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Can Giants’ passing attack flourish without prototypical big wide receiver?

Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate & Co. could be good fit for Eli Manning, Daniel Jones

NFL: New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts
Sterling Shepard makes a catch.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2019 NFL Draft there was somewhat of an outcry from the New York Giants’ fan base that they needed to add a wide receiver with the prototypical combination of size and speed. Names from the past like Plaxico Burress and Hakeem Nicks were thrown out there as the type of wide out New York needed to add. Let’s pump the brakes on that for a minute.

You may or may not have noticed that what the NFL is looking for entering the league is changing. Many of the guys that fit the “prototypical” mold are falling on draft day. D.K. Metcalf and Hakeem Butler are perfect examples of this. Instead of “big and fast” wide receivers, the NFL is more attuned to investing in route runners. Really since the 2014 draft class that featured Odell Beckham Jr. of course, rookie receivers are not bursting onto the NFL scene like they once did. But the guys that are having early success are the top route runners such as Michael Thomas, Juju Smith Schuster and Cooper Kupp.

Contested catch receivers and downfield threats are great and should always have a place in this league. But NFL offensive scheme designers are very adeptly catering passing games to what they are given from the college ranks. What that is are suspect pass protectors and young quarterbacks with a massive amount of college spread principles instilled in them when entering the league.

NFL offenses need easier throws with quick reads. The ball needs to come out quick, on time and with accuracy. After the catch skills might be more important than the ability to outmuscle a cornerback for the football in the air nowadays.

The other key component, and this surely hurt Metcalf’s draft stock, is the ability for receivers to align in many different locations. This is true for all offensive skill positions, but with the wide outs, we have historically seen many big and fast outside threats that align in just one spot to either the quarterback’s right or left. That is a huge hindrance to offensive play designers and also greatly limits what you can do with the four other potential pass catchers on the field.

So while a guy like Metcalf certainly could excel with the Giants and would bring a dimension to the wide receiver position that is lacking since Beckham departed, it makes more sense to utilize the more versatile and more Daniel Jones-friendly group of pass catchers that New York currently has rostered.

First off, Beckham could do it all. He is a transcendent player. Beckham brings all the attributes listed above into one package. But obviously he is gone.

The Giants do have two speedy receivers with very limited route running skills in former first rounder Corey Coleman and New York’s fifth-round pick from this draft class, Darius Slayton. Maybe one or both can develop into more and in the meantime might be able to offer one dimension downfield. But it has to be noted that a big reason why Coleman has bounced around the league so much in such a short amount of time is that going back to his college days he has been a very limited route runner.

Coleman and Slayton will not be the core of the Giants receivers though, obviously. Beckham alone is irreplaceable, but the group of Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley is awfully formidable while also being very much what Eli Manning and Daniel Jones need in order to succeed stylistically. Let’s stick with Jones’ strengths and weaknesses as a passer though before digging into who he will be distributing the ball to before long.

Per Pro Football Focus, Jones’ numbers are massively better when targeting the middle of the field rather than outside the numbers. This also shows up in a big way when watching Jones on tape. He isn’t a power thrower and is clearly more comfortable targeting the middle of the field via in breaking rather than out breaking routes. The Giants would be wise to make crossing routes, slants and other in breaking routes the stable of their passing attack, especially from their wide receivers. For that to succeed, they need players with great burst out of their breaks, overall quickness more than speed as well as strong after the catch capabilities.

All of those describe Shepard and Tate. Tate is the more physical of the two and has a thicker build that he uses better in contested situations and as a tackle breaker. But Shepard entered the league as a highly accomplished route runner and shows that body control, ability to set up his opponent and sharpness of cuts at the NFL level as well. Both can align outside or in the slot and stylistically, are excellent for what Pat Shurmur will be looking to create for Jones to have success with a lot of West Coast principles and considering his receivers, condensed formations. Also, don’t be surprised if New York’s RPO game revs up quite a bit more when the athletic Jones inevitably takes over as the starter.

Engram and Barkley are obviously very different, but they can be lumped together since they are two of the very best at their respective positions in the league in the passing game. Engram might align outside the numbers more with Beckham gone, but that really isn’t his game. He does possess rare speed though and dynamic traits overall.

The same is true for Barkley, but the second year superstar also adds in rare power for such a good receiving back. It also doesn’t hurt to have Barkley to hand the ball to or dump it off when the play breaks down. Barkley should be Jones’ best friend on game day. But none of this foursome does their best work as perimeter receivers.

So, having big, strong and fast receivers sounds terrific and overall it isn’t a bad thing of course. The league is trending in a different direction right now and considering who will be behind center for the Giants, this team should rightfully lean in this direction as much as any offense in the NFL.