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Hakuna Matata! Giants’ wide receivers have no worries about who is missing

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Experienced veterans, promising youngsters just “have to make plays”

NFL: AUG 08 Preseason - Jets at Giants
Russell Shepard scores a touchdown vs. the Jets in the preseason opener.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Odell Beckham Jr. catching passes from Eli Manning is just a memory for New York Giants fans. The Giants, though, figured they would be fine at wide receiver with Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, a stable of other useful veterans and a speedy fifth-round pick in Darius Slayton on the roster.

Then, training camp started.

Tate will sit out the first four games to serve a PED suspension. Corey Coleman, expected to be third or fourth on the depth chart, is out for the year. Sterling Shepard fractured his thumb in the first practice of training camp. Slayton and undrafted free agent Alex Wesley have missed time with leg injuries. Amba Etta-Tawo, signed after Coleman went down, tore his Achilles and is lost for the year.

The Giants’ attitude toward all this strife?

Hakuna Matata!

For those not educated in ‘Lion King’ language, that means “no worries.”

Consider this from Russell Shepard, who played with Beckham as a collegian at LSU:

“You can’t really replace a talent like Odell, but you can replace his production. You can scheme up and you can get guys that are consistent, good football players that can contribute on Sundays,” Shepard told me recently.

“You’ve seen Tom Brady do it time and time again. You’ve seen Russell Wilson do it. You’ve seen several teams have success with not the big-name guys, the expensive guys.”

Here is coach Pat Shurmur talking on Wednesday about how the Giants would replace Tate ... who, of course, replaced Beckham:

“With another receiver. That’s how we do it. It’s unfortunate, this situation. He will not be with us for a month, so we’ll fill that void with another player,” Shurmur said. “It is what it is. This isn’t the first time a player has been suspended. He went through the process to try to appeal it and all. We just won’t have him for four weeks, so you move on. You make adjustments, and then wait for him to get back in Week Five.”

Simple, right? Just replace one guy with another and keep the line moving.

“Next man up. We have to make plays. There can’t be a drop off just because he’s [Tate] not there,” said Bennie Fowler. “It’s the same thing that happened with Odell last year. Odell was out, they asked what was gonna happen, we put points up against Washington, Indianapolis, the last four games.”

Well, it is obviously not simple. One guy plays, generally, because he has skills the guy not playing doesn’t have.

Let’s look at the mix of players the Giants do have at wide receiver.

New York Jets v New York Giants
Bennie Fowler after catching a touchdown pass from Daniel Jones during the preseason opener.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The veterans

Beyond Sterling Shepard, the veteran receivers who have legitimate claims to being roster worthy are Russell Shepard, Fowler, Cody Latimer and T.J. Jones.

“Everybody has had success in their own way,” Russell Shepard said. He pointed out that Tate, Latimer and Fowler all have Super Bowl rings, and that he and Jones have started NFL games.

“You have a little bit of everything, guys have different skill sets and you can utilize them in different ways. It’s pretty exciting.”

Here is how coach Pat Shurmur categorized his veteran group:

“All of those guys are pros. I’m used to seeing wide receivers, you remember the Hank Basketts and the Jason Avants in the early years in Philly. Those guys were going to be on the roster, and they were excellent special teams players. Then they made plays in the passing game as well. It’s important that our receivers have an impact on special teams, and those guys certainly do that. That’s a good thing.”

Latimer has had a relatively lackluster five-year career, catching only 46 passes since being a 2014 second-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos. Yet, his size and athleticism at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, along with his five years of experience, are appealing.

“Cody is probably one of our most veteran receivers. I think he shows that out there. He knows how to practice. He knows how to compete. He has a unique ability to make a play down the field,” Shurmur said. “I think he does a good job … there are times when he can get behind the (corner) and he’s open. But then there are other times when he’s in a contested situation where he can make a play on the ball. That’s hugely valuable when you’re a wideout.”

Latimer caught only 19 balls with the Denver Broncos in 2017, but averaged 15.1 yards per catch. Last season, when a hamstring injury limited him to six games, Latimer averaged 17.3 yards on 11 catches. Had he played enough, that 17.3 yards per catch average would have been fifth in the league.

“Big, physical presence,” Shepard said of Latimer. “You talk about power to speed ratio he could be the best in the room.”

Fowler, 28, has never caught more than 29 passes in a season during his five-year career.

When you watch Fowler, you just see a guy who has an inate ability to make quarterbacks comfortable by being where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.

“Probably the most aware individual in the room,” Russell Shepard said of Fowler. “He has a good understanding of every position, and I’m not just talking about receiver.

“He’s a student of the game. He’s very aware. I think one of the most underrated things about him is just being a consistent guy.”

Fowler caught 16 passes in 10 games with the Giants last season, six of those coming in the final three games.

“He’s a guy that can play all of the positions. Typically he plays outside, but there are times where he’ll be in the slot,” Shurmur said. “He’s smart, he has good instincts, he picks things up quickly. You saw we’ve had some receiver injuries within practice, and he’s been able to go from being X to Z and Z to X. That flexibility is important.”

Jones caught 64 passes over the last four season with the Detroit Lions, but after a disappointing 2018 season in which caught only 19 passes he was not brought back. He signed with the Giants following a wide receiver tryout a few days into training camp.

“We felt like he was a guy that could come in, compete, and make our team, regardless of who we had on the roster,” Shurmur said.

Jones, at 6-foot, 190 pounds is a natural slot receiver who also has the ability to return punts and kickoffs.

“Very savvy,” is how Russell Shepard described Jones. “He doesn’t have the physical skill set that a Cody Latimer or Bennie or even a Corey Coleman, but you’re talking about a very savvy guy who has a very good feel for getting open.”

Jeremy Reisman of SB Nation’s Pride of Detroit told me that Jones “didn’t rise to the occasion” last season with the Lions, failing to capitalize after Tate was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and Marvin Jones Jr. was placed on IR.

Reisman said “Jones’ ceiling is as a third receiver on a team.”

That is actually something the Giants would be quite happy with.

The 27-year-old has thus far been taking advantage of his opportunity with the Giants. Against the New York Jets he caught all six passes thrown to him for 72 yards. His best play was this 31-yard touchdown catch from Kyle Lauletta:

Whatever happened in Detroit, Jones appears determined not to let this chance slip away.

“I think that the opportunity, when its presented you make it what you want it to,” Jones said. “If you come in leaving here, just a camp body then that’s what you put out on film. You won’t believe you have a shot so you won’t put your best foot forward, but if you come in with the mindset that I’m here to earn a spot, to earn a job whether it’s here to put out good film or if I were let go for someone else to see good film. That’s on you, so I came to make the best of the opportunity and to definitely not let the timing of it, kind of affect the way I approached it.”

Russell Shepard has been more special teams ace than wide receiver in his six NFL seasons, with 57 receptions. The 28-year-old had a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown vs. the Jets, and still believes in his ability as a receiver.

“I think I can be an every down receiver in this league. I think I can be a four-phase special team guy,” Shepard said. “I think I’m a pretty good football player when I’m playing good ball.”

The young guys

Fifth-round pick Darius Slayton got everyone’s attention in the spring. His blazing 4.39 40-yard dash speed was obvious.

“Speed. Speed, man. His speed is special,” Russell Shepard said.

“He is the closest thing I’ve seen to Ted Ginn as far as being able to accelerate, not look like he’s pushing or struggling and still get behind safeties and DBs. He has a special ability to run and if he continues to keep crafting it and working on that he can be a big deep threat in this league.”

Slayton has also impressed with his ability to do more than go deep or catch bubble screens.

“He can run the whole route tree. He’s probably one of the better double move guys we have,” Russell Shepard said. “I think with Slay it’s just getting in, getting his feet wet in real live games, some live bullets and just continue to keep crafting, making up for the lost time.”

Slayton, of course, missed the first couple of weeks of training camp and the first preseason game due to a hamstring injury.

Coach Pat Shurmur said recently that Slayton can “absolutely” be an impact receiver at the beginning of the regular season despite the lost time.

“He’s got plenty of time in my mind,” Shurmur said. “He’s a fine receiver. He has speed, obviously. Through the OTAs and the time he was on the practice field, he displayed the ability to go down the field and make a catch. We anticipate that he’s going to have a bright future. He just needs to get out there.”

Alonzo Russell, who spent last season on the Giants practice squad, has used his 6-foot-3 frame to make plays throughout camp in a bid for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Undrafted free agents Reggie White Jr. and Alex Wesley are not yet out of the mix, as well. White caught all four passes thrown to him for 60 yards against the Jets. Wesley missed the beginning of camp as he recovered from surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot. He should make his preseason debut Friday vs. the Chicago Bears.