The overhaul the Giants attempted this season with their offensive line didn’t take right away, but the unit’s drastic improvement has been a key factor in the team winning three of its past four games.
Rookie left guard Will Hernandez certainly is among those whose play has steadily gotten better as his first NFL campaign has progressed.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez grades out as the fifth-best rookie offensive lineman in the league this season, a group headed by first-round draft picks Mike McGlinchey (49ers) and Quenton Nelson (Colts), followed by Colts guard Braden Smith and Ravens guard Orlando Brown Jr.
Smith was chosen 37th overall in the 2018 draft, three spots after the Giants selected Hernandez, out of UTEP. The 335-pound Hernandez was the second guard selected after Nelson, who went sixth overall to the Colts.
“I think I’m improving every single week. I just keep learning and learning from all of these vets, and I think every week I’m just a little bit better. I feel like it’s been a steady progress,” Hernandez said after practice Friday. “I feel like the biggest adjustment, especially at the beginning of the season, was just the speed of the game. A lot of little techniques and moves were kind of the same as in college, but everything was a lot faster, especially how fast you have to think about things in your head.
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“Once you kind of get those down and you see them a few times week to week, you kind of pick up on it and you start anticipating instead of reacting.”
Hernandez, 23, described his relationship with $62 million left tackle Nate Solder in similar terms. He said the communication and play between the left-side tandem has gradually improved, with the veteran mentoring his rookie teammate since training camp.
“I’m extremely lucky to be playing next to one of the best tackles in the league,” Hernandez said. “I’ve learned so much from Nate and I’m still learning. Every single game we seem to be understanding each other better and better. … It’s been better from week to week and we’ve come a long way.”
The same can be said about the offensive line as a unit. Former first-round pick Ereck Flowers and $15 million offseason signing Patrick Omameh were released earlier this season and replaced by undrafted Chad Wheeler at right tackle and waiver pickup Jamon Brown at right guard.
“It was five brand new guys and we all started playing together this year. I just felt like we had to be together, playing together, to get that chemistry going. It’s just something that comes naturally with time,” Hernandez said. “Now, ever since we started playing a lot better, our team’s been doing better. So all the focus right now is keeping the foot on the gas and not slowing down, and finishing strong.”
Indeed, the Giants’ offense has averaged 130.5 rushing yards and 29 points over the past four games. Eli Manning has been sacked 10 times in that span, an improvement from the nearly four times per game (31) he had been dropped through the team’s 1-7 start.
“As you see the way this has played out since the bye [Week 9], four of our starting linemen didn’t have a Giants helmet last year,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “So there’s been a lot of changeover. I think that’s important to remember, so there’s a lot of moving forward, running parallel with trying to block a lot of really good fronts.
“But with regard to the left side, that’s been constant. Certainly, Nate’s an outstanding player. But they work together and Nate’s been bringing along a true rookie in Will, who’s improved each week. The combination of those two guys is getting better and better. Nate, behind the scenes, has sort of mentored that whole group because there’s a lot of new guys and a lot to go into it.”