At the end of last season, general manager Dave Gettleman said the Giants are headed in the right direction. Some people wondered if that included right tackle. Given what the team did – and did not do – over the offseason, the question was answered in the affirmative.
Chad Wheeler, who originally made the team as an undrafted rookie out of USC in 2017, has played in 27 games with 19 starts in his two NFL seasons. He started all but the first two games of 2018 after taking over for Ereck Flowers in Week 3 at Houston, where Pat Shurmur claimed his first victory as head coach of the Giants.
Wheeler, like the rest of the offensive line, improved as the season progressed. He did so without the benefit of practicing with the first team throughout spring football and training camp. That isn't the case this year. Wheeler is lining up as RT1 during the offseason workout program, which will include the incoming rookies starting next week.
"I think Wheels has done a really good job all this offseason in our exposure with him," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "I've only been around him a year, but I think there's a big difference even with him, with his approach. I think he, along with a lot of other guys, got better as the year went on. We all know we were nowhere near good enough early in the year. We did a lot of good things even though it wasn't good enough at the end of the year, but we were really, really close and trending, in my opinion, in the right direction. And he was one of those guys that falls into that category."
That isn't to say there won't be competition. The Giants used their ninth of 10 picks in this spring's college draft on Kentucky's George Asafo-Adjei. "Big George" made 23 starts for the Wildcats, including 12 at right tackle in 2018, when he was twice named the Southeastern Conference Lineman of the Week. The Bronx native helped Benny Snell Jr. become the first player in school history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in three straight seasons.
Offensive line coach Hal Hunter's son works in the football office at Kentucky, so the Giants got the inside scoop. They found out that he was probably the most respected player on the offensive side of the ball and competed well every day with outside linebacker Josh Allen, the seventh overall pick in the draft after quarterback Daniel Jones went to the Giants at sixth.
"He talked about (Asafo-Adjei's) character, work ethic and his toughness," Hunter said, referring to his son. "All of those things pique interest. You watch him on tape and see that he has a lot of athleticism and power. He has a lot of toughness and plays in the best football conference in the country. We have some technical work to do. He is a rookie and you have to tell him to do something once and he goes on and does it right the next time. He picked up the offense much quicker than I thought he was going to. … He had committed to Kentucky early and is a man of his word. When all those other schools came in like Alabama, that is legit. Those people tried to come in and recruit him. He gave Kentucky his word and didn't go anywhere. He has some developmental potential."
Meanwhile, the Giants are monitoring tackle Mike Remmers, who was most recently with the Vikings and recovering from back surgery. "Well, he's still rehabbing, and we're continuing to talk with him," Gettleman said after the draft. "So we'll see." Shurmur added that they "had a good visit when (Remmers) was in" as a potential free-agent signing.
"I don't really know what's going to transpire from here on out," Hunter said. "I know the people that we have signed right now under contract, so right now my plan is George will line up at second right tackle when he comes back and go from there. The one thing we talk about in our room all the time, the best players are going to play. … What I'm saying is just because you're a veteran player, a rookie, a second-year player, it doesn't matter.
"If you're the best player at that position at anytime, we owe it to the organization, the team, for you to be in that lineup. We all compete. They know, they understand they're competing every single day. Chad, right now, is starting off as the first right tackle, and it's up to him to hold the position. It's up to everybody else to beat him out."
The Giants have rebuilt the offensive line from left to right. They signed two-time Super Bowl champion Nate Solder at left tackle, drafted left guard Will Hernandez in the second round last year, re-signed Spencer Pulley and Jon Halapio to participate in a "wide open" competition at center, and acquired right guard Kevin Zeitler in a trade with the Browns. Zeitler will only make Wheeler more comfortable, like as Solder has done with Hernandez.
"(Zeitler's) attention to detail, it is a lot like Nate," Hunter said. "Nate Solder's attention to detail, he put so much pressure on Will Hernandez to play because his play was tied into Will. It is the same thing with Zeitler. He is very demanding of guys around him in a positive way. You demand in yourself what you demand in others. I love that about him. I love everything about him -- his personality and what he brings. He is so fun to coach."
The Giants also added a few intriguing undrafted rookie free agents to the offensive line last week. They signed former Buffalo center James O'Hagan and Austin Droogsma, a Florida State discus and shot put thrower who hasn't played football since he "rode a yellow school bus to his games." O'Hagan came in for a tryout and was signed before rookie minicamp.
"He was a wrestler, so he's got a lot of balance and he knows how to control his body," Hunter said of O'Hagan, the No. 1 high school heavyweight wrestler in the state of New York and one of the top 20 in the nation. "He's tough. He's really, really tough. He's fairly smart, and he knows how to play with leverage. He's not quite as big (6-1, 300) as you'd like him to be, but by the same token, when you play with leverage, you can play bigger than you actually are."
On Droogsma: "It's been a long time since he played football, but he showed some good toughness and competitiveness in the rookie minicamp. He's got short-area quickness. He's got some strength and explosiveness now. He's a strong, explosive guy. He's just got a long ways to go, but that's OK. What do they say? Every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. I'm going to tell you what, he's got 3,000 miles. He's walking from here to California. That's kind of where his journey is, but he knows that. He and I talked about that. So he's OK with that. It's just a matter of going forward. You can look at it as he has no bad habits – no good habits, but no bad habits. You're starting with a blank tape, which is sometimes easier than a tape you have to erase."