Critical piece of Giants’ 2021 plan is far from a sure thing

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The Giants spent years looking to identify Eli Manning’s successor, passing on Sam Darnold and Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson until they anointed Daniel Jones as the king to the franchise quarterback throne.

Over the offseason, the Giants sent a loud and clear message that they are no longer rebuilding, with John Mara telling the Big Blue world that it is Winning Time finally, after all the post-Super Bowl XLVI misery.

And of course it is critical that the Giants are as right about who follows Manning as they were wrong about who followed Tom Coughlin, until Joe Judge showed up.

And so the organization’s mission statement — HELP DANIEL — manifested itself in a checklist that should have made Jones both smile from here to Durham, N.C., and recognize that the stakes are PUT UP OR SHUT UP, as they should be by now in his third season:

The Big Reciever: Plaxico Burress wore No. 17 for Manning. Golladay, who was in attendance at Friday’s organized team activities, will be wearing No. 19 for Jones. Check.

The YAC (Yards After Catch) Threat: Meet No. 1 draft pick Kadarius Toney. Check.

The Red Zone TE: Meet veteran Kyle Rudolph (49 career TDs). Check.

The Gold Jacket Guy: The Giants have their fingers crossed and are optimistic that Saquon Barkley (torn ACL last September) will be Saquon Barkley again. Check (until proven otherwise).

Offensive line: Timeout, please.

You see, the Giants did nothing, other than welcoming back 2020 opt-out veteran swingman tackle Nate Solder, to upgrade the men entrusted with keeping Jones upright to weaponize his best arsenal to date and clearing paths for Barkley.

No one would dare call it resting on their laurels.

Daniel Jones is sacked during a game against the Buccaneers last season.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The Giants cut veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, and in the first round of the NFL draft passed on Rashawn Slater, who can play any and all positions on the offensive line. They didn’t draft an offensive lineman. They signed center-guard Jonotthan Harrison and guard Zach Fulton to one-year free-agent deals.

Just as they believe in Jones more than some outsiders do, they believe in their young offensive line more than some outsiders do, which for now lines up this way:

Left tackle Andrew Thomas, left guard Shane Lemieux, center Nick Gates, right guard Will Hernandez and right tackle Matt Peart.

Three second-year players … a second-year center … a fourth-year player (Hernandez) who battled COVID-19 last season and started only seven games after being replaced by Lemieux.

General manager Dave Gettleman, who vowed to fix the offensive line when he arrived in 2018, had better be right — both for Jones’ sake, and for his own sake. Because if Jones were to falter, the GM’s hot seat would become an ejection seat.

Gettleman’s Hog Mollies in front of Jones had better grow together and grow up — now.

From this guilty-until-proven-innocent perch, it has the look of a Gettleman Gamble. Luckily for him, his fail safe is Judge, who has summoned new offensive line coach Rob Sale, with assistant Ben Wilkerson, rover Freddie Kitchens and former Coughlin aide Pat Flaherty as a consultant in pursuit of some stability in the wake of last November’s stunning firing of offensive line coach Marc Colombo, who was replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo.

“You’ve just got to build a relationship with them and trust them,” Gates said. “Judge hired them for a reason, so if he trusts them, I’m going to trust them.”

He sounds sold on Sale. “He’s awesome, he’s a good teacher and good coach and good person,” Gates said.

Too many cooks spoil the broth?

“As long as they are all on the same page,” Gates said, “it’s not that difficult at all.”

Solder, naturally, is a resource.

“He just brings that knowledge of being in the league for so long,” Gates said.

Manning already had four-fifths of his Super Bowl XLII line intact heading into his third season. LG David Diehl, C Shaun O’Hara, RG Chris Snee and RT Kareem McKenzie were starting their second season together. Diehl moved from LG to LT to replace Luke Petitgout in 2007 with Rich Seubert moving in at LG.

In the 2020 opener against the Steelers, Jones’ line read: LT Thomas, LG Hernandez, C Gates, RG Zeitler, RT Cameron Fleming. Pro Football Focus ranked the Giants’ line 31st in pass blocking efficiency. Jones was sacked 45 times in 14 games.

Oh, and Barkley’s stat line that night: 15 carries, 6 yards.

“I have to be better,” Barkley said afterward. “I have to be better for the team. We have to get the running game going.”

Good idea.

This was Gettleman on his offensive line when a fourth straight season without a playoff berth ended:

“They’re big, they’re young, they’re strong and they’re tough and smart. This O-Line has a chance to be pretty damn good.”

Remember, this is Jones’ second year in coordinator Jason Garrett’s offense. It’s time to see that quarterback-friendly offense. It’s time for Jones to ascend. It’s time to win. One last critical item on the checklist remains: Daniel Jones’ guardian angels.

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