The Giants believe they replaced Ereck Flowers this offseason without drafting or signing another left tackle.
They believe a new version of Flowers is walking around the training center in East Rutherford, eating better, slimming down, boxing to improve quickness and hand placement, honing his technique, and carrying the right attitude.
And so on Thursday, it was refreshing to hear Flowers express confidence that he’ll remain Big Blue’s left tackle for a long time, and it was enough to confirm that his fight for respect in the NFL is not over.
“What makes me believe that?” Flowers said, repeating the question. “I mean, what’s the point of being out there if you don’t believe in yourself?”
And that’s exactly what Ben McAdoo, Jerry Reese and the Giants want to hear, but especially since Flowers, 23, through three seasons at times has appeared as fragile mentally as he was overmatched physically.
It’s hard to blame a player — and a person as shy as Flowers is, too — for wincing occasionally at the inordinate amount of pressure placed on his position or the criticism he takes when he fails. However, the harsh reality is that Reese drafted Flowers ninth overall in the 2015 draft out of Miami to play the second most important position in the sport behind quarterback, and it hasn’t gone as planned.
Last season marked a low point: Flowers surrendered 54 QB pressures in the Giants’ final 13 games, per Pro Football Focus, and added 10 penalties in that span. Bobby Hart at right tackle also surrendered 46 total QB pressures, giving the Giants one of the worst tackle combinations of the 2016 season.
Most surprisingly, Reese then had the audacity this offseason not to draft or sign tackle to protect Eli Manning more efficiently in the two-time Super Bowl winning QB’s waning years. The organization has responded by throwing a heavy amount of public support Flowers’ way, with compliments from Reese, McAdoo, Hart, offensive line coach Mike Solari — until Thursday, really, everyone had praised Flowers but the man himself.
Flowers then showed the right attitude Thursday when asked if he appreciates Reese showing faith in him. “Yeah, (but I have to) continue to go out there to work,” Flowers said. “That’s all I’m thinking about.”
He said this offseason, in which he stayed in New Jersey instead of flying home to Miami, “might have been the smartest I’ve worked compared to other offseasons.”
Still, that won’t be enough. McAdoo’s offense didn’t move the ball last season, and even with the additions of Brandon Marshall and first-round pick Evan Engram, the Giants are not going to reach their full potential on offense if Manning does not feel comfortable enough to make plays from the pocket.
McAdoo at the combine put some of the onus on Manning, too, to have better feet and work more efficiently in jams. But while that is valid to a point, it would be wrong to coddle Flowers and lay blame elsewhere. If he doesn’t play better, punter Brad Wing will be busy again. It’s that simple.
Part of this equation also is the Giants’ need to improve the running game drastically. If they run the ball better in 2017, that will keep opposing defensive ends more honest, preventing them from teeing off on the Giants’ tackles at full speed, knowing that Manning needs to throw the ball to get first downs.
McAdoo constantly talks about how he wants to punch other teams in the mouth with the Giants’ running game, and so the under-the-radar story of this offseason so far may be the team’s work toward that end.
While Odell Beckham Jr., Marshall and the passing game are the buzz again, the free-agent signing of tight end Rhett Ellison will allow for more double tight-end sets with improved blocking, and fullback Shane Smith, an undrafted free agent from San Jose State, could be a sneaky important pickup.
Smith was working with the first-team offense to conclude minicamp on Thursday, at a position one person in the Giants organization referred to as a “missing link” from last year’s disappointing rushing attack.
The pressure is still on Flowers, though, to play consistently at a level that gives Manning time. If he can’t, the depth chart is thin. Undrafted rookie Chad Wheeler from USC appears to be the early backup, working with the first-team Wednesday and Thursday to spell Flowers, who was “sore” after tweaking something Wednesday. Sixth-round draft pick Adam Bisnowaty seems like more of a right tackle or guard.
And so there isn’t much experience to lean on if the Giants need to go to Plan B.
The Giants have to wish they’d gotten their linemen through minicamp healthier: In addition to Flowers’ late issue, left guard Justin Pugh for precautionary reasons sat out with a tweak in his back, and free-agent signing D.J. Fluker was hurt Wednesday and rode the bike Thursday.
The Giants still expect to return all five of last year’s starters healthy for training camp in late July, and so they’re encouraged that consistency will help lift the unit up as a whole. But it all is going to start and finish with Flowers on that lonely left side, and if his hard work doesn’t translate to results, he may have an early opportunity to put next year’s offseason regimen into practice.