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Beware the preseason Pro Bowlers and busts

Training camp tells the coaches a lot more than it tells us

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Cincinnati Bengals v New York Giants
Alex Bachman diving into the end zone for a TD vs. the Cincinnati Bengals
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Once the NFL draft ends, fans become starved for any information they can get about about their favorite team. The excitement increases exponentially as soon as training camp begins, and visions of sugar plums, er, playoffs, dance in their heads.

A cottage industry has developed around the examination of happenings in NFL training camps and pre-season games in the professional media and Twitter fandom. None of us are immune from trying to read the tea leaves. Who’s on the sideline not participating today? Who’s on the field with a red jersey? Who’s getting reps with the first team? Who’s winning/losing the 1-on-1 battles? Who’s seeing action in pre-season games and who isn’t? Who’s playing but not distinguishing themselves (looking at you, Kenny Golladay)? Is the backup quarterback outplaying the starter? Who are the highly drafted busts? Who are the formerly unknown gems? Is the team any better than last year?

NFL coaches learn a lot from training camp practices and preseason games. The problem is, the rest of us can’t easily tell what it is they are learning. New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll has been masterful in his pressers communicating items of interest and tempering expectations while hinting that what we see from the outside is not necessarily what they are getting on the inside. For example, how do we read the tea leaves in this statement from Brian Daboll?

“Collin Johnson, David Sills, they’ve stepped their game up. And they’re right in the mix, not just to make a team but to play.”

As Ed Valentine discussed, this may be a message to several underperforming or unavailable players such as Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, and Sterling Shepard that they shouldn’t see themselves as being indispensable. Likewise, Alex Bachman, he of the 13 catches in 16 targets, 139 yards, and 2 TDs in 2 preseason games, was not included, but Daboll indicated at another point that Bachman has earned more chances with his play.

On the other hand, Daboll may not be dissatisfied with players like Golladay. In his Monday press availability, he declined to criticize Golladay when asked about his zero targets in 21 snaps, saying that targets depend on how the defense plays and what the quarterback’s read progressions are. What will really happen to Golladay this season?

Preseason vs. regular season performance

You know just how far things have gotten out of hand in the insatiable NFL universe when you realize that (a) Pro Football Focus has graded every player for every preseason game since 2013 even though the games don’t count, and (b) writers (looks in mirror) nonetheless find ways to use this information. It turns out that last Sunday wasn’t the only time Golladay was not targeted in an NFL pre-season game. In 2019, Golladay played in only one preseason game for the Lions, and this was his stat line:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Nineteen snaps, 18 of them as a receiver, zero targets, and a 51.8 PFF grade (suggesting that he may not have run the greatest routes to get himself open). If you were a Lions fan in 2019, you may have been more excited by rookie Travis Fulgham, who led the Lions in pre-season with seven catches in nine targets for 147 yards.

In the regular season, though, Fulgham only played 39 snaps in three games and was only targeted three times with zero receptions. He was gone by the end of the year. Meanwhile Golladay finished with 65 receptions in 113 targets for 1,190 yards, a league-leading 11 TDs, and a 79.9 season PFF grade. And that despite Matthew Stafford missing the second half of the season due to injury.

Who won the draft?

In 2021, the boo birds were out early for No. 5 draft pick Ja’Marr Chase, who had big problems with drops and only caught 1 pass in the pre-season. He was the lowest-ranked (30.1 PFF receiving grade) rookie wide receiver in the 2021 class by a wide margin heading into the season. Here are the bottom 10 PFF pre-season WRs:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Now here are the top 10 PFF WRs (minimum 40 targets) after the 2021 regular season:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

(In fact, these 10 were the only rookie WRs who had at least 40 targets in 2021, despite 15 having been drafted on Days 1 and 2.) Chase put his disastrous pre-season behind him immediately in Week 1 and went on to have an astounding rookie season. Amon-Ra St. Brown, an afterthought in the deep WR prospect ranks who lasted until Round 4 and was 9th worst in the pre-season at 57.8, wound up the second highest ranked rookie WR in the regular season. The ever-criticized Giants’ Round 1 pick, Kadarius Toney, the fourth WR chosen who did not play a single down in the preseason, nonetheless finished fifth overall in receiving grade at 74.4. Nico Collins, second worst among rookies in preseason grade, finished ninth-best in the regular season.

Meanwhile, 2021’s rookie “preseason Pro Bowlers,” i.e. those with the highest preseason grades (Khalil McClain, Terrace Marshall Jr., Javon McKinley, Brennan Eagles, Shi Smith) disappeared during the regular season. McClain, McKinley, and Eagles didn’t play in any NFL regular season games. Smith did but was only targeted nine times with six receptions for the season. Only Marshall, a highly touted prospect who was injured for part of the season, made any real impact on the stat sheets.

Las Vegas Raiders v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

This year, the rookie preseason Pro Bowlers at WR are in order of PFF grade Erik Ezukanma (pick No. 125, PFF receiving grade 90.5, pictured above), Jalen Virgil (UDFA, 90.4), Jared Bernhardt (UDFA, 88.1), Khalil Shakir (No. 148, 87.4), and Kendric Pryor (UDFA, 81.9). The closest any of the marquee WR draftees come to these unheralded players are George Pickens (No. 52, 75.5) and Drake London (the first WR drafted at No. 8, 73.6).

Bachman (82.3), Sills (75.5), and Johnson (73.3) all rank up there with the best performances in the NFL this pre-season. But that’s not unusual at this time of year, as the numbers above show. It’s also not unusual for established receivers to perform poorly in the pre-season and then show out once the bell rings, as Golladay did in 2019 for the Lions. We’ll know what Daboll is seeing and thinking in about a week or so. It would be great to have another Victor Cruz-type feel-good story in the Giants’ wide receiver room this season. But don’t bet on it.