As happens every year, the popular consensus regarding the New York Giants first-round pick has coalesced around a couple of names.
This year those names include the Big 4 offensive tackles — Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton, and Tristan Wirfs have each enjoyed time as “OT1” — and Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons. But what about other positions? The Giants would (or at least should) draft Ohio State EDGE Chase Young if he happens to slide past the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions. There is even an argument to be made for drafting cornerback Jeffrey Okudah if he is there, and fans would probably get behind the pick in short order.
Things start to get (a lot) stickier when we get to other positions, namely the wide receiver position. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb have been viewed as the top wideouts — which one is the top guy has largely been a matter of personal preference. However, there is a quiet movement for Henry Ruggs III, also from Alabama, to be counted as a peer to Jeudy and Lamb.
And as the crazy guy who dared to make Ruggs the first pick of my mock draft, I was tasked with making the case for why he could be the Giants’ pick in the first round. I’d like to note that I’m not actively advocating for Ruggs (or Lamb, or Jeudy) to be the pick at No. 4.
Note: I am going to qualify this by saying that Ruggs is certainly more palatable after a trade down to accumulate picks on the second day. Trading back should be considered regardless of the position the Giants target, given the number of holes on their roster.
I won’t be rehashing my full scouting report on Ruggs here, but I’ll start by giving you my elevator pitch.
Ruggs’ speed is well documented. He is one of just six receivers to run faster than 4.30 seconds in the Combine’s 40-yard dash, but he is so much more than just another speedster. Ruggs is a good route runner for a college prospect, he has very reliable hands (just one drop in 2019 and four drops in his college career), while at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he is only slightly “undersized.” He is also a physical player, routinely absorbing contact at the line of scrimmage, is a willing blocker, and is willing to lower his shoulder and lay hits on defenders in the open field. While Ruggs might not be 6-foot-3, his 42-inch vertical leap and 10 1⁄2 inch hands let him play much bigger than he measures, and he has all the tools to be a true No. 1 receiver.
Wide receiver is not a “luxury” pick
I’m going to have to start with the philosophic foundation for why receivers are so important to a modern offense.
The cliches about modern offense are “the NFL is a passing league” and “the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.” And frankly, they’re cliche because they are so very true; the only way a team will be able to win consistently is if they have a true starting quarterback. From there logic follows that the players who can most directly help and hinder the quarterback are the most important. Offensive tackle, pass rusher, and cornerback are routinely cited as “cornerstone” positions because they directly affect the quarterback position. And if we are again following logic, it makes sense that the player who opposes the cornerback must be of equal importance.
The role of the cornerback is to keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands, disrupt the catch, take the ball away, or capitalize on mistakes. Therefore, it follows that if defenses are devoting resources to accomplishing that, offenses need similar caliber players to get open (on time), win at the catch point, increase the offense’s odds of retaining possession, and occasionally bail the quarterback out.
Just as offenses have come to realize that you can’t ask a mediocre right tackle to block J.J. Watt or Von Miller, you can’t ask a mediocre receiver to consistently win against Richard Sherman or Patrick Peterson. Doing so simply cedes that area of the field to the other team, takes an option away from the quarterback, and makes the defense’s job easier.
Stepping back slightly, we also know that passing the ball is more consistently valuable than running the ball and that passing the ball in the 10-15 yard range, on average, has the greatest value. Teams that are consistently able to win in that area of the field can score more points and win more consistently. And we know that offensive football is more consistent from game to game and from year to year.
And if an offense can score points more consistently, tit can put pressure on the opposing offense, which helps the defense. One of the problems the Giants have had in recent years is an inability to score points, allowing opposing offenses to stay in their basic game-plan. If opposing teams aren’t being stressed and allowed to play “their” game, there aren’t as many opportunities for your defense to make plays.
The wide receiver position helps out the running game as well. NFL defenses respond to offensive packages in predictable ways. If there are three (or more) receivers on the field, they’ll play a nickel or dime package — that’s just built into their DNA. If the offense shows that shot plays are on the table, the defense will defend against those with more deep coverage players. The ability of an offense to influence or even dictate what a defense does should not be underestimated. And the ability to force defenses into smaller sub-packages and boxes is one of the best things an offense can do for their running back.
Put simply, it is easier for an offense to run against six defenders than eight defenders. In 2018 (when he was healthy for all 16 games), Saquon Barkley averaged 6.7 yards per carry when facing six or fewer defenders in the box, but only 3.9 yards against boxes of eight or more defenders.
While this might go against Football Dogma, the reality is that if you want to run the ball, it is better to go with lighter, faster offensive packages, as it will force the defense to reply in kind by getting smaller and spreading out. That gives your offensive line and running back the advantage.
Having a player who can get open quickly and produce with the ball in his hands in the short area, attack the valuable middle and intermediate areas of the field, and stretch the field is a great advantage for an offense. Ruggs can do all of those things, and in a way that is hard for the defense to counter.
Vertical offenses are picky
Over the last four years, the Giants have been running variations on the classic West Coast Offense, and there’s a reason why Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense looks the way it does.
Walsh’s offense isn’t the original “West Coast Offense”, but Don Coryell’s offense with the (then San Diego) Los Angeles Chargers was — or as Bill Parcells put it “that damned West Coast Offense.” Walsh has admitted that he admired Coryell’s scheme and wanted to emulate it, but he simply didn’t have the players on his roster to play that style of offense. Instead he combined concepts he had picked up throughout his coaching career and came up with a quick-strike offense built on timing, rhythm, and high completion rates.
The rest is history, and the Giants have been built to run one version or another of Walsh’s offense over the last six years. That scheme is much more forgiving when it comes to receiving talent than the Coryell or other vertical offenses are. That’s important because new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is an Air Coryell disciple.
As Giants fans can surely remember from the Kevin Gilbride years, a vertical offense has the potential to be extremely potent, but also something of a glass cannon*.
*Note for non-gamers: A glass cannon is a character, usually in a role-playing game, that has a very high attack, but low defense. They can do a lot of damage but can be knocked out relatively easily as well.
Vertical offenses generally work by using vertical passes to force defenses to cover deep on the outside, keeping safeties away from the line of scrimmage. They force defenses to weigh defending the shallow or intermediate ranges, as well as the middle of the field, vs. protecting against big plays. If the defense plays a Cover 2 or Cover 4 defense to protect against athletic wide receivers, it can create opportunities for quick passes to the slot receiver, the tight end in the middle of the field, or a light box for the running back.
Unfortunately, the types of receivers who have the skill set to be a No. 1 receiver in a vertical offense are hard to come by, just as they were in Walsh’s time. Players with the athleticism, route running, physicality, and ball skills to tilt the field — and odds — in the offense’s favor in vertical concepts are rare. And while teams can certainly get lucky on players later in the draft,
Adding a true outside receiver like Ruggs with the ability to threaten vertically on any given play to go with Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard would allow the Giants to force defenses into nickel and dime packages, as well as force them to keep multiple defenders deep.
That might do as much to help the offensive line, running game, and Daniel Jones as an elite starting tackle. And, quite frankly, there is a good chance the offense won’t work correctly without that skill set. Giants fans saw this first-hand at the end of 2008 and again in 2013.
Giants’ receivers couldn’t get open
Anyone who watched the Giants’ offense last year knew that their receivers had trouble gaining separation.
Over the last couple of years, the NFL has given us a crystal clear window into receiver separation, allowing us to strip away bias and get a look at just how well receivers can get open. NFL Next Gen Stats uses GPS technology sewn into players’ uniforms to track their position and speed anywhere on the field. That has a ton of useful and interesting applications, but for our purposes it lets us know just how far receivers are from defenders when they catch the ball.
And the Giants weren’t great at it.
Of their top four returning receivers, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram were the best at creating separation. The NFL average was 2.83 yards of separation by the end of the season, with Shepard and Engram coming in at an above-average 3.1 yards of separation. That’s good, but it still trails the league leaders by a fair amount. Shepard ranked 34th among qualifying receivers and tight ends, while Engram came in at 40th.
Unfortunately, Golden Tate and Darius Slayton were downright bad at getting away from coverage. They both averaged 2.2 yards of separation and were ranked ninth- and seventh-worst in the league (respectively).
While there isn’t anything like NGS for collegiate football, Ruggs’ tape shows that he has multiple ways of getting open. The most obvious is with his raw speed, which is likely even better than his 4.28-second 40-yard dash. That kind of speed is just difficult for any defensive back to match, and he can run simply run past most corners. But Ruggs also has uncommon play strength and technique for a fast receiver. He is much thicker and stronger than players like John Ross or Brandon Cooks, with the ability to absorb contact and run through jams at the line of scrimmage without being knocked off his route.
Ruggs is also a good route runner for a college prospect. Maybe he’s not the chess master that Jeudy is, but still good, with the upside to get better. He can vary his route tempo, sink his hips and cut suddenly, and explode out of his breaks. All of that makes him difficult to cover in any area of the field, and the kind of player to whom defenses have to devote multiple defensive backs. Ruggs could not only give Daniel Jones a consistently reliable target who can be consistently open, but his presence should make it more difficult for defenses to deal with Shepard, Engram, Saquon Barkley, and Slayton.
The depth of the tackle class
Finally, I’m going to turn the common argument for passing on a receiver on its head. We have talked so much about the Big 4 offensive tackles that I think the perception has become that they’re the only tackles worth drafting, or who can be good starters.
Players like Ezra Cleveland (Boise State), Lucas Niang (TCU), Prince Tega Wanogho (Auburn), Austin Jackson (USC), and Matt Peart (UConn) could all potentially be found on the second day of the draft and have starting upside. They might need more work and development than the top tackles, but few tackles can step into the NFL and play immediately at a high level.
And while the passing game needs a more uncommon skill set at receiver, Jason Garrett has employed both man and zone blocking schemes in years past. There is greater latitude in the type of blocker the Giants can use and be successful, which opens them up to more options. As well, the play of an offensive line is less dependent on the play of any one player. Any good offensive line is greater than the sum of its parts, and while having good linemen is important, it doesn’t have the same impact as at other positions. Because a good offensive line is the effect of five men acting in concert as a single unit, the difference between a good lineman and a great lineman isn’t as significant as the difference between a good quarterback and a great quarterback, a good corner and a great corner, a good EDGE, and a great EDGE, or a good receiver and a great receiver.
While this is a deep receiving class with lots of players who should be starters, there are relatively few who fit what the Giants truly need at the position. There might be a better chance of finding an offensive tackle who can be the upgrade they need in the second round than finding a receiver who can fit their specific needs in the second or third round. And with his size, speed, route running, and hands, Ruggs is a pretty unique talent in this class.
The most common counter-argument to drafting a receiver highly is that they don’t win championships. That, in my opinion, is a logical fallacy. No player at any position wins championships. Peyton Manning had one of the best seasons of any quarterback ever in 2013 and lost in the Super Bowl. Aaron Donald has been utterly dominant as a pass rusher and the Rams haven’t won anything. The Browns had Joe Thomas, one of the best left tackles of all time, and were still The Browns.
Meanwhile, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at QB, and the 2011 Giants won with two of the worst tackles in the NFL in Kareem McKenzie and David Diehl.
My point being, players don’t win championships, teams do.
But since you can’t draft an entire team in the first round, you have to prioritize players and positions who can have the biggest impact. My argument is that Henry Ruggs III is the kind of player who can have an immediate impact on a team, the kind of player who can change the complexion of an offense and a game, and be the kind of player who can make the lives of his teammates on offense and defense a bit easier.