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What does the Golden Tate signing mean for the Giants offense?

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Short targets, slot work, and yards after the catch

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Big changes have come to the New York Giants’ passing game. Out is Odell Beckham Jr. In is Golden Tate. The signing of Tate surprised some due to his age — he’ll turn 31 years old in August — and the money handed out — two years and $23 million of his four-year/$37.5 million contract are guaranteed.

Surprise or not, the New York Giants will move forward with Tate as a big part of their passing offense. Still, though, the signing has raised a few more questions than it answered. What does Tate have left? How does he mesh with Sterling Shepard? What does this mean for the look of the passing offense? Let’s try to answer some of those questions.

What Tate brings

Tate has been a productive receiver throughout his career, though 2018 was a step in the wrong direction. Some of that came from a struggle to fit in with the offense after a midseason trade to the Philadelphia Eagles, but even his first half of the season with the Lions was below his typical standards.

In 2018, Tate finished the season 55th among 83 wide receivers in Expected Points Added (EPA) per target, according to Sports Info Solutions. Even only factoring in his production from Detroit, Tate would have moved up to 41st, just below Sterling Shepard.

While Tate struggled some in Philadelphia, Detroit’s passing offense nearly bottomed out. Though, Tate’s departure for the second half of the season also coincides with Marvin Jones’s trip to IR after Week 10.

2018 Detroit Lions

Weeks EPA/Target Positive Play %
Weeks EPA/Target Positive Play %
1-8 0.22 55%
9-17 0.06 47%
data provided by Sports Info Solutions

That split does bring up an interesting note from Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, who said teams are typically more impacted by the loss of a big-time wide receiver than they are by the addition of one.

It’s an interesting observation because the Giants are on both sides of that study with the loss of Beckham and the addition of Tate.

Still, even while receivers struggle to make an impact after switching teams — more so in the middle of a season — we can’t overlook how poorly Tate and the Eagles meshed after the trade. Philadelphia offensive coordinator Mike Groh admitted it was challenging to fit the receiver into the offense. It showed in his numbers. Here are Tate’s splits with the Lions to start the year and with the Eagles to finish:

Golden Tate, 2018

Weeks Targets/Rec Yards YAC% Slot% First Down % Broken Tackles EPA/Target
Weeks Targets/Rec Yards YAC% Slot% First Down % Broken Tackles EPA/Target
1-8 (DET) 66/44 517 53.4% 80.3% 52.3% 12 0.25
9-17 (PHI) 44/30 278 52.9% 88.6% 40% 6 0.07

His yards after the catch percentage dropped slightly, but more concerning was how he broke tackles and picked up first downs less frequently. At Tate’s best, that’s where he wins. It’s a skill set that doesn’t need tremendous athleticism to succeed and one that should age fairly well.

Tate’s ability to break tackles and force bad angles to create yards after the catch doesn’t come from Saquon Barkley-like speed or agility. Instead, it’s balance, strength, and an understanding of angles.

In the below play against the Dallas Cowboys, Tate created separation on a comeback and got cornerback Jourdan Lewis (27) to stumble on the break. A quick spin move got Tate into open space and a one-on-one showdown with safety Jeff Heath (38). Tate challenged Heath by running towards him to freeze the safety before Tate changed his path to the outside, which made it an impossible angle for Heath to close. It also helps Heath is one of the league’s worst tacklers.

The below play with the Eagles did show this ability. It was a third-and-9 against Washington. Tate lined up as the most outside receiver, though still in a fairly tight split inside the numbers. That alignment gave Tate room to work and create separation on an out. It also allowed Tate the time to catch and turn up the field and be in a position to keep his balance through a tackle attempt by cornerback Greg Stroman (37).

His broken tackle ability did show up in Philadelphia, just not as often. Tate averaged a broken tackle per every five receptions with the Eagles after that was once per 3.6 receptions earlier in the year with the Lions. His six broken tackles in less than half a season are still impressive — it would have tied for 16th among wide receivers for a full season — but since it’s such a big part of Tate’s game, any decline there makes a difference.

Overall, Tate’s 18 broken tackles were the most among all wide receivers in 2018, per Sports Info Solutions. Second place was Michael Thomas with 11. Just two other receivers (Stefon Diggs and D.J. Moore) had 10. Only one player overall had more broken tackles on receptions than Tate this past season — Saquon Barkley.

Fit with Sterling Shepard

One of the reasons Tate’s broken tackle and yards after the catch ability needs to be highlighted — and monitored — is because of where he’s typically targeted and where he succeeds. Tate can get down the field, but he does most of his damage closer to the line of scrimmage.

The chart below shows Tate’s catch rate over the past two seasons by depth of target (green) and against the league average (orange). He’s surprisingly well below average up to about three yards past the line of scrimmage then significantly above average up to 10 yards before he remains just above the expectation line until about 28 yards down the field.

source: airyards.com

Because most of Tate’s work is shallow and comes from the slot — 83.6 percent of his targets came in the slot in 2018 — there was been a question of how he will fit an offense with Sterling Shepard. Shepard to this point in his career has also done his best work in the short areas of the field and from the slot. But Shepard has also shown more of an ability to win deeper down the field and on the outside. Here is Shepard’s catch rate by depth over the past two seasons:

source: airyards.com

It would not be surprising to see Shepard get moved to the outside more often and get more of those down the field targets. It’s something that makes more sense when you compare where Tate and Shepard have been targeted in the past.

source: airyards.com

Over his career, Shepard’s average target has come just shy of 10 yards down the field, while Tate is closer to six. Shepard won’t suddenly step into an Odell Beckham role, but he is a better fit as a consistent outside receiver than Tate at this point.

Shepard did struggle more when Beckham was out for the final four games of the 2018 season and he was forced to play outside more. But that could also be attributed to a lack of legitimate threat at the other wide receiver spots. It could be argued just having Tate on the field as another receiver to consider in coverage could help open up better opportunities for Shepard — his outside targets with Beckham in the slot are much better than those without Beckham on the field.

Strengths between Tate and Shepard do overlap, but there are enough differences they won’t be pigeonholed to the same roles. Both receivers have the ability to move around, but the most likely scenario will see Tate in the slot and Shepard on the outside most often.

Can you run an offense through YAC?

An underrated question with Tate’s addition is can a passing offense succeed while relying so heavily on creating yards after the catch? The 2018 Giants were already a YAC-heavy team. 52.3 percent of their passing yards came after the catch, the eighth-highest rate in the league last season. 55 percent of Evan Engram’s yards came after the catch. 110 percent — yes, that number is correct, one hundred and ten percent — of Saquon Barkley’s receiving yards came after the catch. Shepard profiled as more of a downfield receiver at just 36.7 percent. But Tate — 53 percent YAC in 2018 — will be replacing Beckham, who picked up just 32.4 percent of his 1,052 receiving yards after the catch.

Typically downfield passing creates better results. For example the average EPA per target among the 200 most targeted players from 0-5 yards past the line of scrimmage last season was 0.17, per Sports Info Solutions. Among the top 200 targeted receivers 20 or more yards down the field, the average EPA per target was 0.46.

However, as a whole, there is no correlation between how good a passing offense can be and how much they rely on yards after the catch. The below chart shows all offenses from 2015 through 2018 plotted by YAC% and Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA. R-squared here — how predictive one stat is of the other — is .0001. No correlation exists.

Though there is a bit of a difference at the extremes. The 10 offenses with the highest YAC percentage over the past four seasons averaged a passing DVOA of 5.2 percent, which would have ranked 22nd as a single team in 2018. The 10 offenses with the lowest YAC percentage in that time have averaged a passing DVOA of 18.9 percent, which would have ranked 11th. The reality is, teams should probably strive to be somewhere in between.

Across the league, the average depth of target has dropped as completion percentages have risen. Five of the top 10 YAC percentage teams since 2015 came this past season. It’s also been a way teams have worked to cover for limited or aging (or both) quarterbacks. The 2018 Steelers and 2017 Saints were among the most YAC-heavy offenses over the past two seasons to pretty good results, but so were the 2018 Jaguars and Dolphins to a much worse payoff.

The Giants appear to be building their offense this way, giving the quarterback shorter and easier throws that allow the skill players to do much of the work. One could make the argument it would be easier and better for the long term to find a quarterback who doesn’t have to be masked by building an offense around shorter throws, but the Giants have a structure that will most likely heavily rely on yards after the catch. There’s no guarantee it won’t work, but there’s no guarantee it will either.