Before the 2013 NFL Draft, Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh wasn't on that many people's radar when it came to first-round draft picks. It wasn't until about a week before the draft until anyone heard anything about Pugh, as he was being mocked to go at number 19 for the New York Giants.
Those who had mocked Pugh to go to the Giants ended up mocking correctly, as they took him with that pick and he was the fifth tackle selected in the first round of the draft; Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, D.J. Fluker and Luke Joeckel were all taken ahead of Pugh, but as Ross Tucker of NBC Sports broke down on Thursday night, the Giants have gotten the most production out of their right tackle above the others.
"Eric Fisher has been terrible in Kansas City. Lane Johnson has been a little bit better than that in Philly. [No. 2 pick] Luke Joeckel was OK in Jacksonville before he got hurt," Tucker said. "Justin has been fine, but fine compared to his draft class is pretty darn good. … He's been the best of the bunch, probably even better than [No. 11 pick] D.J. Fluker, who struggles in pass protection as well."
Tucker knows a thing or two about playing offensive line in the NFL; as he was a guard and center from 2001-2007 with the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns before retiring and taking a media job. For Tucker to say that Pugh has played better than three out of the first four picks taken that were offensive tackles; Fisher, Joeckel and Johnson, is quite the complement to be paid for Pugh, who wasn't even figured in to start for the Giants when the summer began.
When training camp broke, Pugh was the backup right tackle behind veteran David Diehl, who was penciled in to start until he went down with a thumb injury that required him to need surgery, thus the Giants inserted their first-rounder into the starting lineup in the middle of the preseason and he hasn't looked back since. With Chris Snee going down for the season with a torn labrum in his hip, Diehl came back and shifted over to right guard and has been helping Pugh on the line and have done a fine job on the right side.
With the offensive line at times looking rather inconsistent to at times down-right bad, especially in the beginning of the season, Pugh had been one of the consistent parts of the line that had been playing well, especially over left tackle Will Beatty, who had signed a five-year extension in the off-season because Beatty hasn't really lived up to that contract thus far. Over the last couple of weeks, the offensive line has started to play better as a unit, have been able to establish the line of scrimmage and get somewhat of a running game going and most importantly, have kept Eli Manning off his back.
One of the things that Tucker mentioned that Pugh did really well was playing smart on the field and not getting beat a lot while out there, something his fellow rookies have done on numerous occasions in 2013.
"Pugh has probably been more solid than any of those [other rookies]. It's really been because of his feet, and he's playing smarter," Tucker said. "Those guys are lunging. Those guys are whiffing. You don't really see that from Pugh. He'll get beat late sometimes, but you don't see him outright whiffing. I think he's figured it out that if you really try to be too aggressive and try to do the same thing every time, like Fisher and Lane Johnson do, you're gonna get beat. You have to change it up."
His worst game of the season might have been in Week 3 during the Giants' 38-0 blowout loss against the Carolina Panthers, a game in which Manning was sacked seven times. Since that game, Pugh has not allowed a sack on Manning; something overall the offensive line has done a much better job through the last three weeks when they allowed 15 sacks through the first five games, but only have allowed four since.
It might be a bit premature to say that Pugh was the best offensive lineman or offensive tackle taken in the first round of April's draft, but if he continues to play the way he has for the rest of the year, he may very well get that honor and end up being a fixture on the offensive line for a very long time.
photo credit: Sean Thornton
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