After the New York Giants drafted Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, there was immediate speculation over how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would incorporate the shifty wideout into the offense. After all, seeing him used all over the field for the Gators must have kicked off numerous ideas of how to implement Toney in an NFL offense.
To date, the results have been mixed. Toney got off to a slow start to the season, due in part to landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list during training camp. His snap counts started off slowly, as he played just five plays back in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos, but that built towards his career best outing back in Week 5, when he caught 10 passes for 189 yards against the Dallas Cowboys.
Since then, Toney has dealt with some injuries, including an ankle injury that left him sidelined against the Carolina Panthers, and a laceration to his left hand suffered in a Monday night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
As the Giants come off their bye week for Monday night’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, let’s take a look at his usage this season, some of what has worked, and how Garrett could perhaps do even more with the rookie wideout.
To this point in the season, Toney has caught 28 passes for 352 yards, along with three carries for six yards. Not overly impressive numbers, particularly when comparing him with some of the other first-round receivers, but Toney has provided some splash plays in the passing game.
In looking at how Garrett has employed the receiver, we can start with his alignments on the field. Toney has seen 99 snaps in a “wide” alignment (defined as being the outside receiver to one side of the field or the other), 105 snaps in the slot, 15 snaps in a tight alignment, and even 13 snaps while aligned in the backfield, according to available charting data.
In terms of the routes Toney has been tasked with running, you might not be surprised to see the usage numbers. Twenty-one of his routes have been slants, followed by 13 go routes, and another 14 hitch or stop routes. These are the most common routes that Toney has run this year, although you can also see him run dig routes, out patterns, routes to the flat and even the occasional double-move.
His most notable performance was that game against Dallas, and of the five “explosive” plays Toney has generated this season, four of those came against the Cowboys. Two of those came on vertical routes, where his ball-tracking skills coupled with his speed can be effective. There was this early scramble-drill throw from Daniel Jones, that saw Toney make an incredible adjustment to the football:
Toney runs a double-move here, getting vertical along the right sideline on a double-move route. But when Jones flushes to his right, Toney stays vertical and gets separation. Jones uncorks a throw in Toney’s direction, and the receiver is able to work back to the football and make the reception, somehow getting down in bounds.
Later in the game he was on the receiving end of a slot-fade route from backup quarterback Mike Glennon, and again you see the speed from Toney as he gets separation downfield before making an acrobatic catch over the defender:
This play came with a cost, however, as you can see Toney stay down in pain after the reception. He would return, only to be ejected during a fight near the end of the game.
While the explosive plays on vertical routes are one thing, Toney also created two more explosive plays in that game on shorter throws. If you think back to his draft cycle, one of the strengths commonly referred to when discussing Toney as a prospect was his short-area quickness, and his change of direction skills. These two plays highlight that strength of his, and give a window into how he can be utilized as the season progresses.
On this first play, Toney runs a quick pivot route out of a three-receiver bunch, and the change-of-direction skills flash as he makes multiple defenders miss after the catch:
Now, the idea of getting the football to playmakers in space is certainly not a novel concept, but this highlights a way that Garrett and the coaching staff can use Toney. If there are concerns about trying to manufacture explosive plays in the vertical passing game because of worries from a pass protection standpoint, designing plays for Toney in space like this one are perhaps a way to manufacture those explosive plays.
Then there is this route from the right side of the field, that again illustrates his change-of-direction ability:
This is a well-designed play from Garrett that makes good use of “flow.” It is a play-action concept that rolls Glennon out to the right, but incorporates a throwback element with routes working to the left side of the field. One of those is Toney’s route, as he starts on the left and makes it look like he is running an over route, in the direction of where Glennon is rolling. But then he stops and works back towards the left sideline, losing cornerback Trevon Diggs in the process.
Finding ways to cater to Toney’s change-of-direction skills would be a great way to manufacture explosive plays, even if concerns remain from a pass-protection standpoint. These two plays are prime examples. The first is a quick route and throw for the quarterback, and the second comes with seven in the protection scheme, including both tight ends.
Another way to get Toney involved is by using him out of the backfield. Garrett has done some of this, often with Toney running a swing route out of Orbit motion, or even just from his alignment in the backfield. This was used against Kansas City, for this gain from the rookie:
Once more, the short-area quickness flashes from Toney. This is a play that could be dead to rights, as he has a defender right on him when he makes the catch. But he turns what could have been a loss on the play into a solid gain, thanks to his physical skill-set.
A side benefit to using Toney in this way? The impact on the defense. Take this play against the Cowboys:
As Toney goes in motion right before the snap, the defender responsible for him in coverage trails his movement. That does two things: First, it gives the quarterback some information, a bit of evidence that the Cowboys might be in man coverage. (It does not guarantee it, because defenses are finding ways to diagnose their true intentions when responding to motion, but it is a good bit of evidence to support such an assumption). Second, it creates space for the route that the QB does throw, a slant route attacking that area of the field.
Wrinkles to add
Garrett would be wise to expand what he asks of Toney out of the backfield, using him in a similar way to how the Gators used him. You can almost run weakside option routes with him out of the backfield, similar to how teams use receiving backs like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. Giving Toney that kind of “two-way go” isolated against a defender in space again caters to his change-of-direction skills, and gives the Giants a way to perhaps manufacture some explosive plays even on quick throws. Take this play against LSU from last season:
Toney aligns in the backfield, and releases downfield before breaking to the outside on an out route against the defender’s inside leverage. On the weakside option design, he would have the “two-way go” and would read the leverage of the defender. If, as happens here, the defender covering him uses inside leverage, he will break to the outside. But if the defender tries to cut off the route to the sideline using outside leverage, he cuts to the inside. Again, a design that caters to his change-of-direction skills, and in a sense makes the defender wrong no matter how he plays against Toney.
Plus, a relatively quick design that again, can hold up despite protection woes up front.
Of course, what does this route set up? The out-and-up out of the backfield, like Toney ran against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game:
Now, this is a design that will take some time to develop, but if the Giants start using Toney on some of the option-type routes out of the backfield, you can set the stage for this design at some point.
Jason Garrett has done a decent job of scheming up ways to get Toney involved. But some tweaks to his usage, specifically catering to his change-of-direction skills, might unlock even more explosive plays for a Giants offense that is trying to find more of those each week.