For all its warts in 2020, the NFC East still saw a high level of play along the defensive line. That made it all the more encouraging for general manager Dave Gettlemen when he saw the new-look offensive line hold its own against some talented fronts. The Giants went 4-2 in the NFC East, their best record since 2016, and averaged 24.7 points in divisional play. In their 10 non-NFC East games, they averaged 13.2 points.
"We believe in these guys," Gettleman said Tuesday about the offensive line. "They all came along. We finished the season fairly strong. One of the things that I would say to you is we were 4-2 in our division and if you look at our division, all of those defensive lines that we play, all those fronts are big, powerful, athletic defensive lines and our guys held up. So, we're getting there. It's the old saying, you've got to run the ball and you've got to obviously be able to protect the passer. We're young and we're getting better."
Two of the three spots available for defensive ends on the NFC Pro Bowl roster were filled by NFC East players – Washington's Chase Young and Philadelphia's Brandon Graham – while Fletcher Cox earned his sixth Pro Bowl nod inside for the Eagles. That's a tall task for an offensive line that started seven different players, including rookies Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart, Shane Lemieux, and having Nick Gates transition to center.
They also handled a few curveballs.
Veteran left tackle Nate Solder opted out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the group had to adjust to a coaching change in the middle of the season. Over the bye week, Joe Judge replaced offensive line coach Marc Colombo with Dave DeGuglielmo.
The offensive line will be under new leadership again in 2021 after Judge hired Rob Sale as the position coach. Former Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who won two Super Bowls in his first tenure, also joined the staff as an offensive/defensive consultant.
Sale spent the previous three seasons as the offensive coordinator and line coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He began his college coaching career as a strength and conditioning assistant and offensive analyst from 2007-11 at Alabama, where he met Judge, who was a football analyst/special teams assistant at the time. Ben Wilkerson remains as the assistant offensive line coach.
"Rob is an excellent teacher," Judge said. "He's a great, high-energy coach and very detailed on the field. His guys respond to him. I've watched him develop a number of players at different places, whether he was at Georgia, Arizona State, Louisiana, I've watched him develop a number of offensive linemen that have been successful. I think the biggest thing is when you look at some of these programs, they start out with these higher recruits and their ceiling is high, but the room to get to the ceiling isn't always as high.
"What I've seen with Rob is some of the guys he's developed in the programs he's been in where he's truly had to mold them and bring them along both from their physical development as well as their mental understanding and their on-field performance. Look, I'm very pleased with what him and Ben have been doing the last few weeks together working together, but tied directly into Rob, his ability to teach, his ability to establish relationships with his players and the response he gets from his guys and how they play on the field. That to me, they all just line up to be the best fit for us."
Whether or not one of those guys is Solder remains to be seen. The two-time Super Bowl champion has not confirmed he will return.
"Look, I'm not going to speak for Nate," Judge said. "The answer is yes, I have talked to Nate. To be honest with you, the majority of our conversations have actually had nothing to do with football. I've talked a good bit with Nate since the end of the season and just checked up on him in terms of how the year off went, how his family is doing, how his son is doing and how he's doing personally. There have been a lot of conversations. We have talked some football. There are other areas of our building as well that are in conversations with Nate, but when the time comes to address all that we'll know. Obviously, these things don't all happen in one day and we'll see where everything goes, but these are players we'd love to have back, they're guys on our roster."
If Solder hangs up the cleats, the Giants could possibly move ahead with two sophomores starting at tackle in Thomas and Peart. Would Gettleman be comfortable with that?
"I am, yes," he said. "When [Peart] played, he played fine. He played pretty damn well. At some point in time, you've got to let the young kids play. Listen, every player was a rookie at some point or a young player at some point. At some point in time, you have to have confidence in who's on your club and you have to put him in there and let him play. Like I've said to some of you, how many of you had Pulitzer Prize-winning articles your first or second year?"