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New York Giants are going young in quest to end offensive line woes

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The gates swung open Monday for the NFL's free-agency negotiating period, and for the first time in what seems like forever the New York Giants are not monitoring the top of the offensive line market.

No Nate Solder to a record deal or Geoff Schwartz at high-end guard money or David Baas or J.D. Walton to be the Giants' next long-term center. Those days are gone. There is a plan in place now to build from within.

Some might say it's a miracle. Others might declare it lunacy considering the composition and youth of the line. This is Year 4 of general manager Dave Gettleman's "hog mollie" rebuild and there are still questions despite an emphasis from the day he stepped into the building to solidify the unit and end the overhaul that has been in motion since 2013.

It's likely the key pieces (i.e. starters) are already in place. Andrew Thomas (age 22), No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, is the left tackle -- even with veteran Solder returning. Will Hernandez (25) and Shane Lemieux (23) are likely the starting guards. Converted tackle Nick Gates (25) is the center and, at some point this season (if not Day 1), Matt Peart (23) will be the starting right tackle.

That is an average of 23.6 years of age for the Giants' offensive line, so young would be an understatement. It's hard to imagine that wouldn't be the youngest in the league. Gates and Hernandez, entering their fourth professional seasons, would be the elder statesmen. Who knows who would be considered the best player. All come with some question marks.

Of course, Solder will be around. He agreed to a restructured deal that will make him the swing tackle, sort of this year's version of Cameron Fleming. Solder could start on the right side or serve as a backup to Thomas and Peart. That will depend on how the spring and summer play out, but Gettleman made it clear last week the Giants think Peart, a 2020 third-round pick out of Connecticut, is ready to be a starter.

"When he played, he played fine. He played pretty damn well," Gettleman said. "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."

The Giants are especially high on Peart. They love his length and ability to move at 6-foot-7, 318 pounds. They also thought he played pretty well as a rookie, especially until being slowed by a high ankle sprain late in the season.

So Peart and Thomas will give the Giants two second-year tackles. Lemieux will be a second-year guard and Gates is in his second year playing the center position.

The Giants are undoubtedly taking a leap of faith with a young line to protect quarterback Daniel Jones in such an important season for his development and the future of the franchise. They might add a depth piece in free agency or another piece (probably a guard) in the draft, but what you see is likely what you're going to get when the season rolls around.

"I'm very pleased with the development our young guys got last year," Giants coach Joe Judge said last week. "I'm pleased with the continuity they built in not really being just five guys working together, but really it was seven or eight guys working together through different stretches of the season and really getting a feel for each other."

The decision to roll with Hernandez and Lemieux was dictated, in part, by money. The Giants cut Kevin Zeitler last week because of his $12 million cap hit. The belief is the dropoff from Zeitler to Hernandez -- who lost his starting job midway through last season after contracting COVID-19 -- isn't worth that type of money.

Zeitler might have been the Giants' best lineman last season, but a source in personnel who had studied the Giants recently told ESPN that at this stage of Zeitler's career, he is a "serviceable starter."

The Giants think they can get by with Hernandez and Lemieux. It's a bit of a projection, maybe even a leap of faith. Hernandez was Pro Football Focus' 53rd ranked guard with a 58.1 grade. Lemieux was 80th out of 80 qualifying players at the position with a 32.2 grade. He also was last among the 70 qualifying guards according to Next Gen Stats in pass block win rate (PBWR) at 67.4%. Hernandez was tied for 41st at 85.7%.

Judge has put the resources into assuring the line's growth is a priority. They have two young line coaches in the newly hired Rob Sale and Ben Wilkerson, and Judge hired former Giants line coach Pat Flaherty as sort of an offensive line consultant. Freddie Kitchens has moved into a senior offensive assistant role that will have him concentrating on the Giants' front.

All are moves designed to assist the growth of an extremely young group that they hope will finally solve this seemingly never-ending problem.