The Giants drafted Will Hernandez in the second round of the 2017 draft with expectations of turning around a failed unit. He and fellow lineman Nate Solder were seen as the stabilization saviors of the left side of Big Blue’s line and quarterback Eli Manning’s blind side for the 2018 season. The line came under heavy scrutiny early in the year, as any mistake at the NFL level is magnified immensely, and too often very successful blocks are just “doing your job.” Both Hernandez and Solder spent time in the hot seat, and I documented Solder’s play here. Interestingly, from a measurables standpoint, Solder and Hernandez are somewhat opposite. Solder is 6’8″ 325 lbs with a long reach and wide arms, while Hernandez is slightly undersized at 6’2″ 325 lbs, and his arm length is only 32″(bottom quarter percentile for interior linemen). This attribute is important for understanding Hernandez’s blocking style and how he can reach and even exceed his ceiling performance.
The first thing that leaps off the tape is his athleticism and agility. This manifests in many ways, from the ability to adjust to pass rushers’ initial two steps, to climbing to the second level on combination blocks. Against most defenders he faces, he can get himself into good position. This may seem rudimentary, but it is not easy as a 325-pound individual to meet someone 70-100 lbs lighter in space. Hernandez is very comfortable in small spaces but also somewhat twitchy in his ability to mirror and match opponents. Please see the below inside zone run, a staple of the Giants this season:
The above is a great answer to those that question why the Giants would ever want to run to the right side. For this scheme, the backside veritcal seams that Hernandez helps secure are often the ones that gash the defense. Hernandez is at his best from mid-engagement to finish. His upper body strength is very good, allowing him to win most fist fights in phone booths. Speaking of fighting, he flashes violence on the field, and although it does not stick out as much as it did at the college level, Hernandez often plays to the echo of the whistle. See the below example from a recent Twitter thread:
Play 11: Looking for Work— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) December 1, 2018
In many pass pro schemes, Hernandez is looking for violence. Knows he wants to help his LT Solder against Graham, lines up early & delivers the blow. The #Giants line needs more of this attitude #GiantsPride #GiantTidbits pic.twitter.com/i7ZLpJwOj9
The combination of agility, light feet, and toughness to deliver a blow, makes Hernandez ideal as a pulling blocker in power scheme. The Giants so far this year have not run as much power as some had anticipated. When they do run it, most often the young rookie is the puller with the play going to the right. See the below example, a nice pancake of Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell:
Play 2: Hernandez as Puller— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) December 1, 2018
Everyone knows this was a big reason DG wanted WH in a #Giants uniform. Power is actually not called that often, but his footwork and agility allows him to square vs. most LBers, get the syrup read for pancakes #GiantsPride #GiantTidbits pic.twitter.com/HAG7m0TDFo
Most recently in the Chicago game this weekend, this play was called by Pat Shurmur as the “give up” (his words, not mine) play at the end of the half that sparked the offense. Barkley’s efforts put the team in range for a 57-yard field goal that provided much-needed momentum in the halftime locker room. The 20-plus-yard explosive run was not the first time power to the right side led to a big play from Saquon Barkley. Of Barkley’s runs greater than 20 yards (12), the majority are inside zone (7), but the next most are power (2). See the below example from the Week 6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles:
Hernandez’s game is not just pulling, though. He has shown the ability to gain ground in either ace or deuce combo blocks early in downs. In pass protection, he has improved with experience and repetitions cleaning up assignment issues we saw in the early season (no surprise for a new unit or a rookie). Specifically, his improvement in recognition of stunts and then comfort level in dealing with them has greatly improved. See the below example from the Eagles game in Week 12:
Play 12: Athleticism— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) December 1, 2018
Hernandez is not all anger, as he shows vs. this tricky interior stunt from the #Eagles. Flashes AA & agility moving to get enough of the powerful Cox to give Manning enough time #GiantsPride #GiantTidbits pic.twitter.com/Doc7Gp78SM
Rookie linemen in the NFL face a steep learning curve, and there is rarely an example coming from the collegiate ranks of a “finished product.” Hernandez is no different in this respect, but this piece will save the smaller nitpicks for the coaches and focus on one main area, his arms/hand usage. This article cited his 32-inch arms above, and on that theme, there are examples of longer-armed defensive tackles being able to control the engagement via their length:
Play 8: Hernandez’s Arm Length— Nick Turchyn (@CoachTurch) December 1, 2018
WH arms are only 32 inches long, in the bottom ¼ percentile for guards. Here #Ealges DT Ngata’s long arm from a tight position causes WH to take a penalty. When defenders win early w/length, he can be vulnerable #GiantsPride #GiantTidbits pic.twitter.com/3m7DiN968A
The Eagles’ defender is able to control Hernandez and render his upper body strength ineffective. The issue is not as simple or black and white as avoiding long arm moves, however. Hernandez’s poor or problematic reps have come against upper-level talent when he relies too much on his upper body strength. His arms, even with decent hand placement, do not get extended for leverage and lead to defenders getting easy access to his upper half. This can lead to problems, for example, on power-to-speed rushes where agile pass rushers disengage from early bull-rushes. There really are no two better examples that show the arm extension issue than the below consecutive plays from the Redskins game in Week 8:
These two plays contrast Hernandez’s ability when he gains leverage early in the down and when he does not. All types of problems arise when he can not play with leverage from poor anchor to even penalties attempting to keep play structure intact. He clearly has the ability to play long against elite talent. The consistency in doing so over longer stretches, that is the major hurdle. On the other side of the line, the presence of Jamon Brown at right guard may be very important for Hernandez’s development aiding in his technique. Remember the amount of time (or lack thereof) that coaches have at both the college and NFL ranks leaves development at times very dependent on the individual players.
The inspiration for this piece came from a question on the Big Blue Banter Podcast (I co-host with Dan Schneier, link here ) asking what Hernandez’s ceiling looks like. Hernandez has shown against mid-level NFL talent that he can be a force physically and on the box score. His ceiling will tie closest to how he can handle the upper-tier talent in front sevens across the league (and particularly in this tough defensive tackle division). Overall, the young guard is a starter you can win with who thrives on physicality. He is most valuable in gap scheme-downhill-type running offenses but has the versatility with light feet to thrive in zone blocking. Although he lacks some refinement in technique early in the down and relies on his raw talent too much, the right coaching and mentoring can get him to a very high level in this league. The two main areas I will focus on to track his progress are from get-off at the snap to mid-engagement, and his ability to show arm extension in both run and pass, as illustrated above. The future is bright for Will Hernandez, and tracking his ascent will probably mirror the overall success/failure of the Giants.