will hernandez giants
Syndication: The Record

Kevin Zeitler is officially out of East Rutherford. Who will the New York Giants choose to be his replacement next season?

Professional football is a sport; it’s also a business.

Some people forget that, but were reminded Wednesday when the Giants needed to make a financial decision in regard to their starting right guard.

Although Kevin Zeitler is talented and was the team’s top offensive lineman, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and was going to be expensive in 2021. Zeitler carried a cap hit of $14.5 million next season, and in an offseason in which the Giants need to retain Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson, the best option was to part ways with him and save $12 million ($2.5 million dead cap charge).

The release of Zeitler brought the Giants under the cap but introduces further roster issues for the upcoming 2021 campaign. All of a sudden, the team possesses a crucial gap at the offensive guard position.

Shane Lemieux will start at one of the spots after starting nine games during his rookie season last year. The other guard role? To be determined, but there are a few realistic options.

Will Hernandez

If the Giants don’t decide Will Hernandez is another cap casualty this offseason (cutting the young offensive lineman would save nearly $2.2 million in space), he would likely be the best in-house option. Hernandez started 39 games through his first three years in the league, including all 16 games in each of his first two seasons after going in the second round of the 2018 draft.

His steady but apparent on-field decline, however, is a concern. Hernandez’s Pro Football Focus grades from 2018-20 were 67.9, 58.4, and 58.1, respectively. The struggles led to the Giants pulling him out of the starting lineup in the middle of last season in favor of Lemieux.

Nonetheless, chemistry within an offensive line and experience playing alongside familiar offensive line counterparts are crucial determinants of success in this department, and Hernandez is obviously more familiar with guys like center Nick Gates than anyone the Giants could acquire.

Jonotthan Harrison

The Giants officially signed former Jet and Colt Jonotthan Harrison last month, and while he’s mainly a center, the 29-year-old may be able to flex some on-field versatility and take over the vacant guard spot.

Harrison additionally possesses noteworthy experience, having taken part in 84 career games with 42 starts. However, he hasn’t appeared in a game since 2019 — he didn’t play in a single matchup with the Bills last year and spent much of the season on Buffalo’s practice squad.

He’ll likely get a shot to prove his worth in training camp if the organization keeps him up until that late-summer period.

Fix the issue via free agency

The New England Patriots didn’t franchise tag offensive guard Joe Thuney, which means he’s headed to free agency.

The 2019 second-team All-Pro (who’s played and started in every game for the Pats since he was drafted in 2016 and recorded an impressive 74.2 PFF grade last season) will be requesting a significant payday. His Spotrac market value is around $15 million annually.

Big Blue may not possess the funds to afford him given its limited cap space ($3.2 million at the moment) and potential long-term deals awaiting Williams and Tomlinson. If the Giants do target Thuney, they’re likely out on Kenny Golladay or any big-name free-agent offensive skill player.

Fix the issue through the draft

The Giants likely won’t be focusing on the interior of the offensive line until at least the third or fourth round. They’ll probably utilize their No. 11 overall pick in the opening round on an offensive weapon and then their second-round selection (No. 42 overall) on a defensive back or edge rusher.

That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be able to find a reliable guard at No. 76 or 117 (third and fourth-round picks) though.

Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks might still be available in the middle rounds and the same goes for Georgia’s Ben Cleveland. Of course, Cleveland has a connection to Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas, who New York drafted out of Georgia at No. 4 overall last year.

Banks (ACC) and Cleveland (SEC) both earned first-team all-conference designations last year. The former was a first-team AP All-American selection while the latter was on the AP All-America third team.

Ryan Honey is a staff writer and host of the Wide Right Podcast.