In a sad but unsurprising move, the Giants released Victor Cruz earlier in the week. Cruz’s return from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2015 season was a great story, but as the 2016 season wore on it was clear Cruz was no longer the receiver he had been before the injury. With the diminished skill set, it would have been hard for the Giants to justify keeping Cruz with his $9.4 million cap hit in 2017, especially when just $1.9 million remained in dead money.
So now with Cruz gone, a position that looked to be a deep strength heading into 2016 is now Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and a ton of question marks at the early stages of the offseason. Despite Cruz’s disappointing production -- he was 75th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA among 93 wide receivers with at least 50 targets -- he was still an integral part of the offense. Cruz was on the field for 72.2 percent of the Giants’ offense snaps in 2016. The offense also mostly lived in 11 personnel on offense, as 77 percent of Eli Manning’s pass attempts came with exactly three receivers on the field. Another 13.5 percent came with at least four receivers on the field and just 4.8 percent came with only two receivers on the field.
The top two receiver spots are set with Beckham and Shepard, who were the only receiver duo in the league last season to both played more than 90 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. Shepard was on the field for 94.6 percent, while Beckham saw 94.4 percent, which ranked second and third most among all receivers in the NFL behind DeAndre Hopkins.
But since that third receiver position is so important to this offense, a replacement who is likely to receive a lot of playing time is going to have to be found somewhere. It’s likely there’s going to be some addition through free agency and the draft, but before those start, let’s take a look at some of the options already on the roster. In every case, the potential replacement would need to take a big step forward in playing time and production.
Roger Lewis Jr., an undrafted rookie, grew into the fourth receiver in the 2016 rotation, getting on the field for 19.6 percent of the offensive snaps. But despite seeing around the same field time as tight end Jerell Adams (19.2 percent), Lewis had less than half of Adams’s receptions (15 to 7). Lewis was targeted 19 times, which brings him a paltry catch rate of 36.8 percent. Some of that, though, was due to where Lewis’s targets came -- deep down the field.
Of his 19 targets, 10 of them were considered “deep,” which in the official manner means at least 15 yards down the field. While some of Lewis’s missed targets can be put on the quarterback, Lewis wasn’t always consistent down the field.
Lewis’s biggest asset is his ability to get behind the defense and when that results in a catch, it’s usually a big play. But consistency was the biggest issue for the rookie in 2016, as he had negative ratings in both DYAR and DVOA.
Another part of that problem was some route refinement and timing issues with Manning on shorter throws. On more than one occasion, Lewis rounded off an out route that threw off timing and invited a corner to break on the ball. Maybe these are things that could be improved with a full offseason and camp with more first-team reps, but they will have to be improved in order to take over as the No. 3 receiver.
Tavarres King is similar to Lewis, but three years older and with less playing time -- 7.2 percent of the 2016 offensive snaps. King was originally drafted in the fifth-round of the 2013 Draft by the Denver Broncos, but never played a snap for them. He was waived before the regular season and spent just a month on the practice squad before he was waived again. Since then, he’s been picked up and waived by the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His only NFL experience before 2016 came from 55 snaps on the 2014 Buccaneers when he saw three targets for two receptions and 13 yards.
For the Giants, King appeared in six regular season games but saw just four targets for two catches and 50 yards. Those two catches weren’t exactly split evenly -- the first was a 6-yard catch in Week 10 and the second was a 44-yard catch in Week 17. His biggest impact came in the Wild Card Game against the Green Bay Packers, where he caught a 41-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter that brought the Giants to a 14-13 deficit.
King, like Lewis, has shown an ability to get open down the field. For what it’s worth, King’s 2013 40-time was a tenth faster than what Lewis ran this past year at the Combine -- 4.47 to 4.57. But with a similar skillset, the Giants clearly preferred Lewis in 2016 and it’s hard to see why that would change heading into 2017. King could be in line to serve in the 2016 Lewis role if Lewis sees his role increase in 2017.
Quick pop quiz: with Cruz gone, who takes over as the Giants’ highest-paid wide receiver in 2017? That would be Dwayne Harris and his $3.8 million cap hit. At this point, though, calling Harris a wide receiver is greatly overstating his role.
Harris was the Cruz replacement on the 2015 offense as he was on the field for 56.1 percent of the Giants’ offensive snaps. But Harris wasn’t great in that role. He was fifth on the team in targets, catches, and receiving yards, but had just 396 yards and had a lower catch rate than Rueben Randle. He was 63rd in DYAR and 56th in DVOA among 87 receivers with at least 50 targets in 2015.
As the Giants drafted Shepard and got Cruz back for 2016, Harris’s role as a receiver just about vanished. He was on the field for only a total of 58 offensive snaps and had just one reception on one target. At this point, the Giants pretty much know what Harris is as a receiver and they were OK with throwing in younger players to see if they had something better in 2016. Harris was relegated to focus on his originally intended duty of returning punts and kicks. However, with some frustration with his decision making and a potential $1.4 million in cap savings if he’s released, there’s no guarantee Harris is even on the roster in 2017.
Darius Powe and Kevin Norwood
Both Darius Powe and Kevin Norwood signed reserve/future contracts with the Giants in January -- securing them roster spots when the limit increases from 53 to 90.
Powe is the biggest unknown of this group. He was brought in as an undrafted free agent in the offseason and his size made him an intriguing option for the receiving corps. As it stands now, Powe is one of two Giants receivers, along with Norwood, taller than 6-feet. But while that was seen as a positive before training camp, it never became a standout advantage for the former Cal receiver.
During the preseason, Powe had a target and a catch from Logan Thomas late in the second game and was on the intended end of four inaccurate passes from Ryan Nassib at the tail end of the third game against the Jets. The closest Powe came to a big play was a deep pass against the Jets, where Powe (top of screen) faked a step for a post route, froze the cornerback, and got open towards the end zone. The pass was caught, but well out of bounds.
He didn’t make the roster, but stuck around on the practice squad all season. Powe will likely get another chance to impress in camp, but he has a long road ahead from the practice squad to a regular contributor, even as a red zone threat.
Norwood spent half the season with Powe on the practice squad after being waived from the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad in November. He was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round of the 2014 Draft, but played in just nine games in his rookie season. He was then traded to the Carolina Panthers before the start of the 2015 season after it was clear he would not make the Seahawks’ roster. Norwood only played in one game for Carolina and didn’t catch a pass. After suffering a hip injury in the 2016 preseason, he was released from injured reserve at the end of September.
Despite being in the same draft class as Beckham, Norwood is more than three years older than the Giants’ star receiver -- he’ll turn 28 years old in September. It’s unlikely the Alabama product makes any type of impact for the Giants in 2017.