EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Nick Gates joined the Giants two years ago with little fanfare, but he has quietly and steadily impressed with his skill, smarts and work ethic.
In a conference call on Monday, general manager Dave Gettleman left little doubt that Gates could emerge as a fulltime starter this year. And that the young lineman's presence, as well as a strong draft class, were behind his decision not to sign a big-ticket tackle in free agency.
The 6-6, 318-pound Gates signed with the Giants as a rookie free agent on May 11, 2018. Though he is entering his third year with the Giants, it will be just his second on the field. A preseason ankle injury cost him his rookie season on injured reserve. Last year, the versatile Gates played in all 16 games with three starts – two at right tackle and one at right guard. In college, he started 25 consecutive games at left tackle.
"We have faith in Nick Gates, the kid we signed two years ago, a free agent we signed out of Nebraska," Gettleman said. "He missed his rookie year on I.R., but last year he made a lot of progress. We are excited about him."
Rebuilding the offensive line has been a continuing project for Gettleman since he was named general manager at the end of the 2017 season. In left tackle Nate Solder and guards Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler, the Giants have healthy returnees at 60% of the line positions. But the mission continues, particularly at right tackle, where incumbent starter Mike Remmers signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, and center, where Jon Halapio is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the 2019 season finale.
Solder struggled at times last season, prompting a reporter to ask Gettleman today, "Do you feel good with Nate Solder at left tackle and can he move to the right side?"
"Nate had a rough year last year, nobody is denying and certainly he is not," Gettleman said. "I made the statement to people after we signed him in 2018 and after the 2018 season no one was talking about Nate Solder. He had a tough year."
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The Giants signed 11 free agents who played for other teams last season, but only one was an offensive lineman: Cam Fleming, who never started more than seven games in any of his first six NFL seasons. Fleming spent his first four years working in New England where Joe Judge was on the staff and the last two playing for Jason Garrett and Marc Colombo – the Giants' offensive coordinator and line coach – in Dallas.
"At the end of the day, we signed Cameron Fleming," Gettleman said. "He was with Dallas before, and obviously there is that connection, and with the Patriots before, there's a double connection."
The Giants own the fourth selection in the first round of the NFL Draft, which will be held next week. One of the draft's deepest positions is widely considered to be offensive tackle, where Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, Louisville's Mekhi Becton, Alabama's Jedrick Wills, Jr. and Georgia's Andrew Thomas are all considered potential top 10 choices.
"Part of the unrestricted free agency piece is we are also looking at the draft, so you kind of marry the two," Gettleman said. "We felt with the depth of the tackle class in the draft, we just felt this was the best way for us to go."
Halapio's injury leaves the center position shrouded in uncertainty. The Giants also have veteran Spencer Pulley, who has 26 career starts, including one last year.
"We won't know about Pio until June with the Achilles," Gettleman said. "Spencer obviously has played a ton of football. We have a lot of confidence in him. We're working that group over pretty good in the draft. We're always going to continue to upgrade. I'm not afraid to draft over a guy."
Because every coach wants to play the best five linemen, Gates could be an option at center if he works his way into that group.
"Just for what it's worth, we've talked about Nick doing that," Gettleman said. "He did do some of that last year in practice, so it's not completely new. Nick is smart. The thing you love about Nick is just how tough he is, because it's a fist fight in there. There's no doubt about that. History tells you that the toughness of your team is really, really indicated by the toughness of your offensive line. So, we're always looking for that kind of piece. Nick would be in consideration at center, absolutely."
And apparently anywhere else he might be needed along the line.