It’s about right guard Kevin Zeitler.
The veteran guard, acquired from the Cleveland Browns before the 2019 season, is set to have a $14.5 million cap hit in 2021, which is damaging for a team only projected for $6 million in cap space at the moment. The Giants are trying to re-sign defensive lineman Leonard Williams, bringing back nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is a possibility and they also have other needs throughout the roster.
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Recent reports indicated the Giants might be shopping Zeitler via trade, as they had at the trade deadline this past season. If he’s not traded, there is a distinct possibility that he’d be cut for $12 million in savings.
What the Giants should do with Zeitler, though, is negotiate a multi-year deal to reduce that cap hit while still allowing him to make a similar salary. It’s highly unlikely he’d garner anywhere near $14.5 million on the open market, which would make it seem like he’d be agreeable to a new deal.
Unless, of course, one (or both) of two things are true:
1. Zeitler doesn’t want to play the Giants.
2. The Giants feel like they can live without him.
Ultimately, though, it’s not quite as simple as the Giants simply cutting him and going out and signing someone else.
The Giants already have question marks at both left guard and right tackle, as well as gaping holes at wide receiver and edge rusher. They could stand for an upgrade at cornerback, too.
If the Giants were to cut Zeitler, that just creates another hole to be filled. Zeitler is not quite a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but he’s a quality starting guard. The Giants had the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL last season — per Pro Football Focus — but Zeitler was far from the problem. He’s been their best linemen two years running, and hasn’t missed any games in that stretch.
In order to sign a player that’s better than Zeitler — of which there aren’t many obvious ones currently available in free agency — the Giants will still have to open their wallet. And then on top of that, the Giants would be trying to incorporate at least one new offensive lineman, and possibly more than one, in an offseason that likely won’t have teams getting OTAs and minicamp, as in 2020.
The Giants’ offensive line had three new starters to start 2020 and it was a disaster for the first half of the season.
“I think you saw that group getting better as the season went on,” former Giants offensive lineman Rich Seubert told NJ Advance Media. “I think if they would’ve had a full offseason, maybe they would’ve started better. Maybe the season would’ve gone differently.”
The Giants then going ahead and pulling their most consistent player (Zeitler) out of the fold would unlikely help matters in 2021.
“Offensive line, you need five guys working together,” Seubert said. “It’s not just: Flip a switch and play next to a guy. You need time to build that chemistry.”
Plus, the idea that the Giants could simply plug in a better player than Zeitler is not quite accurate either.
Here’s a look at the options that could be out there if the Giants do ultimately opt to move on from Zeitler, including players currently on the roster, potentially available in free agency and the NFL Draft:
ON THE ROSTER
Will Hernandez: He fell out of favor with this coaching staff, getting relegated to a reserve role for the second half of the season. But he’s entering a contract year and the Giants did use a second-round pick on him not too long ago. Maybe he can bounce back at right guard.
Shane Lemieux: The rookie stole Hernandez’s job in 2020 and didn’t exactly show enough to portend confidence (at least not yet) that he can be the long-term starter at either guard spot. Still, the Giants clearly like him.
Nick Gates: An interesting option would see the Giants signing a free agent center (or drafting one) and moving Gates over to guard. The 2020 season was the first time he ever played center, and by the end he really seemed to have figured it out. He’s good enough to still be a useful player at right guard, though, and there are some interesting options (Corey Linsley, David Andrews) coming available in free agency.
Brandon Scherff (Washington): If the Giants truly wanted to sign someone that would legitimate raise the profile of the offensive line, Scherff would be the one. He’s one of the NFL’s best guards and a four-time Pro Bowler coming off his first All-Pro campaign. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that Washington won’t allow him to actually hit free agency. Pro Football Focus projects him to get a four year, $60 million deal. Signing Scherff would prevent the Giants from doing much else.
Joe Thuney (Patriots): Thuney would serve as an upgrade over Zeitler, sure, but not quite a significant one. He is slightly younger (by two years) and has generally graded out better on PFF. If the Giants are cutting Zeitler to save money, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn around and hand Thuney a deal worth $14 million per year (as PFF projects) rather than fill other needs and keep Zeitler. Still, it’s hard to ignore the Giants ties to Thuney (via Joe Judge, who knows him from the Patriots days).
Gabe Jackson (Raiders): Las Vegas released Jackson recently. The 29-year-old signed a five-year, $55 million deal in 2017 and will get much less than that — and probably only a one-year deal — this offseason. It’s debatable whether he’s appreciably better than Zeitler, though he might come cheaper. PFF had Zeitler graded 29th among guards (min. 500 snaps) in 2020. Jackson was ranked 39th and worse at both pass- and run-blocking, though he didn’t allow a single sack in 2020.
Andrew Norwell (Jaguars): He’s still technically with Jacksonville but there are reports that he could be cut for cap savings. The 29-year-old was an All-Pro in 2017 but hasn’t reached that level since. He missed three games due to injury in 2020 — Zeitler hasn’t missed any games for the Giants — and struggled a bit down the stretch. Giants consultant Pat Flaherty coached him in Jacksonville. He’s only played left guard in the NFL, though, so the Giants would have to move Shane Lemieux and/or Will Hernandez to the right side. PFF had Norwell only allowing 15 total pressures in 2020.
Larry Warford (Saints): The three-time Pro Bowler opted out of the 2020 season after the Saints cut him, so it’s unclear what sort of shape he’s in or how much he’d cost. But if he’s still capable of playing at the level he did from 2017-19, he’d be an interesting option.
Matt Feiler (Steelers): The versatile 28-year-old would be better as an addition to Zeitler, not a replacement for him. Feiler would be an intriguing option at both right tackle and left guard and might not cost all that much. PFF only projects him at a perfectly reasonable $12 million over two years.
Germain Ifedi (Bears): Like Feiler, Ifedi would be more intriguing as an addition to Zeitler, not as a replacement. He has experience at both right guard and right tackle and is coming off his best-ever season (65.5 overall PFF grade, 25 pressures allowed) after a few bad seasons with the Seahawks. PFF only has him earning $5 million over two years.
Whether the Giants keep Zeitler or not, don’t be surprised if they draft a linemen early. If they’re looking for his replacement, though, intriguing options in the first round — ideally in a trade back from No. 11 — would be USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker or Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis. They could also potentially draft Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater at No. 11 (if he falls there) and move him to guard, though most project him as a tackle.
On Day 2, interesting options would include Alabama’s Landon Dickerson or Deonte Brown, Tennessee’s Trey Smith, Ohio State’s Josh Myers and Georgia’s Ben Cleveland.
Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely a rookie guard would be able to step in and contribute at the same level as Zeitler, at least in 2021. Especially if there’s a strange offseason again (no OTAs, minicamp) due to the pandemic.
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