The New York Giants offensive line is looking to improve this upcoming season, but who will be performing smack dab in the middle?
The future of Jon Halapio in a New York Giants uniform is very much unclear at this time. After notching 15 starts for Big Blue in 2019, the center suffered a torn Achilles during the Week 17 loss to the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants then decided not to tender him this past March, putting him on the open market.
So with Halapio possibly gone, the Giants may have to look towards other options in regards to who could play in the middle of the offensive line. New York acquired three young “hog mollies” in this year’s (virtual) draft, one of which was Oregon’s Shane Lemieux, who was taken in the fifth round and started 52 games at left guard for the Ducks.
He’ll find himself competing at the center position though once training camp begins, taking part in a preseason battle that could be very interesting to witness ahead of the regular season.
Along with Lemieux, the Giants currently possess both Spencer Pulley and Nick Gates, the former of which started nine games at center in 2018. The latter started three games (two at tackle, one at guard) last year but will be considered for the center job, according to general manager Dave Gettleman.
Each of the three aforementioned individuals carries different strengths and weaknesses they can bring to not just this position battle, but the team as a whole. So which one will ultimately win the job?
You can say Pulley may be the favorite right now, considering he has much experience at this spot. He started the majority of the 2018 campaign amid a 14-game injury-related absence of Halapio. Pulley additionally played in four matchups last year and was the Los Angeles Chargers’ full-time starter during the 2017 campaign.
All in all, Pulley has 49 games played and 26 starts under his belt, which definitely outweighs Gates’ 16 games and three starts along with Lemieux’s zero in either category. Thus, Spencer holds a significant advantage when it comes to overall experience on an NFL game field.
But don’t forget, his past playing time with the Giants organization was with a different coaching staff. He’s yet to perform under the Joe Judge regime, so it’s unclear if this staff, including offensive line coach Marc Colombo, will point the finger to him when deciding the starting lineups.
Not to mention, Pulley has been very inconsistent during his tenure in East Rutherford. Through 566 total offensive snaps in 2018, he notched a poor 56.7 Pro Football Focus grade, the fourth-lowest mark on the team. Pulley allowed two sacks for 13 total yards and committed a pair of penalties for 15 total yards that season.
Pulley additionally put up an even worse PFF grade of 48.7 through 95 offensive snaps last year.
The struggles are certainly concerning, so Pulley will need to show much improvement ahead of the regular season.
Gates, on the other hand, was mainly a reserve tackle last year and started the two games former Giant Mike Remmers missed — the Week 10 and 17 losses to the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
As was said before, the Giants will definitely consider Gates for this job.
“Just for what it’s worth, we’ve talked about Nick [competing at center],” Gettleman said, per Michael Eisen of the Giants official website. “He did do some of that last year in practice, so it’s not completely new. Nick is smart. The thing you love about Nick is just how tough he is, because it’s a fistfight in there. There’s no doubt about that. History tells you that the toughness of your team is really, really indicated by the toughness of your offensive line. So, we’re always looking for that kind of piece. Nick would be in consideration at center, absolutely.”
Through the 290 offensive snaps he spent on the field last year, Gates allowed one sack and recorded a 77.0 PFF grade, a mark that should give fans confidence in the young lineman.
But him making that significant of a transition worries me, especially when you consider how much time he’s spent on the exterior of the line compared to the interior. It’s not like he performed in an interior-line spot in college either, as he was primarily a tackle for Nebraska.
It’ll be interesting to see how Gates competes though and would be awesome to witness him expand his versatility and succeed from that spot. Nonetheless, I think having him start at center just because he’s practiced at the position may be a bit of a stretch right now.
And finally, there’s Lemieux, the strong rookie guard who could actually make the switch to center and start there in the future.
He didn’t play center in college just like Gates and was primarily a left guard during his four years at Oregon. But the transition to that spot could be easier for him, considering he’s coming in with more experience than Gates in regards to the interior spots.
Lemieux proved to be a terrific athlete in college, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in both 2018 and 2019. He protected current Chargers quarterback and 2020 No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert during either season.
I don’t think he’ll start right away, but I see Lemieux performing as a reserve lineman initially while developing into the team’s every-game center. The Giants definitely have confidence in him moving forward, so we’ll see if he’s up for the challenge come late this summer (hopefully).
All in all, this is how I see it panning out: Pulley, despite his struggles, will start initially due to the fact that he has more NFL-level experience over the other two, both at center and in general. The Giants will utilize Gates as a swing lineman while Lemieux sits on the bench and develops until he eventually becomes the starting center.
Because that’s what the Giants are probably hoping. They’d likely prefer all three offensive linemen they drafted this year eventually start and become integral parts of this team. An offensive line with Thomas, Will Hernandez, Lemieux, Kevin Zeitler, and Peart should be the long-term goal, with Zeitler becoming expendable at some point due to his age.
For that to occur, Lemieux must put in the work while the Giants remain patient with him.
Pulley will potentially start, but the Oregon product will earn his chance sooner or later.