The New York Giants opened training camp with their annual conditioning test. But the biggest tests will occur over the next few weeks, as Big Blue finds out if their maligned offensive line can carry its share for a franchise looking to be Super Bowl contenders.
Center Weston Richburg certainly believes his squad has what it takes and actually agrees with many on the outside who have large expectations for the Giants and feel they should be in the Super Bowl mix.
“We’re in unison with those expectations,” said Richburg.
Such a bold declaration is rare for any player in the National Football League, let alone for an offensive lineman – a position that usually relishes its anonymity. But for Richburg and Co., they’ve heard all the whispers about the unit’s underperformances in seasons past, and they’re set to change the minds of the detractors.
Big Blue’s front office thinks (hopes?) the offensive line will be improved. And they showed such faith by neither adding a premiere lineman in last April’s NFL Draft, nor by hitting the free agent market hard for help.
The players certainly see general manager Jerry Reese’s mainly inactive state of infusing the offensive line as a show of faith.
“As an offensive unit we didn’t have our best year, [but] I think we can play so much better than we did last year,” said Richburg. “I think we can take it as a vote of confidence [returning all starters]. That says to us that they believe in us and believe we can be the unit that takes this team where we want to go. So we’ve got to make sure that happens.”
Guard Justin Pugh agreed.
“I think it shows that they have confidence in our ability to get better. I know we have to get better; everyone knows we have to get better,” Pugh said, adding he likes the way they’re gelling. “That’s everything. Offensive line is really the only position where all five guys have to play as one … So, for us, continuity, and that trust, and that camaraderie is everything.”
The interior certainly has potential, led by Richburg and guards Pugh and John Jerry, but it’s been the offensive tackle positions that have been the bane of Giants’ fans existence. By not going out and bringing in high-priced players or high draft picks to play tackle, Reese is banking on left tackle Ereck Flowers and right tackle Bobby Hart to improve. Both have been highly criticized over the years, particularly Flowers, a former first-round pick. But Reese noted that both eschewed going back home to Miami, Florida to train this offseason to stay in northern New Jersey and work out together. The general manager is banking on such renewed commitment to carry over onto the playing field.
“The five guys who started last year, they’ve got a lot of snaps under the belt right now. The two young kids [Flowers and Hart], they’re still very young. But it’s time for them to step up to the plate and be good players, and I believe they will,” Reese said, noting that his burly crew also has rabbit ears. “All the offensive linemen are galvanized with respect to playing great. Everybody keeps saying that’s the weak link to the football team. They hear that. So you guys keep talking about it, keep motivating them and I’m sure you will … I expect those guys to play well.”
They’ll have to play well in order to make Reese look like a genius for bypassing O-line help for perimeter weaponry – and to give quarterback Eli Manning time to find said weapons.
Reese drafted a sleek tight end in former Mississippi star Evan Engram with the No. 23 pick in April’s draft. He also lured wideout Brandon Marshall from the New York Jets to take the spot of Victor Cruz as the team’s venerable locker room leader — and go-to goaline weapon. Adding those two to an offense that already includes Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard could be boons if Manning has time to throw and isn’t checking down to his running backs, taking sacks, or throwing the ball into the stands because the O-line only affords him a second or two to scan downfield.
So, while the pressure always lands at Manning’s feet, real football minds know that the 2017-18 Giants go only as far as the quarterback’s protectors allow.
It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Giants. Their ardent fans just hope they don’t bust because of the unsung guys up front.