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Can the Giants have an elite passing offense without an elite wide receiver?

There are several precedents from the 2022 season for how that could happen.

Syndication: The Record Michael Karas/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

The importance of offense in today’s NFL is illustrated by the facts that nine of the top ten teams in total offense in 2022 made the playoffs, and the top two teams played in the Super Bowl:

Data from The Football Database

Only the Detroit Lions, whose prolific offense was undermined by their subpar defense, did not make the playoffs, and even they came close.

Unfortunately for fans of the New York Giants, making the playoffs is not primarily due to having a great rushing offense. Here are the top 10 teams in rushing:

Data from The Football Database

Six of the top ten rushing teams, including the Giants at No. 4, were playoff teams, but some of the NFL’s worst teams were also great rushing teams, most notably the league-leading Chicago Bears.

Passing is king in today’s NFL. The list of top passing teams is almost identical to that of the top overall offenses, except for one playoff team, the Dallas Cowboys, being replaced by another, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Data from The Football Database

(Note that the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills would rank a little higher were it not for the fact that their game was cancelled after the Damar Hamlin medical emergency.)

So if Giants fans have visions of a deep playoff run dancing in their heads in 2023, a prolific passing offense is almost a must for that to happen. Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka did wonders with the Giants’ passing offense in 2022, with unheralded receivers such as Richie James, Isaiah Hodgins, David Sills, and Marcus Johnson making important contributions in games the Giants won. Still, the Giants only finished 18th in total offense and 26th in passing offense. To take the next step in 2023, a top tier passing offense has to emerge.

Can the Giants’ roster as currently constituted do this?

Requirements for a top passing offense

There are many sides to that question. First and foremost, you need a good quarterback. The top ten 2022 passing offenses listed above had quarterbacks who were either among the league’s elite (Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati, Buffalo) or not far from it (Miami, Minnesota, Detroit, Philadelphia, Jacksonville). Criticize quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff if you wish, but they know how to put up passing yards.

Where does Daniel Jones stand among these quarterbacks? It’s the eternally litigated question among Giants fans, league analysts, and NFL people. We’ve discussed the many sides of that question before. His new contract says he’s knocking at the door of the top 10, so let’s assume for this article that he has it in him to lead a top-tier passing game.

A good pass-blocking offensive line is also important for the passing game to thrive...but amazingly, it’s not absolutely necessary. Among the top 10 passing offenses in 2022, only Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and Kansas City finished in the top 10 in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus. The others were not even in the top half of the NFL in pass blocking, and Miami, with one of the most explosive passing games in the NFL, ranked No. 31 in pass blocking, even worse than the Giants, who were No. 24.

It also surely helps to have an offensive coordinator who designs schemes that play to his personnel’s strengths and uses innovative designs to get receivers open. Giants head coach Brian Daboll was NFL Coach of the Year in 2022 and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka got four head coaching interviews despite only one season as coordinator. I think the verdict is in.

So to review: Quarterback? Check (hopefully). Offensive line? Ma-a-a-ybe, projecting improvement from Evan Neal and a good rookie season from John Michael Schmitz, but not absolutely necessary. Coaches? Double check.

That leaves the receivers. Do the Giants have an elite receiving group?

What do the receiver rooms in prolific NFL passing offenses look like?

There are many sides to that question too, including size, speed, good hands, good route running, ability to separate, etc. But let’s just make a simple assumption: The proof of the pudding is in the production. Given a good quarterback, decent offensive line, and capable offensive coaches, good receivers accumulate more passing yards than lesser receivers, because they are more successful at catching balls and getting yards after the catch, and because the ball comes their way more often because their coaches and quarterbacks trust them.

What does the receiver room of a top passing offense in the NFL look like? Most people would say that a team needs at least one “elite” wide receiver and preferably two. The Giants did not draft a receiver in a high round in 2018, 2019, or 2020. When they did in 2021, it didn’t work out. In 2022, they drafted one in Round 2 who looks promising but for whom the jury is still out because of injuries and perhaps because of size limitations. In 2023 the four top wide receivers were gone by the time the Giants drafted in Round 1, they passed on the receiver they liked in Round 2 to draft a center, and finally they moved up and drafted that receiver anyway in Round 3. They signed a couple of mid-level free agent wide receivers but none of the big names (yet, anyway). Do the Giants now have a receiver room that can put them into the top 10 in passing offense in 2023?

Here are the production numbers (receiving yards) for the top 10 receivers on the top 10 passing offenses in 2022 (data from Pro Football Focus):

It turns out that there is more than one way to skin a cat (i.e., beat a defense through the air). Let’s look at five different “flavors” of top-shelf receiving rooms and ask: Do the 2023 Giants resemble any of them?

Two elite wide receivers and little else

Prototypes: Miami, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Dolphins are about the most extreme example one can imagine - two of the most talented and productive wide receivers in the NFL (Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle), but not much after that. In 2022 Hill and Waddle each topped 1300 receiving yards, despite QB Tua Tagovailoa missing a third of the season, but after them the next best receiver (Trent Sherfield) barely cleared 400. The Dolphins did not draft a receiver in 2023, so if Hill and/or Waddle ever get injured they may have to start punting on first down.

The Eagles, as Giants fans know, became a nightmare to defend once A.J. Brown was added to a receiver room that already had Devonta Smith. Tight end Dallas Goedert was also a threat with 702 yards, but there was little beyond him. Compare 2021, when the Giants held the Eagles to 7 points at MetLife when only Smith was there, to 2022, when the Eagles’ offense torched the Giants’ defense twice. Certainly some of that was quarterback Jalen Hurts’ development as a passer, but a lot of it can be traced to the conundrum of dealing with two elite receivers.

To a lesser extent, the 2022 Buccaneers operated on this same model, with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin far and away Tom Brady’s favorite targets.

Three top-tier wide receivers

Prototype: Cincinnati

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

No other team can match the Bengals, with one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Ja’Marr Chase, a WR2 who would be WR1 on many teams in Tee Higgins, and a WR3 who would be WR2 on many teams in Tyler Boyd. The receiving numbers for Chase and Higgins don’t stand out because they share the wealth with Boyd, but make no mistake, they test the depth of any opponent’s defensive back room.

One elite wide receiver

Prototypes: Minnesota, Detroit, Buffalo

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Vikings have perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL in Justin Jefferson. By last year, though, Adam Thielen was in decline. While the mid-season acquisition of tight end T.J. Hockenson helped, the Packers late in the season and the Giants in the playoffs showed that if you constantly bracket Jefferson with two defenders you can limit his production.

Detroit was in the same situation with Amon-Ra St. Brown, and even Buffalo, with one of the most dangerous WRs in the NFL in Stefon Diggs, found that when he wasn’t wreaking havoc with opposing defenses, the other options were lacking.

Receiving depth but no elite receivers

Prototypes: Los Angeles, Jacksonville

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The Chargers should be in this category with an asterisk. In 2022 they did not have a single receiver who reached 1,000 yards. But they actually have two elite wide receivers in Keenan Allen (four thousand yard seasons) and Mike Williams (two thousand yard seasons). Neither reached that threshold because both missed time with injuries, and quarterback Justin Herbert’s rib cartilage tear in Week 1 affected him much of the season, as did offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s conservative play calling. They made up for it by getting 768 yards from Josh Palmer and 709 yards from maybe the best receiving back in the NFL, Austin Ekeler.

The Jaguars are the real prototype for the “it takes a village” approach to creating an explosive passing offense. Christian Kirk was a disappointment in Arizona but blossomed being on the receiving end of Trevor Lawrence’s passes in a Doug Pederson offense. Is he an elite receiver? Probably not, but he borderline produced like one in 2022. Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram also had career highs in yards, and Marvin Jones Jr. and running back Travis Etienne contributed in the passing game as well to get the Jags into the No. 10 position in team passing yards.

Elite tight end and wide receiver depth

Prototype: Kansas City

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

With Tyreek Hill gone, it might have been expected that the Chiefs’ passing game would take a step back. Guess again. Kansas City still led the NFL with 5,062 passing yards. They were led by tight end Travis Kelce, whose 1,338 receiving yards were the second highest of his career but whose 2022 season was his seventh consecutive one with more than 1,000 yards.

Kansas City had no elite wide receivers last season. They did have several good ones, though (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling), plus a large supporting group of wide receivers, running backs, and another tight end who all accumulated at least 250 receiving yards. The only other team with an offensive philosophy like this is the Baltimore Ravens, but with Lamar Jackson going down with an injury the Ravens’ passing game suffered in 2022, and even elite TE Mark Andrews had a down season.

Can the 2023 Giants field a top-level passing offense with any of these approaches?

It’s impossible to predict the future. Maybe Jalin Hyatt will be the next Tyreek Hill or Justin Jefferson or Stefon Diggs. Maybe Isaiah Hodgins will join him to give the Giants a 1-2 punch like the Eagles have with A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith. Maybe a healthy Parris Campbell or Wan’Dale Robinson in a Kafka-Daboll offense will join both of them to give the Giants their own version of the Chase-Higgins-Boyd trifecta.

Most likely, though, none of these things will happen, at least not in 2023. Hyatt needs time to develop as a receiver in running routes and beating press man coverage. No one can predict what his ceiling in the NFL is, and whatever it is, he may not reach it as a rookie.

Isaiah Hodgins is a good X-receiver who had never gotten the chance to prove it until last year, but most likely what we saw is close to his ceiling. Parris Campbell never had the chance to show what made him a Round 2 pick because of injuries and a moribund offense in Indianapolis. But like Hyatt he had a limited route tree in college, and 2022 is more likely his ceiling than his springboard. Wan’Dale Robinson left off with that 100-yard receiving day against Detroit when he went down with an ACL, but can we expect that in games where the score has not already gotten out of hand?

So let’s set aside the one, two, and three elite wide receiver models of top-tier NFL passing offense for the coming season. That still leaves two pathways for the 2023 Giants to become a top 10 passing team, assuming that Daniel Jones develops further and that the offensive line begins to solidify in pass protection.

The Giants will have two things going for them:

  • A tight end who was elite for two season before injuries took their toll the past two years in Darren Waller.
  • A wide receiving group with no established stars but with so many capable receivers, most of them with speed, that one or more NFL-caliber receivers are probably not going to make the final 53.

In Scenario 1, Waller returns to his 2019 and 2020 form, in which he had 1,146 and 1,196 receiving yards, respectively. That’s not 2022 Travis Kelce level, but it’s 85-90% of the way there. We’re not asking Waller to be Kelce, or Jones to be Patrick Mahomes, we’re just asking whether it’s feasible for them to get into the top ten as a team. In fact 80% of the 2022 Chiefs passing yardage would be enough to get the Giants into the bottom of the top 10, just above 2022 Jacksonville. Here’s what that might look like if it happened in 2023:

Data from Pro Football Focus

I’ve simply multiplied all the Kansas City numbers by 0.8 and made an educated guess about how the Giants’ receivers might rank. In this what-if, the Giants have a TE-dominated top 10 passing offense led by Waller, whose receiving yards are a bit below those in his two best seasons.

There’s a big gap between him and the second most productive receiver, Hodgins, who approximately doubles his output from 2022, when he only played in 10 games. Parris Campbell has about 70 yards less than he had in 2022, when he was catching passes from a washed Matt Ryan and a washed Nick Foles. Jalin Hyatt eventually supersedes Darius Slayton as the primary deep threat, but their combined yards are less than the 724 Slayton put up by himself last year.

The point is that if Waller returns to form and stays healthy, nothing remarkable is needed from the other receivers to turn the Giants into a top 10 passing offense despite the absence of an elite wide receiver on the team.

In Scenario 2, Waller’s recent injury history resurfaces and he misses a significant number of games. The other receivers then have to step up and make up the lost yardage. In this scenario there is no dominant receiver, but rather a deep group of receivers-by-committee all doing their part, like the 2022 Chargers. We’re not asking Daniel Jones to be Justin Herbert...just a “lite” version of the 2022 less-than-full-strength Herbert, missing his two top receivers for part of the season, and with a leaky offensive line that lost two starters including Rashawn Slater, but finding ways to spread the ball around to many targets.

Amazingly, despite all the adversity the Chargers finished with the third best passing offense in the NFL. We won’t ask for that much, just 88% of that, which again would put the Giants into the bottom of the top 10. Here is how it might look:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Again, I’ve just multiplied the Chargers’ 2022 numbers by 0.88 for illustration. This offense doesn’t get anywhere near having a 1,000 yard receiver yet still sneaks into the top 10. Waller is now the third most prolific receiver on the team; his receiving yards are similar to what they were in 2022, when he missed eight games due to injury. Hodgins is now the leading receiver, but with a similar number of yards as in Scenario 1. Campbell and Hyatt are asked to do more to make up the difference. If you think it’s unrealistic to expect Hyatt to rack up 624 yards as a rookie, subtract 200 and give 50 each to Robinson, Bellinger, Shepard, and Gray, who otherwise have very low receiving numbers in this scenario.

Are scenarios like this far-fetched? Mostly what they ask is for receivers to do things they’ve done in the past. Is Daniel Jones up to the task of playing like a top ten quarterback? Until he actually does it we don’t know. But last year he did get 569 yards out of Richie James, his No. 2 receiver, and even 132 yards from Tanner Hudson, his No. 8 receiver.

The bottom line

The scenarios above are just illustrative. We don’t know who will make the 53, who will stay healthy, who will thrive in the Daboll-Kafka offense, etc. What we do know is that the Giants didn’t sign Odell Beckham Jr., they haven’t traded for (now free-agent) DeAndre Hopkins or Jerry Jeudy or Davante Adams or Brandon Aiyuk or any of the countless other elite wide receivers that people have speculated about over the winter. They also didn’t get the chance to draft Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Quentin Johnston or Zay Flowers or Jordan Addison.

Instead, General Manager Joe Schoen put together a 2023 receiving corps of Darren Waller and a bunch of less illustrious players, with one thing in common: Speed. On paper it may not look impressive when compared to the Hill-Waddle, Brown-Smith, Chase-Higgins-Boyd receiver rooms of the NFL. But the precedents are there in the 2022 passing offense rankings to have some hope that for first time since the 2014-2015 OBJ days, the Giants can have a passing game that opposing defenses will have trouble dealing with.