Like every year for any NFL team, the New York Giants will have to make tough cuts regarding cap space. Guard Kevin Zeitler ($12 million in savings), tackle Nate Solder (-$4 million in savings), and Golden Tate ($6 million in savings) are among the candidates on the chopping block.
However, Zeitler is a different story from the other candidates. If Big Blue releases Zeitler, they will free up $20 million in cap space, allowing them to sign more free agents at positions of need.
The real question is with Shane Lemieux still not fully developed and questions about Will Hernandez‘s future, is it worth it?
Evaluating the Future of Kevin Zeitler With the New York Giants
The New York Giants traded pass-rusher Olivier Vernon for Kevin Zeitler in March of 2019. With Zeitler coming to New York, he also brought on a cap hit of $5 million in 2019 and then a $12 million cap hit in 2020.
By far, Zeitler played the best out of all the offensive linemen on the Giants in 2019. Being part of a group that allowed 43 sacks, Zeitler only allowed 22 pressures and three sacks. He started 15 games last season, as he was out vs the Miami Dolphins in Week 15 due to a shoulder injury.
As expected, he made the roster in 2020, surrounded by new teammates on the offensive line. With rookies Matt Peart, Andrew Thomas, and Shane Lemieux rotating on the offensive line, the unit struggled and statistically did worse than 2019, allowing 50 sacks (second in the NFL). Playing next to Peart and veteran Cameron Fleming did not do well for Zeitler, as he struggled when in position to pick up stunts. However, some of the miscommunication falls on the tackle alongside him and the offensive line coach as well.
Zeitler played in all 16 games, though missing snaps due to injury in Week 10 vs the Philadelphia Eagles. He allowed three sacks and 20+ pressures in 2020.
Until Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Will Hernandez started at left guard for the New York Giants. After he tested positive for COVID-19, it was a downhill road for the former second-round pick.
While Hernandez was out for two weeks, fifth-round pick Shane Lemieux started at left guard for the Giants. After returning to the active roster, Hernandez found himself behind Lemieux in the depth chart. Hernandez played 100 percent of the snaps from Week 1 to Week 7, however, his snaps fluctuated in lower numbers as the season went on. Hernandez did not play in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
Like most players, it is hard for Will Hernandez to prove himself after a sophomore slump with a different set of coaches. However, questions arise about whether Hernandez will be apart of this team’s future.
Shane Lemieux struggled insanely in pass protection this season, allowing five sacks and ranking last in Pro Football Focus’ rankings among offensive guards. However, instead of benching the rookie, he played more snaps as the season went along.
The chemistry with teammate and rookie tackle Andrew Thomas played a part in Lemieux’s role in the offense. When Thomas played alongside Hernandez, the duo allowed 36 pressures and five sacks in seven games. When Lemieux replaced Hernandez, the duo gave up 20 pressures and four sacks in eight games.
Lemieux struggled mightily in his rookie season, but the chemistry with Thomas tells a bigger story.
Keep Or Scrap?
Though extra cap space will be good insurance for the Giants this off-season, keeping Kevin Zeitler is the right path to go on.
Despite his struggles, Lemieux playing better with the young rookie Thomas is a positive sign for this unit’s future. Hernandez falling out of favor should give Zeitler reassurance that he will be a Giant next season. However, he can provide solid depth as a backup guard.
Offensive line talent is harder to find in the NFL these days with pass-rushing talent getting better. Despite his 2020 drop, Zeitler is a good veteran lineman to keep around. During his career, he gave the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and now the Giants solid play without injuries stepping in his way. He is worth the $12 million cap hit compared to other guards in the NFL.
If the Giants wished to cut Zeitler and replace him with a veteran in free agency, the top options would be Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney, Lane Taylor, and Austin Blythe would be top options. However, each one of them has their negative attributes. Scherff plays at a high level but is injury prone. Most of these guards are in their late 20s to early 30s. If the Giants would want to replace Zeitler, they might as well do it on a long term basis.
The best long-term option is finding an offensive guard in the NFL Draft. However, the Giants have pressing needs at cornerback, wide receiver, and edge rusher. So the bet is on that if they took a guard, it would be a Day 3 selection. More than likely Day 3 selections take 2-3 years to develop as starters, depending on the traits.
So if the New York Giants want to see progress faster out of their young group of “hog mollies”, they should keep Kevin Zeitler for 2021. His contract expires after next season anyway.