Right guard Kevin Zeitler is entering his ninth season in the NFL, but this offseason has been unlike anything he has ever experienced.
Zeitler, who was acquired in a March 2019 trade with the Cleveland Browns, and the rest of the Giants have been forced to install the new coaching staff's playbook virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of hitting the fields at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for OTAs, the team has relied on video conference calls to learn under first-year head coach Joe Judge.
Despite the strange and unfortunate circumstances, Zeitler believes the Giants were able to get a lot accomplished.
"It's definitely different from the norm, but we were able to take advantage of it," Zeitler told the Giants Huddle podcast. "We got good work in, our coaches did an excellent job setting everything up where this wasn't just a waste of time. It was great work and we're definitely a lot further along than when we started."
Most players did not get the opportunity to meet the staff prior to the facility being closed in mid-March. However, the team has been participating in video conferences with them four times a week throughout the offseason program, giving players a good sense of their coaches' personalities and expectations for the season.
Zeitler has gotten to know Judge well over the last few months. Although the veteran can't wait to greet Judge in person at training camp, he has already bought in to his Judge's vision for the team.
"He knows where he's trying to take this team," Zeitler said. "He's going to make sure he emphasizes that. That's great. That's what you want in a head coach. I can't wait to experience it all in person."
The 30-year-old lineman has also been impressed with new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
Garrett joined the Giants after spending 13 years with the Cowboys, 10 of which he served as their head coach. During his time in Dallas, the Cowboys' offense finished in the NFL's Top 10 in yardage eight times and in the top half all but twice. Dallas also was among the top seven teams in scoring seven times. And over the past four seasons, the Cowboys' rushing total ranked second, second, 10th and fifth.
"I like him [Garrett] a lot. He seems like a great guy," Zeitler said. "He puts [in] great energy. When the offense is together, he has a great focus in getting us to the point of what the meeting is. Great first impressions."
A big reason for Dallas' recent success has been the performance of its offensive line. Last season, the Cowboys and line coach Marc Colombo – who joined the Giants in January - sent center Travis Fredrick, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin to the Pro Bowl.
Colombo had a 10-year NFL career as an offensive lineman. Garrett hired him as assistant offensive line coach with the Cowboys in 2016, and Colombo was promoted to offensive line coach midway through the 2018 season.
Despite not being able to physically work with his new linemen, Colombo has the unit ready to roll.
"He's been great. He's obviously worked with a lot of good O-linemen, O-line coaches in his career," Zeitler said. "I like his energy. He's passionate. I think we're ready to get to work … He knows there is no time to waste. He's going to keep the energy up and he's going to get us going."
View photos of Giants veteran guard Kevin Zeitler.
And that's just another reason Zeitler is optimistic heading into summer training camp.
"I think it's a challenge, but I think we have the type of guys and coaches on this team that we're just going to embrace it," he said. "We're not going to worry about what we've missed. We're just going to move forward and figure it out …
"I think our biggest focus is we just need to make sure everyone knows what we're doing. We know because we haven't been able to work out on the field, training camp is going to come at us quickly. The focus is everyone needs to know what to do, because we're not going to have a lot of time. We want to try to stay ahead of the game and take advantage of when we can out on the field."
Zeitler believes his unit can achieve those early objectives in part because he and the other returning starters have a familiarity with one another. In addition to Zeitler at right guard, left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Will Hernandez were in the first unit last season. Center Spencer Pulley and the versatile Nick Gates have also seen time in the starting lineup over the past two years.
"Anytime O-linemen get to work more together, having guys return, that's big," Zeitler said. "We know each other's personalities, we know the things we do well. Even though the offense and the system is changing, we'll be able to figure it out real quick."
There are also some new faces competing on the depth chart. Veteran tackle Cameron Fleming was signed after playing the last two seasons in Dallas, while three of the team's first five draft picks were spent on what general manager Dave Gettleman loves to refer to as "hog mollies."
The Giants selected Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas with the fourth overall pick. Thomas is coming off a junior campaign in which he was a unanimous All-American and received the Southeastern Conference's Jacobs Blocking Trophy, awarded to the league's top offensive lineman.
"Overall impressions, he's smart," Zeitler said of Thomas. "I know he's working hard off the field, but he's also been getting the stuff in the meetings. That's a good start. That's really all you can do. You can come in physically and mentally prepared, and that's the best start you can have."
Zeitler also said he's gotten a good feeling about third-round tackle Matt Peart (Connecticut), whom he referred to as "big, real big" and admires the rookie's attention to detail, as well as fifth-round guard Shane Lemieux (Oregon), a two-time second-team All-Pac-12 selection who always brings a ton of energy to the table.
"Energy will take you very far in this league," the veteran said of Lemieux. "On top of that, I know he's working hard and he wants to be good, too, just like all of them. That's a great start again."
For a young team that has already put the struggles of last year behind them, the opening of the 2020 season cannot come soon enough.
"Overall, everyone is excited," Zeitler explained. "We're ready to put last year completely behind us. I think we already have. We can't waste our time about that. It's all about building up with this new staff, this new experience, and we're excited to get it going."