With the NFL Draft in the books, everyone is now speculating on how the NFL’s newest players will perform once they’re able to get on the field.
ESPN’s Mike Clay released his updated Fantasy projections for the 2021 NFL season, and it has an interesting surprise in it for the New York Giants.
What isn’t surprising is that free agent Kenny Golladay is projected to lead the team targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. But what is surprising is that Clay is projecting rookie Kadarius Toney to eat into the target share, and surpass the production, of both Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton.
We’ll leave Golladay out of the equation for now, as it’s a fair assumption that the Giants will be force-feeding him the ball at every opportunity. But here is what Clay has to say about Toney, Shepard, and Slayton:
91 targets, 57 receptions, 686 yards, 4 touchdowns
Toney was selected by the Giants with the 20th overall pick of April’s draft. The Florida product is a 5-foot-11, 193-pound slot receiver oft utilized in a gadget role with the Gators. His 6.7 aDOT since 2018 is one of the lowest in this year’s class, and his overall volume was limited by suspension and multiple injuries. He did, however, catch a class-high 90% of his catchable targets and posted a strong 8.5 RAC during that span. Toney’s quickness and RAC jump off the page, and he has the physical tools, explosiveness and hands to emerge into a star in the pros. He does have a bit of a crowded path to rookie-season targets, however, with Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton in the mix at WR, and Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley also ticketed for work. Toney is a logical late-round flier.
74 targets, 51 receptions, 530 yards, 10.3 yards per catch, 3 touchdowns
Few players have enjoyed as high a target floor as Shepard over the past few seasons. Shepard has seen at least six targets in 25 of his past 27 games, the exceptions being a five-target outing and a four-target game he left injured. Unfortunately, the usage hasn’t led to much fantasy success, as he’s yet to finish a season better than 30th in fantasy points. The culprits? Injuries (missed at least four games in three of the past four seasons) and a short-area role (career 9.1 aDOT) that doesn’t allow much work near the end zone (12 TDs over the past four seasons). The 27-year-old is headed for a reduced role (likely a significant one) in 2021 with Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney now in the mix. Shepard will remain involved but is best valued as a low-ceiling bench option.
45 targets, 25 receptions, 348 yards, 14.0 per catch, 2 touchdowns
Slayton was a terrific find by the Giants in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. The vertical weapon came out of the gate with a 48-740-8 receiving line in 14 games as a Day 3 rookie (WR37 in fantasy) before taking a step back (50-751-3 in 16 games) in 2020. Slayton ranked in the 80th percentile in aDOT in both seasons, but an ugly 52% catch rate and disappointing TD total in New York’s struggling offense crushed his fantasy output in 2020 (three top-30 weeks). The 24-year-old is set to play a reduced role in 2021 with Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney added to an offense that also includes Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and a healthy Saquon Barkley. Slayton is worth a late flier only in deep non-PPR leagues.
I don’t envy Clay in having to make these projections for the Giants. There’s quite a few unknowns with respect to the Giants’ offense, from whether or not Jason Garrett will try (again) to install his favored Air Coryell-based scheme, to what impact the offensive line will have, to just what role Toney will have within that offense.
The Giants will surely try to work Toney into the offense. His history as a “utility” player gives him the versatility to line up in a variety of positions around the offense, from out wide to the backfield. It’s possible that Toney could eat into Sterling Shepard’s role as a slot receiver.
But it’s also possible that, as the Giants’ most reliable receiving option, they could leave Shepard alone in the slot and his target share could remain intact. While much of the focus regarding the Giants’ offense has been generating big plays, the need to sustain drives — converting third downs and avoiding plays of zero or negative yards — will always be there. Shepard’s reliable hands, detailed and nuanced route running, and ability to generate separation at will makes him useful on just about any down and distance. It’s also worth noting that Shepard was much more of a down-field threat in college and finished tied for ninth among all receivers with 8 touchdowns as a rookie in 2016.
The bigger story here might be what happens with Toney’s average depth of target. As noted above, Toney was primarily used as a gadget player for much of his time at Florida. He was usually used on swing passes, tosses, bubble screens, or mesh concepts — plays designed to get him the ball safely, hopefully with some space to pick up yards after the catch. Toney didn’t regularly run routes as a receiver until his senior year, and he still has development to do.
We could well see a scenario where the Giants start Toney out as an upgraded version of Golden Tate, using him in stack and bunch formations in run-after-catch scenarios or screen plays. We could also see him take on more of Slayton’s role as a vertical threat if Toney shows similar explosiveness down the field with better separation and ball skills.