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What’s the secret to Darius Slayton’s re-emergence at wide receiver?

Darius Slayton has become the Giants’ WR1 over the last four weeks

NFL: Houston Texans at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have had a persistent a problem on their offense. While their running game has carried the team, they’ve had one of the worst passing attacks in the NFL. Part of the problem has been a system that just doesn’t want to throw the ball often or far downfield. But also, the Giants have struggled to find consistent answers in their receiving corps. Their top receivers have spent most of the season injured and their depth receivers are, well, depth receivers.

And then there was Darius Slayton. Slayton had a breakout rookie campaign, catching 48 passes on 84 targets for 740 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2019. He remained a big part of the Giants’ passing offense in 2020, catching 50 of 96 for 751 yards. But his yards per catch, catch rate, and touchdowns all dropped — and his production completely fell off the table in 2021.

Most observers had Slayton off the Giants’ roster after training camp. Either through a trade or an outright cut, it was widely believed that his cap savings outweighed his potential contributions to the Giants’ offense.

Here was Ed’s projection back in May,

Noteworthy here is that I do not have Darius Slayton making the roster. Considering their cap situation and options at the position, I think the Giants will take the $2.5 million in cap savings and move on from Slayton.

And again on August 29th, on the eve of final cut downs.

Darius Slayton? He has been working exclusively with the second and third teams. One final time — I just don’t see how it is financially feasible to keep Slayton, who won’t help special teams, as basically receiver No. 6 or No. 7. Slayton said Sunday it wouldn’t surprise him to be on a different team’s roster after Tuesday.

I’m not calling Ed out on being wrong regarding Slayton — pretty much everyone thought he was a goner and unlikely to be a factor even if he wasn’t traded and survived final cut downs.

And at first Slayton was buried on the depth chart. He started out behind Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard, Wan’Dale Robinson, David Sills, and Richie James. But as attrition and poor performance whittled away the Giants’ depth chart, Slayton got his chance. He’s emerged as one of the team’s main offensive threats over the last four weeks, averaging 6.5 targets and 76.25 yards.

So what happened? How did a player who was an afterthought re-emerge as a significant threat for an offense in desperate need of them?

The answer comes down to coaching.

ESPN’s Seth Welder tweeted the difference in Slayton’s routes run between last year’s offense and this year’s offense.

2021: 8.4%
2022: 3%

2021: 9.6%
2022: 7.7%

Short fade
2021: 4.8%
2022: 1.2%

Deep Cross
2021: 1.5%
2022: 6.5%

Medium Cross
2021: 2.7%
2022: 4.8%

2021: 6.3%
2022: 8.9%

Joe Judge and Jason Garrett frequently asked Slayton (and other receivers) to run routes like stick, curl, and comeback routes that had them give up their momentum and break sharply back to the quarterback. That negated Slayton’s speed and explosiveness (which are excellent) while stressing his agility (which is mediocre).

Under Daboll and Kafka, Slayton is running routes that allow him to carry his speed down or across the field, while pairing those routes with pre-snap motion, play-action, and bootlegs to pull defenders out of position.

He still isn’t a great separating receiver and his 2.3 yards of separation is still the seventh-worst in the NFL. However, the combination of route selection and route design has helped Slayton get the second-highest “Open” score in ESPN’s new Receiver Tracking Metric.

Receiver Tracking Metric

Slayton still has below average hands (scoring 48/100), and slightly better than average yards after catch (59/100). Overall, he’s grading out at a solid 79/100.

The more cynical view is that Slayton is turning things up in a contract year. However, it’s more likely that Slayton is just being used more to his strengths under the Giants’ new coaching staff. The opinion here has been that the Giants have assembled one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL, and scheming to players’ strengths is a priority for Daboll’s staff.

Of course, this begs the question of how many young players were allowed to simply rot on the vine because they didn’t fit the roles into which previous coaching staffs tried to shoehorn them.