Have you ever sat down and thought — really thought — about jigsaw puzzles?
First, someone takes a perfectly fine picture and cuts it up into hundreds or thousands of pieces. Then, they jumble all those pieces up, hand them to someone else, and tell them to put the picture back together again.
Thinking about the 2022 New York Giants has, weirdly, put jigsaw puzzles in my mind.
In looking at the Giants, we have a collection of pieces that the new front office and coaching staff have been tasked to assemble into a coherent picture. But what does that picture look like? At first blush, we don’t have a whole lot to go on. Just like a pile of puzzle pieces, they’re all cut into different shapes and it isn’t readily apparent that how they fit together. We don’t even know if all the pieces are from the same puzzle or if any are missing.
But just like any jigsaw puzzle, we do have a few clues.
To start, we know that the final picture should be of a functional team that is able to be at least consistently competitive. Maybe not dominant, but simply being able to be competitive on a week-in, week-out basis would be a pretty significant step forward for a floundering franchise.
Another clue might have come from GM Joe Schoen on the night of the draft, with regards to second round draft pick Wan’Dale Robinson:
“(Robinson is a) good football player we’ve had our eye on ... And for what we are going to do offensively, we thought he would be a very good fit for us.”
Schoen added, “He can run after the catch. He can separate from DBs, he gets open. He played some running back at Nebraska. That’s a versatile piece you can use in your offense. If you look at some of the other guys, how you can use them, and if you look at Daboll’s past or you look at (offensive coordinator Mike) Kafka’s past in terms of the creativeness in their offense and the weapons they can utilize, I think you can kind of see what the vision may look like.”
The selection of Robinson was a shocking one for a few reasons. The first and most obvious of which is that few viewed him as a likely second round pick. The Athletic compiled a consensus big board of the top 300 prospects prior to the draft using the boards of 82 different analysts. Robinson was the consensus board’s 91st ranked prospect, 15th ranked receiver, and his average mock draft position was 98th overall.
Very few people thought that Robinson would be off the board in the second round. But, the Giants obviously wanted a player with his skill set for their new offense.
That brings us to the second reason why the selection of Robinson was surprising: The Giants already have several players on their roster with similar skill sets. The most obvious is Kadarius Toney, who’s profile is almost identical to Robinson’s as a gadget player and run-after-catch slot receiver.
The Giants also have Sterling Shepard, Saquon Barkley, Ricky Seals-Jones, and C.J. Board, all of whom have been more productive as “catch and run” players than deep targets. They also drafted tight end Daniel Bellinger in the fourth round, who tested very well at the Combine but much of his yardage came in run-after-catch situations, rather than stretching the field.
So the Giants obviously want that skill set on their roster and they want to be able to use it pretty much no matter the personnel package they have on the field.
Let’s take a closer look at that skill set and how Robinson was used at Kentucky to see if we can find any more context clues.
For starters, Robinson had the highest target share of any receiver in this draft at 40 percent. He had 1,342 total yards, but 610 of those yards (roughly 45 percent) came after the catch. Put another way, Robinson ran 367 routes last year, averaging 3.7 yards per route run and 1.7 of those yards came after the catch.
Suffice it to say, run after catch is a big part of Robinson’s game.
If that’s the area of Robinson’s skill set the Giants want to emphasize, we could see a sharp increase in the rate of quick screens, bubble screens, jet sweeps, and quick passes off of RPOs (run-pass options). In short, we could see the Giants’ adopt an offense that bears a resemblance to a college Air Raid or spread system.
Modern Air Raid, Spread, or “Spread Coast” systems feature a variety of quick passes to get the ball to athletic receivers in space. They make heavy use of screen plays, bubble screens, and quick passing concepts.
Screens and bubble screens give the offense the ability to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand and into the receivers’ with a blocker in front. The use of receivers like Robinson and Toney, in space with a blocker, is fairly obvious, and gives them a good chance to use their quickness and agility to turn quick passes into long gains.
And while older offenses might make use of full field reads and long-developing plays, modern spread systems use quickly developing plays and concepts designed to get the ball out quickly and safely. In particular, high-low concepts and mesh concepts are both versatile and effective.
High-low concepts use layered routes to isolate a single defender, bracketing him routes in front and behind him. The layered routes force the defender to choose between defending deep or shallow, presenting a quick and simple read for the quarterback.
The mesh concept sees two receivers run shallow crossing routes from either end of the offense, crossing paths in the middle of the field. The mesh concept is a particular favorite of Mike Leech, who seemingly calls it on every play. It does a great job of stressing both man and zone coverages, setting up receivers who have good YAC skills with the opportunity to catch the ball in-stride and with separation.
Before we get out of here, I want to take a minute to talk about RPOs in particular.
Without getting too deep in the weeks, an RPO is a play in which both a running and passing play are called at the same time with the goal of isolating a single defender. The quarterback and running back mesh while the QB reads one single defender and does the opposite of what that player defends.
If the defender (say, a linebacker or safety) comes up to defend the run, the quarterback pulls the ball out of the runner’s hands and throws it to the receiver who would be going through that defender’s coverage responsibility. If the defender drops into coverage, the QB hands the ball off.
At their most basic form, RPOs take the process of reading a defense pre-snap, and then going through post-snap progression reads, and chucks it out the window. All the quarterback is responsible for is reading one guy, making him wrong, and then not screwing up a hand-off or throwing an inaccurate pass. It’s little wonder why they’ve taken over the college game where teams have to contend with a massive imbalance in talent.
Josh Allen threw the ball on 124 RPO plays last year (second-most in the NFL), while Patrick Mahomes threw 96 passes off of RPOs. All of the Giants’ quarterbacks combined threw 54 passes off of RPOs.
Robinson, Toney, Barkley, Shepard (when healthy), Seals-Jones, Board, and even Bellinger have all seen success taking advantage of confusion, momentary hesitation, or schemed separation. They have the skill sets to make would-be tacklers miss and pick up yards after the catch, and RPO plays take advantage of that.
RPOs probably won’t form the foundation for the Giants’ offense in 2022, but we should see a marked uptick in the Giants’ rate of RPO’s in addition to the other ways in which Daboll and Kafka might try to safely take advantage of a skill set the Giants so clearly want to build around.
It’s also notable that Daboll has repeatedly gone to his quarterback to find out the concepts with which they’re most comfortable. Daniel Jones ran a very RPO-heavy offense at Duke under David Cutcliffe. Likewise, the Giants have repeatedly gone back to quick, short passing offenses under both Pat Shurmur and Jason Garrett when more expansive offenses struggled to get consistent traction. Daboll and Kafka could be looking to start with quick offenses if those are what Jones is most comfortable in.
Next time we’ll be taking a look at how the Giants might go about blocking up front.