Even without Odell Beckham Jr., the New York Giants will have to throw passes in 2019. The question is who will be on the receiving end?
The answer will likely come from a combination of players currently on the roster, draft picks, and free agents.
It’s not fair to say the Giants will try to replace Odell Beckham because strictly replacing a player like Beckham is nearly impossible. A quick reminder of Beckham’s accomplishment’s throughout his five years with the Giants:
- He had at least 1,000 receiving yards in four of those seasons. In the only season when he failed to reach that number, he played in only four games.
- He is already second in franchise history with 5,476 receiving yards despite being fourth in receptions and fifth in targets (tracked back to 1992).
- Beckham was also the fastest receiver to 5,000 career receiving yards in terms of games played. He needed just 54, which beat Julio Jones’s previous record of 56 career games.
Let’s also not forget the impact he had on Eli Manning and the difference in the quarterback’s performance compared to when Beckham was on the field compared to when he wasn’t.
So while the Giants won’t be able to replace Beckham, we can take a look at how the Giants can try to build their passing game going forward.
The current roster
Sterling Shepard is your No. 1 wide receiver. That’s not exactly a role Shepard is fit to play. He’s a great asset as a No. 2, especially with his ability to play both inside and outside. But when the offense has to run through Shepard, things aren’t as efficient. Here’s a look at Shepard’s splits from Weeks 1-13 in 2018 when Beckham played and Weeks 14-17 when he was out.
2018 Sterling Shepard splits
With Beckham on the field, Shepard was able to stay in the slot for nearly three-quarters of his targets. He was also able to command the intermediate part of the field and did so quite well. Without Beckham, Shepard was in the slot for just over half of his targets and was targeted over three and a half yards further down the field on average. His efficiency plummeted under the heavier workload.
The opposite was the case for Evan Engram, who saw his production increase in the final four games without Beckham.
2018 Evan Engram splits
Part of that coincides with Engram coming back from an injury and getting closer to 100 percent as the season progressed. But, it’s also clear the more Engram was involved in the offense, the more productive he was. The interesting part of Engram’s improvement without Beckham is how his percentage of targets that came from the slot or outside decreased in the final four games. He was also targeted slightly further down the field, though Engram could still be used better as a vertical threat. Per Sports Info Solutions, Engram was only targeted on two seam routes all season, which ranked 28th among tight ends in 2018. Rhett Ellison was targeted on three. Rob Gronkowski and David Njoku tied for the lead at 12. Travis Kelce was next with 10. That’s how receiving tight ends should be used and it should be something the Giants implement more with Engram in the future.
Saquon Barkley will also be a big part of the passing game, but his role will have to be significantly more efficient for it to matter — a usage concern that has been raised many times before. Despite having just three fewer targets than Odell Beckham in 2018, Barkley’s impact on the passing game was much less impactful. Per SIS, Barkley’s 120 targets were worth negative-1.7 Expected Points Added and just 42 percent resulted in a positive play. Compare that to Beckham, who tallied 32.3 EPA on 123 targets with a positive play rate of 52 percent.
Those three should take up the bulk of the targets in the immediate future. After them, the Giants still have a rotation of underwhelming No. 3/4/5 types like Corey Coleman, Jawill Davis, and Quadree Henderson. All three showed more special teams ability than passing game impact in 2018.
This is not the place to try to grab an impact wide receiver. There are no potential No. 1’s here because teams do not allow potential No. 1’s to get to the open market — it’s why looking at the names on the 2020 market will be flawed.
The best options currently available include Tyrell Williams — a great vertical threat likely to be overpaid and miscast as a No. 1 option for a desperate team (note: between submitting this article and it getting posted, Williams has signed with the Oakland Raiders) — and Golden Tate — an efficient YAC-heavy slot receiver, who is going to want to go to a good situation after spending the past four and a half years in Detroit.
After that, it’s role players who will probably cost more than their value to a team — pieces like Phillip Dorsett and Ryan Grant. Even someone like Devin Funchess, a former Dave Gettleman draft pick, got a one-year deal worth $10 million from the Indianapolis Colts. The wide receiver market might be the least efficient way to spend money in free agency.
Where the Giants could potentially get talent is on the restricted free agent market, a typically underused avenue. Giving up a second-round pick and a new contract for someone like Robby Anderson probably isn’t in the cards, but targeting a player who was given an original-round tender might be an option. On that note, the Giants could potentially turn back to Cleveland and look at Rashard Higgins.
The Browns only gave Higgins an original round tender, which would cost the Giants a fifth-round pick should they give him an offer sheet. That would mean the Giants would have to give Higgins a new likely multi-year deal, but it could be worth it. Higgins won’t turn 25 years old until October and would probably be the top free agent available were he not restricted. Cleveland still has a massive amount of cap space to potentially match a deal the Giants would offer, but it might not even be worth the investment for them given what’s on the roster with Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and Antonio Callaway.
Last year, Higgins ranked 12th in EPA per target among 83 wide receivers who saw at least 50 targets. That’s more than a team could hope for any fifth-round pick, even given the salary premium over a rookie deal. It’s not a perfect option, but it might be the best one the Giants currently have for relatively cheap talent with upside.
This draft class presents an interesting group of receivers. There is no clear future No. 1 — save for your feelings on D.K. Metcalf — but there could be a number of useful options in a modern passing game. The problem is wondering how Gettleman scouts the position with his three swings at the position — Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess in the first round and Curtis Samuel in the second — leaving much to be desired.
Metcalf could be the option with the most upside, but he’ll be taken in the first round, which would fall into a trap NFL teams consistently put themselves in — taking a player at the same position traded away for the draft pick. Those exchanges never work. The history of first-round wide receivers since Beckham’s 2014 class also hasn’t shown the position has continued to develop in college like others such as tight end.
Later in the draft, though, the Giants could have some intriguing options and while this looked to be a defense-heavy draft, the team now has a big need to fill for a pass catcher.
In the second round, Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler could be an ideal target. Butler has the size (6-foot-5) and speed (4.48 40-yard dash at the combine) to be a matchup nightmare in the modern NFL. Butler is sixth in this class by Target Yards Added and per the Sports Info Solutions Rookie Handbook, Butler was third in yards per route run while handling nearly a third of Iowa State’s target share in 2018. Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a similar option but with unknown athletic ability after not testing in Indianapolis.
If the Giants want until the third round or later, there should still be some useful role players available, though not anyone likely to change an offense. The most intriguing options could be Missouri’s Emanuel Hall, Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin, Texas Tech’s Antoine Wesley, and Texas’s Lil’Jordan Humphrey.