to cut him, but general manager Dave Gettleman last week acknowledged that Solder did not play well enough in 2019 and declined to name him as the team’s starter at the position.
“Nate had a rough year last year, nobody is denying that, and certainly he is not,” Gettleman said. “We’re going to bring in people to compete."
Of course, the idea of upgrading the left tackle position is not a new concept for the Giants. Late last season, there was speculation that they would want to select a starting left tackle early in the draft, and when the possibility was brought to Solder, he said he would accept a move to the right side.
There is a scenario in which the Giants draft an offensive tackle in the first round and Solder remains at left tackle. That, after all, is how they wanted to bring Flowers along in his NFL career — by starting him on the right side and then, when the time was right, moving him to anchor the left side. Then Will Beatty tore a pectoral muscle in the offseason program, Flowers had to be thrust into the left tackle spot as a rookie, and he never really was given a chance to develop. The Giants released him after four seasons.
If the Giants use the fourth overall pick — or any first- or second-rounder, for that matter — to select their left tackle of the future, they may consider starting him on the right side. That’s especially true if they go with Tristan Wirfs or Jedrick Wills Jr., both of whom have experience playing right tackle (Wills was on that side for Alabama to protect lefthanded quarterback Tua Tagovailoa). It would allow the pick to ease into the pro game from the college game, which are becoming two very different ventures.
“Over the last couple years, we've seen some of these players that people leave for dead as offensive linemen and then two, three, sometimes four years into their career, they end up figuring it out and becoming really good players,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.
“I think Laremy Tunsil is one of the premier tackles in the NFL and I think you saw him progress throughout his career. I think he's just now more comfortable doing things he didn't really have to do at the collegiate level. That's just one example. I think D.J. Humphries played a little bit better last year. So you're seeing some of these guys get the experience and then the talent can show out, but it's a major adjustment for these guys at that position.”
Flowers, who has reinvented himself as a serviceable NFL guard, might be in that group as well.
Giants coach Joe Judge seems to think about development rather than immediate impact when it comes to the draft.
“You’re always looking for the best player available, and to me, that means long-term upside,” he said. “If you think you're taking someone who is ‘pro-ready,’ what all of these rookies find out the second they step in the building is none of them are pro-ready. That’s why they need the spring program, that’s why they need training camp, that’s why they go through growing pains as rookies.
"To me, it’s about finding the upside of the player, of looking down the long scope of a career and seeing who’s going to be the best player with the most upside for you. There’s really no short-term fix or Band-Aid. You’re not going to pick someone in this draft and say, ‘OK, we answered an issue there’ . . . No one is a finished product.”
It is unlikely that there will be any on-field offseason program this spring, and rookies might not be able to be hands-on coached until they arrive for training camp in the late summer. Their learning curve will only be heightened. It might behoove the Giants to leave Solder at left tackle, even if he is only keeping the position warm for his eventual successor.
Given Solder’s disposition, his experience and his history with the Patriots and with Judge, any decision they make seems unlikely to cause a distraction the way it did two years ago, when Flowers was bumped and started the spring by not showing up for voluntary workouts.
“My thought process is we’re not afraid to have too many good players at one position,” Gettleman said of drafting an offensive tackle. “Joe knows Nate, which is helpful. They have a relationship, they have a history. But we’re going to bring in the best players. If they’re at a position where there’s an incumbent starter, then he’s going to compete.”