The Giants knew whom they wanted to select with the second pick, but they had to sweat it out through one pick to get him. Any team could have traded up and grabbed their prize, or the Browns could have used their pick ahead of the Giants to snag him.
Eventually, they were on the clock and ready to make the pick they thought would help change the tenor of the franchise for the next decade.
Saquon Barkley? No, the Giants had taken him the day before. This was the second round of the 2018 draft, the second day of picks, and the Giants used their first choice of that frame to add guard Will Hernandez.
The rookie did not make as splashy an entrance into the NFL as Barkley did, but it’s no coincidence that his development during the year – and in the past month in particular – has coincided with Barkley’s increased production running the ball … which has coincided with four wins in the last five games.
Barkley may be the Giants’ clear rookie of the year, but Hernandez has been the one helping to clear his path.
“Will has been great,” Barkley said. “Obviously, you’ve been seeing him doing a lot more recently, so he’s definitely been a great help to the offensive line, and to not only my success but all the running backs’ success.”
It just took some time for that to blossom.
Pat Shurmur said the difference between Hernandez earlier in the year and the way he’s played in recent games – calling last week’s performance against the Redskins his best outing of the season – has been “night and day.”
“Young players that are in there for the first time have a chance to grow much more than the guys that have been in the business for a while,” Shurmur said.
He noted that Hernandez had always had a number of really good plays, even when he still was trying to find his NFL footing.
“I think as he goes along, what we’re seeing is fewer bad plays," Shurmur said. "When you’re out there 65, 70 snaps against good players, every once in a while, they’re going to get you, and he’s having less of those plays where they got him.”
That improvement has helped just about everyone and everything on the offense. Of course it allows for more production from Barkley, but it also gives left tackle Nate Solder, who has played next to Hernandez every single snap this season, a chance to focus more on his own game and worry less about holding the hand of the rookie next to him.
“It’s hard to be a rookie because there are so many new things,” Solder said. “You’re moving to a new city, you’re playing with a whole new group of people. A new system, new coaches. And you’ve never played in the NFL before. It takes time to experience that. But there’s no other way to do it but to do it.”
That’s why he didn’t mind the pairing, even if it hindered his own play a bit.
“I think they did the right thing throwing him in there and putting him in the fire,” Solder said. “He’s handled it really well.”
Hernandez said he often watches video of himself from earlier in the year.
“When I go back and look at tape from three or four weeks ago, I notice improvement from the things I was focusing on each week,” he said. “It gets fixed and it gets better and it all comes together.”
He said there are times during some of those earliest games when he barely recognizes the player on the field in his jersey.
“Most of them were pure reactions and more anticipation,” he said.
What’s changed for him is a growing wisdom and comfort in the NFL.
“I think it’s knowing what he’s doing,” Solder said before making a quick alteration to that statement. “It’s not like he didn’t know before, but just being confident about what he’s doing. Knowing that he knows what he’s doing.”
Hernandez has given the Giants exactly what they wanted from him when they used that second-round pick in April. His toughness and physicality have brought a new mentality to the entire offensive line.
“Will is Will,” Barkley said. “He’s going to come out there no matter what, every single play, and grind it out. Any chance he can get and any chance he has, he’s going to try to put his guy on his back. He’s been doing that all year.”
What makes Hernandez special is that even though he’s never played this many snaps in a season in his life, he’s ascending and not regressing. That rookie wall that gets talked about so often? Hernandez is trying to pancake that, too. That’s rare.
“I definitely feel like I had an emotional wall when I was a rookie,” Solder said. “Just like kind of coming to the end of what I was capable of, and then you push through it. But it’s a longer season than you are used to, more snaps, a lot of pressure. More demanding. As best as I can tell, I don’t think he’s in that situation.”
The only situation he’s in is helping improve the Giants’ offensive line play.
That’s why they brought him here. That’s why they picked him less than 24 hours after selecting Barkley. And that’s why the Giants are thrilled with what they have seen from Hernandez in the past few weeks.
“That just comes with repetition and understanding the playbook,” Barkley said. “That’s kind of just the nature of the game. We all want to come out and play at a high level and be excellent from the jump, but it’s going to take time. It’s going to take making some mistakes and having some troubles to get to the point where we want to get to.”
For Barkley, running behind Hernandez for the next few years should be a pretty good path to that destination.