New York Giants  

 

Ereck Flowers must stabilize Giants' O-line, as injury bug returns

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The expectations for the New York Giants' offense next season are such that late-spring soreness in Odell Beckham Jr.'s hamstring elicited the need this week for team-released quotations designed to head off already-forming panic.

Still, the sight of Beckham spending most of a recent OTA watching from the sideline -- the sum total of his activity was fielding a few punts, and then standing still -- brought to the fore the consuming dread of Giants fans: that another season might be riven by injuries that chip away at New York's competitiveness in the NFC East before the season even begins.

According to Football Outsiders, the Giants led the league in each of the last two seasons in its adjusted games lost statistic (which attempts to quantify how much a team is impacted by injuries to starters and important reserves, whether they are inactive for a game or were limited in the week of practice leading up to it).

In each of the last four seasons, the Giants have also had at least one key player get hurt during offseason workouts. Which is why the immense man whose locker sits at the end of a bank of temporary cubicles might be the most critical person in the organization this summer this side of Beckham's masseuse. Offensive tackle Ereck Flowers (6-6, 329 pounds) was the Giants' first-round draft pick and his arrival has been fortuitous. He won't be charged just with holding pass rushers at bay. He also has to help ward off the nagging fear that a serious pectoral injury to left tackle Will Beatty portends another injury-plagued season.

"I don't think players think that out loud," said O-lineman Geoff Schwartz, who was himself injured for most of last season. "Maybe inside, because they're disappointed to lose a guy like Beatty, but that's why we drafted Ereck. We've got to get him ready to play."

Flowers barely had time to put his bags down before he was thrust into the left tackle spot. Losing a starting LT for at least five months is never good. Losing one when the offensive line was already such a point of concern that owner John Mara mentioned it specifically during his 2014 season postmortem is worse. To the list of issues for the line that already included blocking for a meager average of 3.6 yards per rush last season, you can add this: Flowers just turned 21, and was projected to be something of a work in progress at right tackle this season.

Beatty, although not considered one of the league's premier tackles, was to be the anchor of a line that was already undergoing a makeover even before his injury. Schwartz, who hopes to be completely healed from his own injuries by the time training camp begins, is penciled in as the right guard, although he could also play right tackle. In the meantime, he and John Jerry -- the only player who held his current position last season -- are splitting time at guard in practice. Justin Pugh, who has started the last two seasons at right tackle, was slated to switch to left guard even before Beatty got hurt. Weston Richburg, who played guard last year, will be the starting center, and Marshall Newhouse, signed this offseason to be the swing tackle, will get the first crack at winning the right tackle spot.

The Giants had hoped for a crack at signing La'el Collins, the prospective first-round tackle who dropped all the way out of the draft because police wanted to interview him about the murder of an ex-girlfriend. But the Dallas Cowboys swooped in soon after Collins met with police (who never named Collins as a suspect) and signed him. Last week, the Giants brought former Dolphins and Rams tackle Jake Long, who is recovering from an ACL tear, in for a visit. But when asked about it, coach Tom Coughlin noted only that it was nice and that Long ate well.

The Giants certainly will keep looking as teams trim their rosters later this summer. But for now, this appears to be the group and the configuration they will try in a season in which Coughlin's future -- does this sound familiar? -- would seem to hinge on significant improvement and a spot in the playoffs.

"It is obvious you throw an awful lot at them -- the young guys are doing OK," Coughlin said of the offensive line. "Progress is being made and this is what these are all about. Throwing them in there and letting them go. See how they do."

If Coughlin sounds relatively unperturbed about this early complication, it is hard to blame him. The offense, he said, is far ahead of where it was a year ago, when Ben McAdoo arrived as a new coordinator with a new system ... only to find Eli Manning still recovering from ankle surgery and a hobbled Beckham. And while Beatty's was part of a recent rash of NFL injuries -- it included Denver left tackle Ryan Clady and Jacksonville rookie pass rusher Dante Fowler, both lost to ACL tears -- that renewed concerns about the intensity of spring workouts, it was merely the latest development for the Giants, who have a long history of dealing with offseason travails.

After all, the 2011 training camp opened with first-round pick Prince Amukamara breaking his foot, Osi Umenyiora riding a stationary bike in an odd contract holdout, Steve Smith, Kevin Boss and Plaxico Burress all signing elsewhere and the unexpected retirement of one of Boss' potential replacements.

"This isn't even weird for us," Coughlin said at the time. "It seems like every other year we have something."

The Giants won the Super Bowl that season, but if the strangeness hasn't changed since then, the results certainly have. The Giants haven't been in the playoffs since, and two consecutive sub-.500 seasons have resulted in changes to both coordinators and an annual Coughlin watch.

Stabilizing things appears to rest on Flowers' massive shoulders. While a trio of Pugh, Richburg and Schwartz would upgrade all three interior positions, the onus is on Flowers to give Manning enough time to take advantage of the deep threat presented by Beckham and Victor Cruz. Flowers was considered to be weaker in pass protection than in run blocking coming out of Miami, although he reportedly did not yield a sack in his final year with the Hurricanes.

The rookie is quiet and reserved, and he seems unruffled by the task he has been handed.

"It's just like any transition -- every day has gotten better for me," Flowers said. "It's actually slowed down a little bit from the first day. It's a process. You've got to just keep at it. That's how it was in college."

Said Newhouse: "He's on a very steep curve and it's gotten even steeper. To say he's getting tossed into the fire is a little bit of an understatement. He's getting tossed into a furnace with not a lot of room to move."

The rest of the linemen, particularly Pugh, will have to help the rookie along with everything from his technique to how to dress for road trips. Pugh, too, was thrown into the starting lineup shortly after he was drafted and was mentored by veterans Chris Snee and David Diehl. Because Pugh is projected to play next to Flowers, their bond will be particularly important and he has told Flowers that these early practices together will set the foundation for the entire season. But Pugh points to the Giants' late-2014 surge in scoring -- they averaged just under 31 points per game in the final four weeks -- as a sign that the offense and the line are on the ascent.

Pugh plans to advise Flowers about how to take care of his body -- hiring a chef, getting massages and acupuncture -- to prevent injury and help him play longer. And he wants to tell Flowers to get away, perhaps during the bye week of the regular season, so that the long season does not drain him.

"Coming from college, it is the longest year of your life," Pugh said.

If Flowers doesn't adjust quickly, it could be another long year for all of the Giants.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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