This season we may be at an inflection point in NFL history in which the running game begins to re-assert itself as a big part of offensive strategy to counter the two-high safety defense that limits explosive passing plays. Or maybe this season is just an anomaly, and “order” will be restored next season. Either way, the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era is not returning. An NFL team can’t get very far without a dangerous passing attack. That is bad news for the New York Giants, who have defied the laws of NFL physics by compiling a 7-4 record with one of the worst passing games in the league.
A motley crew
Eight current wide receivers for the Giants have been targeted in the passing game this year:
Throw in Collin Johnson, who looked as if he was going to make the 53-man roster before tearing his Achilles tendon in training camp. That’s 9.
How many of these players do you expect to be wearing Giants blue when the 2023 season opens? Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll would like your advice:
How many of the wide receivers who played for the Giants in the 2022 season or looked likely to make the roster will be on the 2023 Game 1 53-man roster?
This poll is closed
Daboll’s modus operandi thus far as Giants head coach appears from the outside to be a flavor-of-the-month approach, with receivers getting into and then out of the doghouse or vice-versa:
- Darius Slayton barely made the 53, did not play in Game 1, was not targeted at all in Games 2 and 3, and now has turned into the Giants’ WR1, leading the team by far with 476 receiving yards and an above-average 76.0 PFF receiving grade. He has rekindled memories of the rookie who caught 8 TD passes from Daniel Jones in 2019, except that the Giants under Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka hadn’t often thrown deep until the Dallas game. What they do is run Slayton on intermediate crossing routes that utilize his speed and move defenders out of position to get him open, as Chris Pflum discusses.
- Richie James had 146 yards receiving in the first three games, then only 45 in the five games after that. Then he fumbled two punts in Seattle, got no targets in that game, and sat out the Houston game. He resurfaced when there were few options against Detroit and Dallas and compiled 89 receiving yards and his first two TDs of the season.
- David Sills’ army was on the march when he got targeted 8 times in Games 2 and 3 and had 57 receiving yards. Then he slipped on a Jones pass that was intercepted by Trevon Diggs, ending any chance for a late Giants comeback against Dallas. He was only targeted nine times in the next five weeks and has not played after the bye.
- Marcus Johnson made several key catches against Green Bay and the following week against Baltimore. But he had a drop in the latter game and had no receptions in three targets against Jacksonville, including one drop that caused the usually unflappable Jones to scream “Catch the ball!” The following week he had one reception in 5 targets in Seattle. He has not been targeted in a game since.
- Kenny Golladay missed four games with a knee injury but has only four receptions in 10 targets and 51 yards for the season, including an unfathomable drop on a crosser at a key point in the first Dallas game and another - also on a simple crosser - against Houston. He was WR4 against Dallas, getting only 19 snaps and no targets.
- Isaiah Hodgins got off to a great start as a Giant, with five receptions in five targets over two games. But he fumbled after one of them against Detroit, killing any hope of a fourth quarter Giants comeback. He had three more receptions in three targets against Dallas and would have had his first Giants TD had the play not been nullified by a terrible ineligible man downfield call. He can be a useful complement to Slayton as the default WR2 for the rest of the season.
Conspiring further against Giants success in the passing game is the MetLife Field Turf ACL monster, which has already claimed Sterling Shepard, long the Giants’ most reliable and productive wide receiver, and now Wan’Dale Robinson, the promising rookie who had his breakout game against Detroit (nine receptions in 13 targets for 100 yards) before being lost for the remainder of the season. Maybe they will be back in time to start the 2023 season. Maybe they won’t. (Shepard is not signed for 2023 and carries a void year $4.2M cap hit.)
A phoenix rising from the ashes?
It’s said that sometimes you have to tear things down before you can build them up again. For the Giants, the tear-down of the wide receiver corps was years in the making. Since drafting Odell Beckham Jr. in Round 1 in 2014, Giants general managers have only drafted these wide receivers in the following eight years (the number after the name indicates the round selected):
- 2015: Geremy Davis (6)
- 2016: Sterling Shepard (2)
- 2017: None
- 2018: None
- 2019: Darius Slayton (5)
- 2020: None
- 2021: Kadarius Toney (1)
- 2022: Wan’Dale Robinson (2)
The Giants front office apparently didn’t get the memo that the NFL was becoming a passing league. They didn’t even get their own memo that you win Super Bowls by having at least one big, tough, clutch X receiver in your starting lineup (see: Amani Toomer, Plaxico Burress, Hakeem Nicks). In the six years after drafting OBJ (a great but small “flanker-type” Z receiver), they passed on the WR position three times in six drafts, used only a Day 3 pick in two other drafts, and only used a Day 2 pick once.
They finally got the memo in 2021, and the memo was apparently left on the GM’s desk for Joe Schoen when he arrived, because the Giants have used high draft picks on wide receivers two years in a row. Kadarius Toney and his sore hammy are now sidelined in Kansas City, but at least Dave Gettleman had the right idea taking a wide receiver in Round 1, and Schoen is at least sitting with a third- and sixth-round picks in 2023 for Gettleman’s troubles.
Nonetheless, looking toward 2023, the three best WRs the Giants have are:
- Shepard, who has been a great Giant but is no guarantee to be re-signed by Schoen or to be ready by Week 1 if he is as he rehabs his torn ACL. We don’t know what discussions he has had with the Giants’ coaches, but he has been present at Quest Center and acting like someone who does not want his Giants career to be over.
- Robinson, who will likely not be ready for Week 1 given that his injury occurred in mid-season, but who gave us a glimpse of what he could do to the tune of 100 receiving yards against Detroit.
- Slayton, whom the Giants seemed not to want but who has produced at levels not seen since his rookie year since the coaches designed effective ways to use him. He has been a good soldier despite Schoen eliminating his proven performance salary escalator as a condition to remain on the roster, although his deal does contain modest play time incentives that increasingly look like they may be attained.
Golladay will almost certainly be released after the season ends even though the Giants really do not have another starting-caliber X receiver. Designating Golladay a post-June 1 cut would save $13.5M against the cap while incurring $7.9M in dead money, according to Spotrac. Hodgins could conceivably fill that role, but he is better suited as a depth piece.
Realistically, the Giants will need to add two wide receivers who can slot in quickly and make significant contributions if they are to become true contenders in 2023.
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that none of the three WRs mentioned above become WR1 for the Giants. That’s plausible for Shepard and Slayton, who have been around long enough for us to know who they are. It may be a disservice to Robinson until we get to see him for a full season - but the Giants will need to make personnel decisions well before that.
Let’s look at how a couple of the more successful passing offenses have been built:
- Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals already had 2016 Round 2 draftee Tyler Boyd, twice a 1,000-yard receiver, on their roster along with six-time 1,000-yard receiver A.J. Green, when Zac Taylor became head coach in 2019. In 2020 they added Tee Higgins at the top of Round 2, and then after letting Green leave for Arizona, added Ja’Marr Chase with their 2021 No. 5 draft pick. That group, all of them big (6-foot-1 or taller), all sure-handed (about 70 percent completion rate), all YAC threats, is probably the most formidable set of WRs on any team in the NFL:
With a premier WR in Green already on the team, the Bengals went WR in Round 1 or 2 in three out of six drafts. They benefited from being terrible during most of those years and having high draft picks (including the one they used to get their QB, Joe Burrow), and on the flip side, they didn’t pay enough attention to their offensive line in the draft until recently. But this is one of the most dangerous passing offenses in the NFL, completely draft-constructed.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have had a curious recent history, accumulating and trading high draft picks and missing badly on many of them. But they finally hit on a winning formula over the last few years. They grabbed their QB, Tua Tagovailoa, with the No. 5 pick in 2020. That looked like a mistake after the Chargers took Justin Herbert with the following pick. Herbert far outplayed Tagovailoa their first two seasons. Then the Dolphins did three things:
- Drafted wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with the No. 6 pick in 2021, right after the Bengals selected Chase.
- Hired an innovative offense-minded head coach, Mike McDaniel, in 2022.
- Made a blockbuster trade to acquire Chiefs’ WR Tyreek Hill, surrendering five draft picks including a first and a second rounder.
The gamble worked. Miami has one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses when healthy, and Tagovailoa is far outshining Herbert (whose top WRs have been injured). Tua leads the NFL in total quarterback rating (QBR) this year at 83.1 (on a 100-point scale), after finishing 26th as a rookie (44.8) and 18th in 2021 (55.7). Funny what a creative offensive coach and great receivers can do for a quarterback. Who would have imagined?
Miami’s offense is pretty much a two-man show. Here are their receiving leaders:
Hill has almost as many receiving yards as the entire Giants WR corps, while Waddle, a distant second, has more than twice the yards of Giants’ leader Darius Slayton. The Dolphins’ WR3, Trent Sherfield, is capable but mostly an afterthought in that offense. As opposed to Cincinnati’s fleet of bigs at wide receiver, Miami’s top two are smurfs, with neither Hill nor Waddle reaching the 6-foot mark.
A strategy for the Giants
The examples above show that a WR group probably cannot be rebuilt in a single off-season. You might argue that the Kansas City Chiefs have done exactly that after trading their most valuable WR, but their continued success in the passing game (they are still the top-ranked team in the NFL in points and yards this year) is more likely due to the other-worldly Patrick Mahomes and his gold jacket TE Travis Kelce than to any of the wide receivers they brought in to replace Tyreek Hill.
If the Giants want to go the Dolphins’ route, there aren’t really any Tyreek Hills, or even someone like former Titan A.J. Brown, to be had at the moment. There also are no mega-stars on the free agent list for 2023. Here are the top candidates, from Spotrac:
The most attractive name on that list is Jakobi Meyers (75.8 PFF, 44 receptions in 56 targets, 509 yards, three TDs), but he is mostly a slot receiver with modest speed (4.63 40) and what the Giants need is an explosive boundary WR. JuJu Smith-Schuster has similar numbers but with a lower volume of targets and catches and is slower than Darius Slayton.
The more likely route to a championship-caliber WR group is through the draft, as Cincinnati has done. Fortunately wide receiver is a position that has become deep in most drafts, and 2023 may be no exception. In our previous piece we suggested that the Giants may draft a cornerback in the first round if they see one available that meets their needs. If they don’t do that, WR is the next most likely first-round target.
To date, four WRs from the 2022 draft with at least 20 receptions have registered above-average PFF receiving grades in their rookie season: Chris Olave (84.2), Garrett Wilson (78.9), Drake London (78.4), and the Giants’ own Wan’Dale Robinson (70.2). Several others have grades in the mid-60s, like Christian Watson (five TDs) and Jahan Dotson (four TDs). All of those were first-round or high second round picks. Depending on where the Giants wind up drafting - and with battered WR, CB, and OL groups, plus a tough remaining schedule looming, that could be higher than many of us imagined a couple of weeks ago - here are some names they might consider, from the NFL Mock Draft Consensus Big Board:
And given the Giants’ need at WR, they might very well come back and draft another wide receiver, or two, on Day 3 of the draft. It’s less likely for a team to find a star then, but some rookies from that part of the draft are being productive:
The last three columns in this list are receptions, yards, and TDs. The first two columns are round and pick number. Romeo Doubs, Khalil Shakir, Kyle Phillips, and even seventh-round pick Samori Toure are already contributing to their teams’ offenses.
At this point, the Giants need volume as well as quality in their wide receiver group. With 11 draft picks, it should be possible to accomplish that without breaking the bank.