Pat Shurmur and Dave Gettleman strongly believe that Eli Manning still can play at a high level when those around him — and more specifically, in front of him — can pull their weight. That wasn’t always the case on the Giants’ offensive line last season, but the team took a step Friday to make sure that won’t be a usable excuse in 2019.
The Giants traded linebacker Olivier Vernon to the Browns for guard Kevin Zeitler on Friday, a source confirmed. NFL Network was the first to report the deal. It has the Giants moving on from a player whose main job was to torment quarterbacks to one who is pretty good at protecting them.
Zeitler, a former first-round pick from Wisconsin who turned 29 on Friday, will step in as the starting right guard for the Giants. Also Friday, center Jon Halapio signed his one-year tender as an exclusive-rights free agent. The team likely still is looking for an upgrade at right tackle but appears to have solid starters at four of the five spots on the line.
The move gives the Giants an immediate upgrade in the interior of their blocking scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, Giants right guards last year allowed 39 quarterback pressures in 16 games. Zeitler allowed only 11 for the Browns. He also will help open holes for running back Saquon Barkley.
While Manning is expected to reap the immediate benefits of the acquisition, the trade also could help solidify the line for whoever eventually replaces him. The Giants have been wary of putting young quarterbacks behind the protection provided by past incarnations of the unit. Having a core of established players might make that transition — whenever it happens — less rocky.
“We’re going to constantly look to improve that unit,” Shurmur said of the offensive line at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. “I believe you have a chance to win it all when you can say the strength of your team is the offensive line.”
The trade won’t be made official until at least the start of the new league year Wednesday and still is pending physical examinations of both players. The teams also swapped mid-round picks. The Giants sent their fourth-rounder (132nd overall, the pick they got from the Saints for Eli Apple) to the Browns for a fifth-rounder (155).
The move should free up some much-needed space under the salary cap for the Giants as they head into free agency. They still will have $8 million count against the cap as dead money from Vernon, but they will save $11.5 million. And though Zeitler comes with a cap hit of $10 million this season and $12 million next season, the Giants could rework those two remaining years on his deal or extend him to lower the annual number.
The Giants signed Vernon, 28, to a five-year, $85 million deal in March 2016 after the Dolphins withdrew the transition tag they had placed on him a week earlier. Vernon had 30 tackles and seven sacks in 11 games last season. He missed five games with an ankle injury.
His departure leaves the Giants with another hole in their defense. Vernon was the only established pass rusher on the Giants’ roster, and without him, they will go into Wednesday with linebacker Alec Ogletree as the team’s active leader in career sacks with 6 1⁄2 over six seasons. Earlier this week, the Giants decided not to use a franchise tag on safety Landon Collins and allowed him to become a free agent.
There still are playmakers to add on defense, and free agency and the draft should help with that. But Friday’s move provides help for the playmakers already on the offense, one 38-year-old in particular.
Manning’s protection will be better on the field, but it also wipes away the protective narrative that helped him off the field. Now it will be up to him to prove he still can make plays behind good blocking, as his coach and general manager believe.