By: Michael Gagliardi
If you have been a New York Giants fan for more than a couple years, then you undoubtedly know the value of a quality offensive line, and how a bad offensive line can ruin teams. The Giants have been consistently dominated on the line of scrimmage for the better part of a decade, and management has failed many times to address this issue. That being said, the current iteration of the Giants O-line is leaps and bounds better than the days of trotting out starting lineups featuring the likes of Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart. The Giants have their guard spots locked up for 2020 with Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler and have a healthy competition for center between Spencer Pulley, Nick Gates, and rookie 5th round pick Shane Lemieux. 2019’s starter, Jon Halapio, who is coming off an Achilles tear, has not been signed yet, but him returning to compete is not out of the question.
The two tackles are locked in as well, with Nate Solder returning for what will likely be his final year as a Giant, alongside 4th overall pick Andrew Thomas, out of Georgia. Even though we know who’s going to start on opening day, where these two are going to start is still in question. There have been many dueling voices in the Giants community recently whether to start Thomas at left tackle right off the bat or let Solder play out the last year of guaranteed money on his contract at his natural position, letting Thomas adjust to the NFL game on the right side.
To start, let’s get this out of the way: I believe that Andrew Thomas this coming season will be a house, a brick wall, an eraser, a hog molly, a tank; whatever you want to call him, he has the potential to be a player that the Giants have not had for a long time. Possessing athletic ability, size, strength, intelligence, technique, and more, Andrew Thomas (or as I call him: Thomas the Tank Engine) is everything you’d ever want in a franchise left tackle, and that will undoubtedly be his position for the Giants in the future.
The Giant’s current starting left tackle, Nate Solder, has a contract worth $19.5 million for 2020, which takes up 9.5% of the Giants’ total salary cap (via OverTheCap.com). All this would be well worth it for a quality blindside protector, but Solder has been anything but that in his Giants tenure. In 2019 alone, Solder allowed 12.5 sacks for a total loss of 107 yards (via Washington Post), and often seemed to be completely outclassed by his opponent. Granted, Solder’s by all accounts is a great man and has been dealing with an extremely rough family situation for a long time now, but solely from a football perspective, Solder has not been performing up to the standards of his hefty contract.
There are 3 options for Solder in 2020: starting again at LT, starting at RT and relinquishing LT to Thomas, or being benched. Because of the cap hit, benching Solder outright is not an option that the Giants would likely consider. Also, rookie 3rd round RT Matt Peart is, by all accounts, nowhere near being a day 1 starter, and free agency signee Cameron Fleming is a career backup.
The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is at the forefront of the argument for people who think that Thomas should play RT in 2020, as Solder (in his 9th year in the league) is no young man, by NFL standards. He has been starting at left tackle for his entire professional and college career, and a switch at this point could be overwhelming to him, especially with the added stress of his off-field situation. It may be easier to start the much younger, more malleable, Andrew Thomas on the right side, rather than asking a veteran, who hasn’t played any other position than LT for over a decade, to switch positions. This may also make sense because Thomas has the more recent experience on the right side, having started there his freshman year at Georgia.
Furthermore, it’s not like Solder was the worst left tackle in the world last year; I’d take him over Ereck Flowers any day (for what that’s worth). A good amount of his sacks in 2019 could be attributed to Daniel Jones’s lack of pocket awareness, which is expected to greatly improve this year. Also, if he does not perform well, the Giants could potentially trade him to a team with an injury on their O-line, looking for someone serviceable to plug in.
There also are some success stories of great left tackles like Jonathan Ogden and Tyron Smith, who started their careers at LG and RT respectively, only to move to their permanent position in their sophomore season. However, both of these teams had quality O-lines at the time; something the Giants have been lacking for quite a while.
This option makes sense on paper, but when it comes down to the real football that will be played on the field, it starts to crumble. When you look at Andrew Thomas’s raw skill and athleticism, there is no question that he needs to be competing on day 1 of camp to be Daniel Jones’s blindside protector. He gave up only one sack in the entirety of his 2019 college campaign, allowing only 9 pressures on the season (via Vendetta Sports). This was against SEC competition, where he was going up against a future pro pretty much every single week. If you are a fan of locking Solder in at left tackle in 2020, I implore you to watch tape of Solder from last year and then compare it to the film of Thomas. Watch their footwork, punch, and hip movement, and you will see that there’s no comparison: Thomas is far and away the more skilled pass blocker.
Even though it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, I would rather Solder struggle at RT for a year than to possibly hamper the development of my shiny new franchise LT of the future. If Solder struggles too much with the position change, I don’t think that head coach Joe Judge will have any problem with benching him and starting whoever he believes is the best man for the job, whether that is Peart, Fleming, or someone else. Judge doesn’t come off as a coach who makes decisions based on the salary cap, which I think is more than necessary for a Giants team that has been in the basement of the league for the past 3 years.
At this point in his career, Nate Solder is no longer a franchise left tackle, and. Andrew Thomas very well may be one on his first day of camp. That being said, if I were Joe Judge, I would not outright give Thomas the spot on day 1; I would make him earn the job and prove why he deserves to start at the most important spot on the O-line. If he performs better than Solder (which I believe he will), you have to play the best man for the job, even if it means letting the veteran guy figure it out at a new position. On a team coming off a 4-12 year, nobody’s starting spot is safe (except if your name rhymes with Shmaquon Shmarkley). Joe Judge, coming from the Belichick school of coaching, knows that in the NFL you have to start the best man for the job, no matter who you’ll have to bench to accomplish it.
All-in-all, no matter what happens in 2020, I firmly believe that Andrew Thomas, along with Will Hernandez and Shane Lemieux will form a young core of O-linemen that will open up holes for Saquon and create pockets for Danny Dimes for years to come. Thomas has the skills, the body, and the mindset to become, not only the Giants’ left tackle for the future but of the present as well. He should compete with Solder for the job all summer, and may the best man win. It would be a lack of due diligence to lock Solder and Thomas on the left and right sides, respectively, for the year without even seeing how the rookie stacks up to the veteran. Competition breeds better quality of play, and that is true for any position in any sport, especially football.