New York Giants: Justin Pugh
"It's a nice chunk," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of Richburg's first-day training camp practice workload. "But he's a smart kid, and it's good for our team if he can handle it."
The plan Tuesday was for Richburg to work as the second-team center, with J.D. Walton working at center with the first team. But the Giants needed a fill-in at first-team right guard. Chris Snee retired Monday, Brandon Mosley had a stomach issue and had to leave practice early, and John Jerry remains a very limited practice participant as he recovers from knee surgery. So Richburg slid in at right guard with the first team.
"They don't carry a ton of guys on the offensive line," Richburg said earlier in the day. "So for me to be able to play guard and center would really help the team a lot."
It would help Richburg, too. The Giants don't like to rush their rookies, but just last year injuries forced Justin Pugh into a starting role at right tackle, and he ended up starting all 16 games for the team as a rookie. So it's not as though they won't give Richburg a shot if he shows he can handle it. And if he dominates at guard in camp and in the preseason, there's no reason to think that couldn't help his chances to beat out Walton for the starting center spot.
"I'm not really focused on one specific spot," Richburg said. "Wherever they need me to go, I'm happy to do that."
With free agent Geoff Schwartz slated to start at left guard, the Giants project to have three new starting offensive linemen in Week 1 this year. That assumes Pugh at right tackle and Will Beatty at left tackle. Beatty, by the way, did a fair amount of practicing with the first team Tuesday after missing OTAs and minicamp while working his way back from a broken leg. So that's a positive as he and the Giants hope to put a disappointing 2013 season behind them.
"My theme is 'today,'" Beatty said. "Go out there and see what I can do today, and focus on that."
Beatty believes he'll be ready for Week 1. Richburg believes he can be a starter right away. So do Walton and Jerry and Mosley. This camp will be about sorting things out for the Giants on the offensive line -- an area that completely sunk them in 2013 and that absolutely must do a better job in 2014 if the Giants are to be competitive at all.
Projected starters: LT Will Beatty, LG Geoff Schwartz, C J.D. Walton, RG Chris Snee, RT Justin Pugh
Other candidates for roster spots: T/G James Brewer, G Eric Herman, C Dallas Reynolds, T Jamaal Johnson-Webb, T Rogers Gaines, T Troy Kropog, T DeMarcus Love
Schwartz and Pugh are the most solid-looking guys in their spots at this point, assuming health for both. Walton will compete with rookie second-round pick Richburg for the starting center spot, and that could absolutely go either way. The Giants won't be afraid to start Richburg at center if they think he's ready, but they also don't rush rookies if they're not ready just because they were high picks.
They are hoping Snee can hold up physically and play right guard all year, but they won't know that until it happens. They're hoping Beatty can recover from his broken leg in time for training camp and certainly the start of the season, but they can't be sure that will be the case until they see it, either. And even if healthy, Beatty will have a lot of work to do to bounce back from his disappointing 2013 campaign. Jerry and Brown are the respective backup candidates at those spots, but Jerry missed a lot of spring practice time with a knee injury and could also face a league-imposed suspension as a result of his involvement in the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal from last year. Mosley is a guy they like as a backup guard, and he could move up the depth chart quickly if there are injury issues ahead of him.
I keep thinking the Giants will take 10 offensive linemen, but that's going to force tough choices elsewhere, so it's possible it could be nine if everyone's healthy. Brewer has been around a while and played a lot of different positions for the Giants, but he hasn't done very well with the chances he's had. Herman is still a young player they'll look to hold on to if they can. Reynolds is a veteran who helps as a backup at center and guard, but with Richburg and Walton both on the roster, he could be expendable.
@DanGrazianoESPN: Let's assume, for the sake of this discussion, that middle linebacker Jon Beason does not make it back from his foot injury to play for the New York Giants in Week 1 in Detroit. If that is the case (as seems likely), then Jameel McClain is the front-runner to start at middle linebacker.
At this point, the starters on the outside would be Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, but rookie fifth-rounder Devon Kennard impressed coaches in the spring program and could be in the mix to start on the strong side. What's interesting to me is that linebackers coach Eric Hermann had a lot to say Thursday about the improvement Williams has shown as a weakside linebacker in the Giants' base defense. They already love him on the weak side in their nickel package due to his speed and coverage ability. But if they like him there in the base as well, Williams might be ahead of Paysinger to start there even once Beason returns and McClain moves back to the strong side. So to answer your question, I'd expect to see McClain in the middle, Williams on the weak side and either Paysinger or, if he has a big camp, Kennard on the strong side in Week 1.
Giants coaches like his progress. Quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf on Thursday praised Nassib's intelligence and his ability to pick up the new system but said he's still got to work on his accuracy and his timing. Which is understandable, given that he's still a young quarterback who's never played in the league. It's clear they view him as the No. 2 right now behind Eli Manning -- or that they're at least giving him every chance to beat out Curtis Painter for that spot in camp. But no, if Manning got hurt, at this point the Giants would not have honest confidence in Nassib or anyone else who might replace him.
Manning costs the Giants 17 percent of their salary cap. He's the player around whom their team is built. If they don't have him, they simply won't be a remotely competitive team. Even if Nassib comes quickly in camp and becomes a viable No. 2, there's no chance that, in 2014, he offers anything close to what Manning offers as a starting NFL quarterback. All the Giants want from Nassib is continued growth and development, and their hope is that he's a decent backup/emergency option this year and maybe more down the road.
@DanGrazianoESPN: I agree that the Giants' defensive line is questionable behind the starters, and that there's a chance it could be a bad defensive line. They desperately need Jason Pierre-Paul to stay healthy and dominate from the defensive end position, because honestly they're not going to get much pass rush from the other side at this point. Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers are what they are, and they're not the kinds of defensive ends who are going to whip tackles regularly and pile up sacks. And Damontre Moore is still developing.
On the inside, you mention Cullen Jenkins, and I agree he's key because he's the one guy in there who's not a question mark. Coaches were raving this week about the development defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Markus Kuhn have shown, and if so then that's a positive thing for them and for the Giants. But there's no way to know until they can practice in pads and play against other teams what they really have in there. To me, the Giants are hoping a lot of people -- namely, Hankins, Kuhn, Moore, Ayers and Kiwanuka -- outperform anything they've yet shown in the league in order to make them strong on the defensive line. It's not nuts to think one or two of them will, but... all of them?
@DanGrazianoESPN: The first-team offensive line in minicamp was, left to right: Charles Brown, Geoff Schwartz, J.D. Walton, Brandon Mosley, Justin Pugh. Which, no, is not good. They believe Chris Snee could play right guard if he had to right now, but he's working his way back from elbow and hip surgeries and they're taking it slowly with him. And they're also hoping Will Beatty is healthy enough to play left tackle in training camp ahead of Brown, who was signed as a backup. Rookie Weston Richburg is in a straight-up competition with Walton for the starting center spot. So it's possible that by Week 1 it's Beatty/Schwartz/Richburg/Snee/Pugh, which would look a lot better than what they ran out there this week. But as of now, that's your starting five.
Mosley's an interesting case. They like him and think his development has been hurt by injuries. But the fact that Snee and John Jerry (knee surgery) haven't been able to get on the field helped Mosley get a lot of first-team reps this spring. And that can only help him if they need to turn to him to play a starting role in camp, in the preseason or in the season.
Thanks for all of your questions. Enjoy the first weekend of summer.
"I don't see wiggle room," Flaherty said Thursday. "Matter of fact, somebody -- not anybody with anything to do with decision-making -- asked me, 'Would you experiment with him?' Why experiment? He's a starting right tackle. Do I need to move him over to left guard? He's a starting right tackle. I tell the offensive linemen: 'You're a starter. You have a position. You earned that position. To move you has got to be to help the football team.'
"Now, a guy that's a backup right tackle, to move him to left tackle, to move him to left guard, that's versatility, as everybody says. But the reason for that is he's not a starter. He's got to earn his starting position."
In Flaherty's eyes, which seem to reflect the Giants' overall organizational view, Pugh has earned that position and should stay there.
"Justin got better each and every game last year, and he needs to get a lot better, but I don't see it," Flaherty said of moving Pugh off of right tackle. "I don't see it in the near future. I guess you never say never, but if you're asking me today, no, I don't foresee that. You don't want to fight change if you have to do it because it's going to help your football team, but my vision right now is him being the right tackle."
Pugh said earlier in the spring that he'd added 10 pounds this offseason. Flaherty said Pugh played at 300 pounds last year but is now working at 313 or 314 due to an aggressive offseason strength program that should help him play stronger this year.
"He has been, knock on wood, this past offseason, the healthiest he's been in a while," Flaherty said. "And he attacks the weight room and his technique and his fundamentals like you want somebody on the offensive line to attack, and that's to get better. So I like his attitude, and he has gotten bigger."
The Giants didn't draft Pugh thinking he'd start 16 games as a rookie, but they're happy he was able to do it and they believe it can only help his development, which they see as a bright long-term proposition.
"He's got a high ceiling," Flaherty said. "He's nowhere close to it, as you will see. He is going to be a good player. Is he there yet? It's hard to be there after one year, it really is. But he's progressing."
One place I'm sure my eye will go this week is left tackle, where starter Will Beatty remains out of action as he continues to rehab the serious leg injury he suffered in the final game of the 2013 season. Free-agent acquisition Charles Brown is the most likely candidate to work in Beatty's place at left tackle, and it could be very important for Brown to get up to speed in the new offense.
Beatty's injury was a significant one, and Beatty's injury history indicates that he doesn't tend to recover quickly in the first place. The team doesn't seem interested at this point in moving second-year right tackle Justin Pugh to the left side (though they have said in the past that's something they could consider), and Brown is the only player on the team besides Beatty who was a starting left tackle in the NFL last year. If Beatty isn't ready for the start of the season, Brown could well have to handle the job.
The Giants are heavily invested in Beatty for at least one more season. They could conceivably get out of his contract with little pain by making him a post-June 1 cut in 2015. If he struggles again with injuries or ineffectiveness, it's something they could consider down the road. Their hope is that he bounces back and plays the way he played in 2012 and they don't have to make that decision. But in the short term, they're going to need someone besides him to play it, and I'm curious to see how that works.
What are you curious to find out this week in Giants minicamp?
By this point in the offseason, those questions have grown familiar: Can Eli Manning bounce back from the worst season of his career? What will the new offense look like? Can young receivers Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. make a major 2014 impact? How will the running back rotation shake out? Who in the heck is going to play tight end? Is there enough leadership left in the locker room? Can Tom Coughlin and the coaching staff get it all to mesh together in such a short period of time?
All good, important, worthwhile questions. But I'd argue that not one of them matters nearly as much as this one:
Did the Giants do enough to fix their offensive line?
Tell me the 2013 Giants had a lot of problems and I won't say you're wrong. I was there for all 16 games. They were awful. Much worse, I believe, than their final 7-9 record would indicate. But there's no question that, of their myriad problems, the offensive line was the biggest and most devastating. Everything else can be traced to the meltdown on the line.
Sure, David Wilson was an early-season fumbler and he and Andre Brown got hurt. But even if he'd held onto the ball and they'd stayed healthy, there were no holes for Giants backs to run through unless they were playing the Bears or the Raiders. Flanking Jim Cordle with Kevin Boothe and 2013 David Diehl is no way to push the pile.
And, yeah, you can argue that part of Manning's job is to overcome adversity and raise the level of play of those around him. But even the best quarterbacks need at least some time to do that stuff, and Manning's pass protection was cripplingly bad last year. The Carolina Panthers sacked him six times in the first 17 minutes of the Week 3 loss in Charlotte. It's easy for you and me to say a guy should do more to rise above his circumstances. It's quite another to actually do it when your circumstances include defensive linemen running next to you during your drops.
The point is that the biggest and most important of the Giants' 2014 unknowns is that offensive line, which still has legitimate question marks at all five positions. To wit:
Left tackle: Even before breaking his leg in the season finale, Will Beatty was having a bad enough season that he was soul-searching in December. Beatty has got to get right physically and mentally if he's to justify his contract and keep Manning from playing legitimately scared again all season.
Center: Is it J.D. Walton, who hasn't played in two years because of an ankle injury? Is it second-round pick Weston Richburg, who's a rookie? Regardless of which is the answer, will it be good enough? The player at center has more responsibility in this new offense than he did in the old one, and Manning has no prior relationship with either of these guys.
Right guard: Chris Snee is back, and he says he feels great. The question here is whether his surgically repaired hips will allow him to last and play with the same fierceness that characterized the prime of his career. If Snee is what he used to be, this could be the key to the whole line. If he struggles, then they have the same problem they had last year, except with John Jerry as the fallback plan instead of Diehl.
Right tackle: Justin Pugh played well for a rookie and offered reason for hope. He says his footwork improved as the season went on, and the Giants' hope is that he continues to make the necessary improvements. If he has a sophomore slump, that brings up a fresh question mark on which they aren't currently counting.
You can make the argument that this year's starting group looks more talented than the one with which the Giants started the 2013 season -- especially if this year's version of Snee is healthy, which last year's was not. But what remains to be seen is how they'll play together and how they'll all hold up. More than any other item on the Giants' list of offseason questions, the answer to this one will determine how much the team can improve over last season.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's tough to imagine having to tell an NFL offensive lineman how to eat. New York Giants left guard Geoff Schwartz, for example, is 6-foot-6, 340 pounds. Guys like that don't strike you as the sort who have to be selective at the buffet line.
But to hear Schwartz tell it, until he hooked up with former NFL offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley at Bentley's offensive line academy in Arizona a couple of years ago, he was doing it all wrong.
"It's just a whole lifestyle change, but the diet especially," Schwartz said Tuesday during a break from the Giants' offseason workouts. "[Bentley] really is big on that. Because if you're lifting and you're not eating right, you're just not getting the most out of it. And it affects everything you do, really."
"That's what makes him so special," said center Weston Richburg, the Giants' second-round pick in this year's draft and another Bentley protégé. "He's made it specific for each different person, and you can call on him at any time for anything you need."
Schwartz said his nutrition program is different than Richburg's, since Richburg is about 40 pounds lighter and has different needs. The rookie might need to add weight during the season, whereas Schwartz wants to take some off or maintain. Schwartz said he no longer eats carbs in the offseason, which has been driving him crazy during his wife's pregnancy but has helped to change him as a player. Schwartz signed a four-year, $16.8 million contract with the Giants in March after emerging as a star at guard with the Chiefs last year. He doesn't think it's any coincidence that 2013 was his first year in Bentley's program, and neither does Bentley.
"The idea is to be able to put yourself in a situation where you're in top shape year-round," Bentley said in a phone interview Monday. "I always equate it to a bank account. Most big athletes take so much out, and bigger withdrawals every time with the effort they put in athletically. And when you compound it with poor choices in terms of quality of life, then you're not putting anything back in. Or what you put in isn't big enough to make up for those withdrawals. Little guys, leaner guys like wide receivers have a bit more of a head start. They can eat those candy bars and get away with it."
Schwartz and Richburg, who could form two-fifths of the Giants' starting offensive line in 2014, are converts. And Bentley believes the Giants, whose offensive line issues were thoroughly devastating in 2013, will look a lot different because of them.
"Now you're able to open up your playbook as an offensive coordinator," Bentley said. "Chris Snee was like that for the Giants for so long, and with guys like this they're getting back to that -- versatile guys who can play tough and strong and quick and athletic and anything you need. With these guys, you're not limited in terms of your ability to be creative as an offensive coordinator. I know for sure they have two guys who can address every need in terms of offensive line play. As a matter of fact, these two guys expand what you're able to do."
Bentley is a fan of Justin Pugh, the 2013 first-round pick who started all 16 games at right tackle for the Giants as a rookie. And Snee is still on the team and hoping to hold up for a season at right guard. If Richburg can beat out J.D. Walton for the starting center job, his responsibilities in new coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense will be extensive, before the snap as well as after it.
"I felt Weston was the most pro-ready center in this year's draft class, and I still stand firmly on that," Bentley said. "He can do exactly what Ben wants him to do. In terms of his mental decorum, he's built for this. He's designed to take on a lead role. And he's not, for lack of a better term, some nerd who's only out there because he can make the calls. He's a bona fide football player."
Richburg and Schwartz both believe they're better football players for having hooked up with Bentley. The Giants, who needed all kinds of help on the offensive line, stand to benefit a great deal from that in 2014 and beyond.
My prediction is that the Giants will select Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin with the No. 12 pick in the draft.
Why Martin? I think he'll end up being the best player available, in their judgment, at No. 12. I think they see too many red flags with guys like Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. I think they will decide (if they haven't already) that Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald is too small to play defensive tackle for them. I don't think they will or should be willing to pay what it would take to trade up for Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. And while they went 13 years without drafting an offensive lineman in the first round before taking Justin Pugh last year, they recognize that they've let the offensive line erode to a detrimental extent. Martin is fine value at No. 12 and, like Pugh last year, can play a variety of positions along the line. So going forward, they can play him or Pugh at guard or center and the other at right tackle. Or if they decide to cut ties with Will Beatty next summer, they could play first-rounders Pugh and Martin at the tackle spots long term. The point is to load up on top talent at a vital and neglected position. Martin would represent the best player available at this point at a position of both short-term and long-term need for the Giants.
What if Martin is gone already? My sleeper pick for the Giants at this point is LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. I think that's the guy they'd take if Martin were taken in the top 11, and I think there's an outside chance they could take him even if Martin is still there. Beckham has incredible speed and is known as a playmaker with the ball in his hands. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing a system that's likely to resemble Green Bay's West Coast-style offense and lean on the idea of getting its playmakers the ball and letting them function after the catch. Like current Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, Beckham fits this description and would be a fun toy for McAdoo and Eli Manning. I personally don't love the idea of Beckham at No. 12, since he seems a little too much like Cruz and Jerrel Jernigan. I think this is a very deep wide receiver draft and that the Giants could find good value at the position in the second or third round if they really want one, and that they would do well to draft one with size. Rueben Randle hasn't yet shown that he can handle the outside job full time, and Manning has shown in the past that he would benefit from a taller receiver on the outside. I think they need that more than they need a guy like Beckham. But that's just my opinion, not theirs.
What if they're both gone? I guess maybe Ebron, though I still don't think so. Maybe a trade down, though that's going to be tough at that point in the round with so many other teams thinking along the same lines. If they stay put at 12 and can't get either of their top two choices (assuming those are Martin and Beckham), your guess is as good as mine. But just to throw one out, I'll say Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Yes, I still believe they need to address offensive here. But Clinton-Dix would be good value at No. 12, and Cooper Taylor is the only Giants safety currently under contract beyond 2014. The Giants have taken a defensive back with their first pick in four of their last nine drafts, so it would also be in character, as fallback plans often are.
Pugh's in New York this week, making the rounds as a spokesman for a new beard trimmer by Conair for Men. He said he has no regrets about skipping last year's draft.
"At the beginning of the process, I was projected in the third round," Pugh recalled. "So even though, by the time the draft came around, you were hearing maybe end of first round, maybe earlier if there was a run on tackles, I just felt it would be better to be home with my family and friends than sitting around waiting up there."
The video is a priceless illustration of draft-day elation, as Pugh talks on the phone with Tom Coughlin and other Giants officials while his friends try to contain themselves in anticipation of the dogpile that awaits Pugh once he hangs up. Pugh said he remembered spending the rest of the night sitting around with his friends saying, "The Giants!" as though they couldn't believe it was all real, and that his friends kept bugging him to call his agent and find out how big his contract was going to be.
"It was a great experience for me. I wouldn't change it for the world," Pugh said. "It was one of the most rewarding things I've ever experienced."
Pugh started 16 games at right tackle for the Giants as a rookie and is slated to start there again this year.
But my strong feeling is that the pick will be an offensive lineman, and ESPN Stats & Information offered some stuff this week that helps illustrate why:
Giants rushers were first contacted in the backfield on 21 percent of their rushes last season, highest in the NFL.
This indicates a widespread problem. We all know about Eli Manning's 27 interceptions, and Stats & Info also points out the 44 turnovers committed by the Giants were 10 more than any other team. But this stat shows they couldn't even get a running game started, so poor was the protection up front. It's a major short-term need as well as a long-term one, mainly because...
The Giants have drafted 2 offensive linemen in the 1st round since 1990, tied for 3rd fewest in the league: 2013 (Justin Pugh), 1999 (Luke Petitgout).
Normally, I'd say this indicates a trend to which you can expect the Giants to stick, like the one about how they haven't picked a first-round linebacker since 1984. But I think Pugh's strong performance as a rookie, coupled with the obvious fact that neglect and decay on the offensive line crippled their offense last season, has convinced the Giants of the value of investing major resources in the offensive line. As a result, I think it's likely that they find their best option at No. 12 to be an offensive lineman. I wouldn't be surprised if they took two with their first three picks.
Anyway, we'll be doing a live mock draft all morning on SportsCenter, and sometime during the 10 a.m. hour you will hear me make the Giants' pick at No. 12. If Lewan is there again, it will be hard for me to pass him up, but as I said earlier, I'm starting to waver a bit toward Martin.
You can see the whole mock draft here.
I got an email from Vikings reporter Ben Goessling asking if I'd be interested in trading up from No. 12 to No. 8. I told him we could talk if Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews or Mike Evans were still there when his pick came around. But Robinson went No. 2 to St. Louis, Matthews went No. 6 to Atlanta and Evans when No. 7 to Tampa Bay. So there wasn't anyone for whom I'd have been willing to send, say, a third-round pick to Ben to move up four spots. (We never did talk price.)
Then when Mike Rothstein was on the board for the Lions at No. 10, he and I talked trade. He offered me the No. 10 pick in exchange for the No. 12 and a fifth-rounder (No. 152). But at that point, Lewan and Zack Martin were still on the board, and I didn't have any fear that they'd go at 10 and 11. I felt strongly that one of them would fall to 12, so I decided just to sit tight and take whichever one did.
Turns out, they both did. Mike took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Paul Kuharsky took Eric Ebron for the Titans at No. 11, which meant I didn't have to explain why I don't think the Giants will take Ebron.
(NOTE: Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald was still on the board, and I know some of you think the Giants should or would take him in that case. But I look at the profile of the defensive tackles the Giants like, and I fear Donald's relative lack of size for the position will scare them off. I don't think it should, mind you. I think Donald is great and would be a wonderful pick here. But I'm supposed to try to do what I think the Giants would do in this scenario, and my hunch is that they'd pass on Donald.)
So I had a choice between Lewan and Martin, and it was a tough one. Martin may be the "cleaner" prospect -- as in, the one that comes with fewer red flags. He's also the more versatile -- a guy they can use at tackle or guard or even center as their needs dictate now and in the future, whereas Lewan is a tackle only. But the Giants always talk about taking the best player available, and in my opinion Lewan is the better player, so I took him. If he's great and Will Beatty rebounds and Justin Pugh keeps playing well, they could sort out who plays tackle and who plays guard down the road. Good problem to have, etc.
What I do not know at this point is what the Giants would do in this scenario. I don't know whether they'd take Lewan over Martin or vice-versa. I hope to know more between now and the time they pick Thursday night, but as everyone knows it's tough to know what to believe when people tell you things this time of year.
Regardless, if the No. 12 pick comes around Thursday night and the Giants have a choice between two offensive linemen this good, I believe they'd be thrilled.