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Film study: How WR Collin Johnson can help the Giants

A classic tale of “what can he do?”

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings
Collin Johnson
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants approached this offseason with a clear plan: “How can we help Daniel Jones?”

Could a waiver-wire claim be the next step in that process?

As all 32 NFL teams trimmed their rosters down to 53 players this week, Collin Johnson was one of the odd men out in Jacksonville. The former Texas wide receiver, drafted in the fifth round by the Jaguars a season ago, was let go by the organization this week. Perhaps that was not a shock, given the depth in the Jacksonville receiving room. The Jaguars added Marvin Jones and Jamal Agnew to the roster during free agency during the spring, and with the addition of Tavon Austin this summer via free agency, Johnson fell victim to a numbers game.

As a rookie in 2020, Johnson appeared in 14 games, catching 18 passes on 31 targets for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But to look at how he can contribute to the Giants this season we need to dive behind the numbers a bit.

We can start with how he was viewed coming out of Texas. Lance Zierlein’s draft profile on him at NFL.com is a perfect place to start:

Productive outside receiver with great size and ball skills, but below-average speed. May need to find an offense that allows him to work downfield, where size overrides quickness once the ball is in the air. He missed a chunk of 2019 due to a lingering hamstring issue, but looked fairly pedestrian against LSU’s talented cornerbacks. He should work well against zone, but needs to play stronger to battle back against the contested catches he’s going to see. Johnson may need a more limited route-tree that allows him to open up his stride and exploit size mismatches down the field.

Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network saw Johnson in a similar light:

Collin Johnson projects as a stereotypical X-receiver at the NFL level. He wins in tight spaces, defeats press with hand usage and strength and illustrates a large catch radius to contest errant throws. Johnson’s lack of short area quickness and inability to consistently create separation on his routes will cause some headaches and tempers his upside, he’s more of an ideal depth player and potential red zone target given his looming size. Johnson should stick long-term as a depth player.

These profiles did show up last season in how the Jaguars used him. But his usage offers a clear picture into how the Giants can employ him this season, particularly when viewed through the lens of “what can he do?” Studying his targets from a season ago, a theme emerges:

Get him working in the downfield passing game.

One of the most common route combinations in the NFL today is the Yankee Concept, which pairs a deep post route with a crossing route at the intermediate level. Others might simply term this “post/over,” or you could call it “Portland” or even “Cross-Country Mills,” but the premise is the same. Jacksonville liked to use Johnson on this concept - or variations thereof - as the receiver running that intermediate-to-deep crossing route. Take these three plays from last season, cut-up for your enjoyment:

On these three plays you can see how Johnson can be used by the Giants on similar designs. On the first play, Johnson starts on the right side of the formation and against man coverage is able to get sufficient separation when he flattens out his route and puts his eyes on the QB. The throw is high, but that is where his large frame and catch radius comes into play.

On the second snap, Johnson starts on the right side and runs the intermediate crosser on a variation of Yankee, that sees the opposite receiver run a deep corner route instead of the post. The Cleveland Browns drop into zone coverage on this play, and Johnson does a very good job at maintaining speed through the catch, setting him up for the yardage-after-catch touchdown.

The third snap finds Johnson running another deep crosser on a vertical design, and once more you see his frame and catch radius come into view. Johnson makes a tough adjustment to the throw, but is able to haul it in for a big gain.

Given the prevalence of this design — or similar designs — in today’s NFL, Johnson can be an asset running this route when the Giants call up plays like these. The design of these plays works to scheme players open, and Johnson’s catch radius and willingness to work over the middle play a big role in making these plays successful.

While Johnson did not wow scouts with his straight-line speed coming out of Texas, you can find ways to get him involved in the downfield passing game if you give him a chance to win at the catch point. Take this reception against the Minnesota Vikings:

Johnson aligns as the outside receiver on the left and runs a straight go route along the left sideline. This is not the world’s greatest vertical route, and I doubt many wide receiver coaches will put this tape in front of their players as evidence of a perfect route. But Johnson finishes the play well and once more you see the ball skills and strength at the catch point shine. Johnson wins the route at the catch point, using his large frame to et behind the cornerback at the last moment, securing the reception for the huge gain.

These are the kinds of plays that endear you to a quarterback.

Then there is this reception on a corner route, again against the Minnesota Vikings:

On this play Johnson is aligned to the right side, and runs the deep out/corner route as part of a Smash Concept. The throw from the quarterback is late, after the receiver’s break, and is left to the inside of the field. Once more you see the adjustment skills from Johnson, putting him in position to make the reception at the catch point for a big gain.

Again, traits that endear you to your QB.

So the question becomes, what role can he carve out with the Giants using this skill-set? The immediate thought is this: Kenny Golladay/Darius Slayton insurance. Golladay is working his way back from injury, and Slayton suffered foot/ankle injury vs. New England in the preseason finale. Both are players that the Giants look to in the intermediate and deep areas of the field, and Johnson’s strength is certainly found in those areas. The Giants have receivers such as Kadarius Toney and Sterling Shepard who can operate underneath, but Johnson offers depth in the more vertical passing game.

Beyond that, Johnson’s ability to win at the catch point — oftentimes bailing out his quarterback — is a great skill to have when again, your goal is to help your young quarterback make that “third-year leap.” In addition to what Johnson offers as depth and insurance, he also has the potential to grow into Daniel Jones’ best friend in the downfield passing game.

Which, if he can do that, is one heck of a way to answer the “what can he do?” question.