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Giants free agent signings address interior and provide options with Evan Neal the lingering unknown

Evan Neal is the biggest question mark and pivot point on the Giants’ offensive line in the minds of NFL experts. Brian Daboll’s 2024 front is not a finished product yet with the NFL Draft on deck.

But Joe Schoen may have done enough to assemble a starting five in free agency even if Neal doesn’t work out. Take the signing of Packers guard Jon Runyan Jr., for example.

“He’s exactly what the Giants needed,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, a former pro lineman, told the Daily News of Runyan, 26. “He’s a highly consistent player. I go back to Billy Ard, [Rich] Seubert playing guard for the Giants. They’ve had blue-collar left guards.”

“They don’t make Pro Bowls or run people over, but they’re highly consistent, they don’t make mental mistakes or beat their chests or commit a lot of penalties,” Baldinger added. “That’s Jon Runyan Jr. When Green Bay’s season ended in the playoffs, he was literally at [Philadelphia Eagles right tackle] Lane Johnson’s barn [in South Jersey] 10 days later working out.”

Runyan Jr. played right guard for the Packers last season but has position flexibility to play the left, too. In fact, he said after signing his three-year, $30 million contract that “if I were to choose, I probably would say left.”

But he’s willing to play wherever the Giants need him after splitting snaps with Packers third-round pick Sean Rhyan during the second half of last year.

The same willingness applies to tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, 29, who followed O-line coach Carmen Bricillo from the Las Vegas Raiders on a two-year, $14 million contract. Eluemunor started at right tackle for the Raiders last season, but he also has meaningful experience at left tackle and right guard.

And Schoen confirmed Eluemunor “could start out at guard” as Neal gets one more chance to lock down the right tackle job starting in the spring program.

“Ideally you want [Eluemunor] as a guard with the way Daboll’s offense is,” said Jeremiah Sirles, an NFL agent with the One West Sports Group who played for Daboll with the Buffalo Bills and now represents Giants center John Michael Schmitz. “He wants those big bodies at guard like Roger Saffold, who he had in Buffalo.

“Daboll’s always been a position flex guy, too. And Carmen obviously knows exactly what [Eluemunor’s] limitations and strengths are. So it will be good to have him competing at guard but also pushing at tackle if they want to move Evan inside.”

An X-factor on top of the Eluemunor and Runyan signings, meanwhile, could be the addition of Bucs left guard Aaron Stinnie on a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Stinnie, 30, is a former Super Bowl champion who just played 100% of the snaps in two postseason games for upstart Tampa.

Why might this be critical?

Well, Neal is rehabbing to get healthy from an ankle fracture that was initially misdiagnosed as a sprain. Plus, Schoen’s former No. 7 overall pick hasn’t played well enough yet or handled social media scrutiny in any constructive way.

Plus there is pressure on Schoen and Daboll in Year 3 of their regime. And this is no longer a long-term rebuild with patience for growing pains at the start of the season. The Giants need their front five set immediately in Week 1.

It’s possible, therefore, that they may have a starting five even if Neal isn’t a part of it.

“If Evan Neal does not progress and get better, and they want to play high-level football right away, Eluemunor is your right tackle and Stinnie is starting at left guard with Runyan at right guard,” said Alex Beglinger, an NFL agent at Disruptive Sports who coached Chicago Bears left tackle Braxton Jones at Southern Utah. “I think Stinnie can still go. He’s really good with his hands. And once he strikes, he’s looking to latch on and anchor on you.”

With franchise left tackle and former first-round pick Andrew Thomas protecting the blind side, and the second-round center Schmitz aiming to grow his game in Year 2, the Giants could have the makings of an improved front — and they should, given all they’ve invested in it.

The O-line has nowhere to go but up, though, after a disastrous 2023 season that unraveled due to a poorly-conceived plan upfront by Schoen and Daboll.

One source went as far as calling fired former O-line coach Bobby Johnson “the fall guy” for problems that happened way over his head. Johnson has been hired as the Washington Commanders’ O-line coach  since being bounced from New York.

Bricillo is now the Giants’ eighth offensive line coach in the last 10 seasons. That is not a typo.

“Meanwhile, Jeff Stoutland has been coaching the Eagles’ line since 2013,” Baldinger said. “You have to develop players. It starts with player development. The Giants haven’t been good in that department.”

They also have to hit on their evaluations.

Schoen’s 2022 draft picks Neal (No. 7 overall), Josh Ezeudu (third round) and Marcus McKethan (fifth round) all were major weak links on a line that undercut an entire season.

Injuries, led by Thomas’ Week 1 setback, played a big part. But the Giants were responsible for keeping their players healthy and having sufficient depth to handle it, just like every other NFL team was, and they failed in those departments, as well.

The Giants’ training camp plan also made no sense for continuity or depth up front.

Daboll rotated Ezeudu, Ben Bredeson and Mark Glowinski in a three-man guard rotation for the two starting spots in August. Bredeson and Glowinski won the jobs, but then Glowinski was benched for McKethan in Week 2.

Ezeudu was inserted as Thomas’ replacement at left tackle after backup Matt Peart quickly got hurt, and he predictably struggled. By Week 5, the Giants had a line of Ezeudu, Glowinski, Bredeson (at center), McKethan and Neal on the field.

Daniel Jones, fresh off signing a four-year, $160 million contract extension, injured his neck for a second time in his career that day. The Giants started a stunning nine different offensive line combinations in their first 10 games.

And not until Schoen signed left guard Justin Pugh off the couch and re-signed right tackle Tyre Phillips — whom Schoen previously had cut — did the Giants find continuity for the second half of the season. Backup QB Tyrod Taylor still broke multiple ribs against the Jets in Week 8.

And the overall results were frightening.

The Giants went seven straight weeks starting a different player at left guard from the previous game between Weeks 3 and 8, starting five different players at left guard throughout the year.

They allowed 85 sacks, the second most all-time by any NFL team, ranked dead last in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking metrics, and finished 30th out of 32 lines in run blocking.

Third-string QB Tommy DeVito’s inability to avoid sacks (NFL-leading 15.5% sack percentage for QBs with more than 33 dropbacks) helped inflate that number the second half of the year.

Still, co-owner John Mara made clear at the NFL Owners Meetings recently that he was losing patience with the O-line ineptitude.

“You’re right, it’s ridiculous,” Mara said of the Giants’ annual line problem. “And it’s a continuing source of frustration for me. It’s time to get it fixed… Let’s face it: for a while we couldn’t block anybody. And Daniel was getting hit all the time.”

Compared to Schoen’s and Daboll’s 2022 playoff season, one element that seemed to be missing from the Giants’ offensive line was nastiness.

Center Jon Feliciano and center/guard Nick Gates, who both were allowed to walk in free agency after the 2022 year, played with an edge during the postseason run that the Giants front wasn’t able to replicate last year. So that could be an element Schoen is still seeking in this draft.

“I don’t see a guy where, like, I’m scared of this guy,” Beglinger said of the current line. “These are good football players, but they’re not ‘Wrestlemania, open-a-can-of-whoop-ass and beat somebody up’ guys.”

Regardless, the biggest lingering question is Neal’s place in the plan. Baldinger sees Eluemunor as the Giants’ likely right tackle for 2024 when all is said and done.

“Eluemunor is an upgrade over Evan Neal,” Baldinger said. “He’s better on the edge against elite pass rushers. Josh Jacobs also was the NFL’s rushing leader two years ago with the Raiders, and he was a big part of it. He’s very self-conscious, too. He’ll be his harshest critic. Daboll can unleash one of his tirades at him, and I don’t think it’ll affect him.”

Baldinger said he’s not sure if Neal is ever going to have “the necessary foot quickness” to play outside.

“There’s just as many good pass rushers on that side now as the other,” Baldinger said. “He could go work on technique and get stronger. But I don’t know if his feet will ever be good enough to play there.”

Sirles, on the other hand, said he still thinks Neal can put it all together at right tackle.

“I still think Evan is so gifted in so many ways,” Sirles said. “It’s hard for me to look at last year as a full body of work because of the injury. I would love to see him healthy off a full offseason, with a fresh start with Coach Bricillo, and see if we can get that player we know is in there.”

“He was a fantastic player in college, and that doesn’t just disappear,” he added. “Confidence can be lost in an offensive lineman, and it’s hard to get back. But when you’re as physical and talented as he is, I still think he can do it, absolutely.”

Both Baldinger and Sirles were less than enthusiastic about moving Neal to guard if he failed to win the right tackle spot, even though he played one season at left guard at Alabama.

“I think it would be a trial,” Baldinger said. “It’s not like he hasn’t played there before. But defensive tackles are getting better and better. Everybody’s paying a monster defensive tackle right now. And you can’t just say I’m 6-7, 350 and I can stand in here. A lot of guys that size fail inside. They don’t have good balance and can’t get to the second level in the run game. I have a feeling some of those things might show up for Evan.”

Sirles noted: “If it was my choice, [playing Neal at guard] would be a last-ditch effort to get him on the field. I think back to D.J. Fluker with the Chargers. He played tackle as a rookie, played well, came back and struggled, eventually got kicked inside to guard, and that was the beginning of the end of his career.

“The old adage is you can always move in, you can’t move out. A guy that big and strong, you want to say ‘That’s our tackle.’ Tackles are hard to find, especially good ones.”

Beglinger said while Neal’s size and long arms might make the guard transition difficult, it’s possible he could still do it. But he added: “Growing pains are going to happen. So how patient are they going to be with those growing pains?”

The time for patience in New York has run out. They need an answer for Week 1.

This is the first in a two-part series on the Giants offensive line approaching the 2024 NFL Draft. The next installment will examine needs the Giants still must address up front and how they can do it with their six picks.


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