While the New York Giants may have made it semi-fashionable to rotate offensive linemen in 2020, chances are they’d like to keep the unit relatively uniform in 2021. This likely means an end to the three-headed monster at guard next season.
With rookie Shane Lemieux penciled in as one of the team’s starters at guard moving forward, odds are either Will Hernandez and/or Kevin Zeitler will be on the outside looking in as the offseason heats up. Of the two, Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox opted to cut ties with the latter, pegging the projected release of Zeitler as his bold free-agent prediction for the Giants to make in 2021.
Here’s what Knox had to say:
The New York Giants are in a tough spot financially. They’re projected to be nearly $14 million over the salary cap and have some quality free agents—like Leonard Williams and Dalvin Tomlinson—slated to hit the open market.
New York is going to have to cut salary somewhere, and veteran guard Kevin Zeitler could find himself on the chopping block.
While Zeitler is a quality guard, he’s also set to turn 31 in March and is entering the final year of his contract. He’s scheduled to carry a cap hit of $14.5 million in 2021, but the Giants can save $12 million of that by releasing him.
The Giants will be tempted to keep Zeitler and continue building the line in front of quarterback Daniel Jones. However, they’re also going to want to lock up young defenders like Williams and Tomlinson and continue building on their ninth-ranked scoring defense. They can’t do both, so Zeitler could be out.
Zeitler has been relatively rock-solid over his career, with some straight-up dominant seasons sprinkled throughout his nine-years in the NFL. However, the former first rounder’s play appears to have taken a sizeable hit of late. Owning an average overall Pro Football Focus grade of 78.7 entering this past season, Zeitler earned a career-worst 65.9 grade in 2020.
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Zeitler’s Contract Outlook
When the 2021 season comes around, Zeitler will be 31-years-old and entering his 10th season in the NFL. On one end, losing his veteran presence on the offensive line could prove insurmountable for a unit that hoists an average age of 24.5 years-old among their four other starters. On the other end, his contract could prove too steep of a price to warrant New York committing to his services next season.
As Knox alluded to above, cutting Zeitler would save the team $12 million against the cap, carrying only the $2.5 million prorated bonus. Considering the Giants are currently projected to be north of $2 million over the 2021 cap (per Spotrac), moving off of Zeitler makes logical sense from a purely financial perspective.
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Potential Replacement Answers if Giants Release Zeitler
How would New York replace their starting guard? The obvious answer would be the aforementioned Will Hernandez. While Hernandez has never logged a snap at right guard, Shane Lemieux did notch 13 snaps at the position in his rookie campaign. While not steep by any means, it does point to the idea that the team could swing Lemieux to the right side on a permanent basis and reinsert Hernandez as the team’s starter on the left side. Prior to losing his job after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list ahead of Week 8, Hernandez had started 39 consecutive games at left guard for Big Blue, including playing 2,523 consecutive snaps. He’ll also be just 26-years-old come Week 1 of 2021, five years the junior of Zeitler.
With that said, while Hernandez’s nasty playstyle has won over fans during his time in East Rutherford, his actual on-field performance has left much to be desired. Failing to crack a 58.4 overall PFF grade over each of the past two seasons, Hernandez’s time in as an every-down starter may have ultimately run its course with the Giants.
Other in-house options include the likes of Kyle Murphy and Chad Slade, each of whom the organization appears to be highly fond of. Although, together both players have amassed just three offensive snaps over their young NFL careers. There’s also the fact that the team recently signed a 23-career game starter at center in ex-Jets offensive lineman Jonotthan Harrison. While unlikely, Harrison’s presence could allow New York to move incumbent starting center Nick Gates back to his previous position of guard.
Theoretically, you could also toss out the idea of shifting Cam Fleming down to guard and inserting promising rookie Matt Peart as the starter at right tackle. While the latter move looks destined to occur on its own, Fleming has very little experience working on the inside over his seven-year career. Should he stick around next season, chances are Fleming would be best served to reprise his pre-Giants role as a swing tackle rather than endure a switch to a mostly foreign position.
This likely means that Hernandez looks to be the best in-house option to replace Zeitler were he shown the door this offseason. Yet, the use of a mid-round draft pick or a reasonably priced free-agent may prove to be New York’s best course of action when it comes to filling a potential Zeitler-sized void at right guard.
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