Coach Ben McAdoo promised this week that the New York Giants will “look at everything” in trying to fix an offense that underwhelmed in 2016. One of those areas has to be wide receiver, and it is why a recent study of wide receivers in tight coverage from Matt Harmon of Reception Perception seems so relevant.
Harmon studied the catch rates of receivers in tight coverage, defined as less than one yard of separation from the defender covering them. He placed the average catch rate on targets with less than a yard of separation was 40.5 percent.
Before diving into the results, a couple of points on why I am fascinated by this data.
Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning has never been the NFL’s most pinpoint passer. He has also always been a quarterback unafraid to take a chance, to give his receivers an opportunity to make a play, to win the 50/50 ball. I have always believed that Manning is at his best when he has a big-bodied physical receiver — like Hakeem Nicks in his prime — who can make those plays for him. It’s a point I reiterated in the most recent “Big Blue Chat” podcast.
We know, of course, that Odell Beckham Jr. can make the spectacular catch, especially down the sideline. He can also turn the short slant into an electrifying long touchdown. Between Beckham, Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz — the three receivers McAdoo employed religiously in his beloved three-wide receiver set — only Cruz touches 6-feet. Barely.
None are players who will simply out-physical defenders for catches down the middle. Even at tight end, the Giants didn’t really have a player last season who made those plays for them.
We know that Cruz’s future with the Giants is in doubt, his $9.4 million 2017 cap hit seeming like far too much for a 30-year-old player who had 39 receptions in 2016. Whether the Giants bring him back or not, it would seem advisable for them to look for a true outside receiver to balance out their receiving corps. Cruz played outside in 2016, but was truthfully a slot guy in costume.
So, back to Harmon’s list of the top 10 wide receivers in the NFL against tight coverage last season. Three of the top 10 guys are unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears was second in the league in tight coverage catch rate at 60.9 percent. Harmon writes:
One of Jeffery's best assets, of course, is his ability to play the ball in the air in contested situations. Jeffery posted 60.9 percent catch rate on targets (23) where he had less than a yard of separation. He averaged 21.1 yards per reception on those targets, and 14.9 air yards per target on the season. He'll bring a dynamic downfield threat who can win contested catches to a new team should he leave Chicago.
Jeffery is a 6-foot-4, 230-pound five-year veteran who turns 27 next month. He has 304 receptions, 26 for touchdowns, in his career. We will get deeper into free agency later on, but the view here is that this guy should be a top target for the Giants if he reaches the market.
Two other potential free agents on Harmon’s list are Anquan Boldin and Kenny Britt.
Boldin was sixth in the NFL with a 56.7 percent catch rate vs. tight coverage. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Boldin, 6-1, 218 has made the tough catch in traffic a staple of his 14-year career. Boldin caught 67 passes for the Detroit Lions last season. He might retire, and it might be too late, but I’ve always though Boldin was the perfect receiver for Manning.
Britt, 6-3, 215, finished eighth on Harmon’s list with a 54.8 percent catch rate vs. tight coverage. The 2016 season was the best of Britt’s career as he caught a career-high 68 passes and surpassed 1,00 receiving yards (1,002) for the first time.
There is one other player on Harmon’s list I found noteworthy. That would be Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints. In his rookie year, Thomas was seventh on the list with a 56 percent catch rate vs. tight coverage.
The Giants took Sterling Shepard in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, passing on Thomas, who went 47th to the Saints.
As good as Shepard is, Thomas had a better rookie season. Thomas had more receptions (92-65), yards receiving (1,137-683), a higher yards per reception average (12.4-10.5) and more touchdowns (9-8).
Shepard is a tremendous player and should have a long, successful Giants career. There is, however, a valid argument to be made that the 6-3, 215-pound Thomas would have been an even better fit for the 2016 Giants.
Anyway, some interesting fodder for discussion as we ponder how the Giants will construct their 2017 receiving corps.
Your thoughts, Giants fans?