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Making the case 2023: Collin Johnson vs. Bryce Ford-Wheaton at wide receiver

Who wins the roster battle at wide receiver?

NFL: New York Giants at New England Patriots Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

We’re officially in the Dog Days of Summer. Mandatory mini-camp, and with it the offseason program, is over and done, but New York Giants training camp is still a month away.

This is really the only down time in the entire NFL calendar, and therefore only chance all year to take a breath and take stock of where we are. We can look back at what the Giants did in free agency and the draft, as well as ahead at what might happen in training camp and the pre-season.

Ed posted his initial 53-man roster projection shortly after mini-camp wrapped up, and it revealed a couple things. The first is that the Giants should be much deeper than they were a year ago. All of their starting jobs should be filled already, as should most of the top depth positions behind those starters. However, there are also pressure points and roster battles at just about every position and there could be 30 players realistically vying for 8-10 spots on the final roster.

Let’s take a look at those roster battles, startinh with wide receiver. The core of the Giants’ wide receiver position is intact from a year ago, but the depth at the position is potentially important. After all, the offense as a whole didn’t really “click” until Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton emerged as the starters on the perimeter last year. But who will back them up, or push them, in 2023?

Collin Johnson vs. Bryce Ford-Wheaton

The top of the Giants’ wide receiver depth chart on the outside is likely set with Hodgins and Slayton. Hodgins was reliable receiver and a capable route runner for the Giants after the team adopted a more classic “West Coast” quick-game offense in the second half of the season. Slayton, meanwhile, is a deep threat who can stretch the field and helped to create room in the short and intermediate area of the field for the rest of the offense.

The Giants have more questions than answers after them on the depth chart. They have plenty of options (more on that in a bit) for the slot on the roster. So much so, that Nick Falato described the Giants’ offensive roster as a “slot machine” earlier this year. That might not be overly concerning for Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll, who were frank about not particularly caring about receivers’ size or body type during the draft process.

But it does create a potential pressure point as the Giants look to solidify the 10 or fewer open roster spots. Schoen and Daboll might not view size as a skill set (and it isn’t), but not having depth on the perimeter could force players into bad match-ups. And, as we saw last year, that can have a domino effect on the rest of the offense.

Collin Johnson

Johnson is coming off of an Achilles injury suffered in late August last year, but has been an active participant in the Off Season program. He’s practicing and reportedly looks good, at least in shorts and a tee shirt. Assuming he is able to pick up where he left off last year, Johnson is the early frontrunner for the Giants’ WR3 role after a strong 2022 preseason.

Why should he make the roster?

First and foremost, Johnson had a very strong camp and pre-season a year ago. He’s the more experienced option as he enters his fourth year in the NFL, and looked promising in the offense last summer. In fact, Johnson was one of the breakout players from last year’s camp. He made highlight reel plays in practice and was arguably (and it’s a strong argument) the Giants’ best receiver in the preseason.

Johnson’s size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) stands out, and that is certainly an asset. However, what separated him in camp and preseason last year was his ability to separate. His short-area quickness was a strength in his scouting report, and he showed a good ability to separate from coverage and make catches in traffic last year. He was sure-handed and very reliable in all areas of the field.

Frankly, and we noted this at the time, Johnson looked more like the Kenny Golladay we were expecting than Golladay did.

What could hold him back?

Numbers game aside, there are two big factors that could limit Johnson in his pursuit of a roster spot.

The first is his health. While Johnson is reportedly healthy, his injury history is worth noting. He battled a hamstring injury throughout the 2019 season at Texas, suffered an undisclosed injury last spring that had him in a red non-contact jersey for the 2022 mini-camp, and then suffered his torn Achilles last year. We saw with Golladay how injuries can be cumulative over time and eventually sap a player’s athleticism.

That leads us to the other (potential) issue: Johnson’s athleticism.

Johnson is surprisingly quick and agile for a big, high-cut receiver and he put that on display last year. However, he does lack great long speed or explosiveness. It takes Johnson time to reach his top speed, and he can be run down from behind even at that top speed. The Giants have made a concerted effort to add speed and explosiveness to their roster, and if other receivers (such as Bryce Ford-Wheaton) are noticeably more athletic and play to a similar level, that could push Johnson to the wrong side of the roster bubble.

Bryce Ford-Wheaton

It was a surprise for pretty much everyone when Ford-Wheaton went undrafted. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and with a truly elite 9.97 RAS, Ford-Wheaton had a rare physical profile for the 2023 NFL Draft. This year’s draft had plenty of athletic receivers as well as plenty of big receivers, but very very few big athletic receivers.

Personally, I gave Ford-Wheaton an “early Day 3” grade, and’s Lance Zierlein gave a “Fourth Round” grade. While he wasn’t regarded particularly highly, Ford-Wheaton has generally been considered an undrafted free agent “steal” for the Giants.

Why should he make the roster?

The obvious answer here is his height/weight/speed combination. Ford-Wheaton has similar speed as Darius Slayton (4.38 to 4.39), but he’s three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. He’s 4 inches taller and roughly 40 pounds heavier than Jalin Hyatt (who turned a 4.40 second 40 at 176 pounds) He’s four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Parris Campbell, though his 4.38 doesn’t quite match Campbell’s 4.31.

Ford-Wheaton is almost as big as Collin Johnson but far faster and more explosive — at least on paper.

Ford-Wheaton’s physical upside is undeniable and his closest athletic comparisons are Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Christian Watson.

The other factor here is Ford-Wheaton’s developmental arc. While he has yet to truly play up to his athletic upside, he did get better every year at West Virginia.

  • 2019: 12 receptions, 201 yards, 2 touchdowns
  • 2020: 27 receptions, 416 yards, 3 touchdowns
  • 2021: 42 receptions, 575 yards, 3 touchdowns
  • 2022: 62 receptions, 675 yards, 7 touchdowns

Mark Schofield likes to say that development isn’t always a linear process, and he’s right. It usually isn’t a linear process. But in this case we have a young player getting better year after year, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that to continue. Particularly when getting better coaching in an environment that allows him to concentrate fully on his craft. He could be on a player on the verge of breaking out.

What could hold him back?

Frankly, the same reasons that Ford-Wheaton went undrafted could keep him off the roster.

While Ford-Wheaton had an incredible workout at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, it was pretty unexpected. He simply did not look like an elite athlete on the field at West Virginia.

Part of that could be due to how raw he is. WVU’s offense doesn’t ask much of its receivers, and so there wasn’t much pressure on Ford-Wheaton to develop as a technician. He has a tendency to round his routes and generally lacks detail or much mastery of the finer points of playing receiver.

West Virginia head coach Neal Brown noted to our own Ed Valentine that not only was Ford-Wheaton a relatively raw player, he had to overcome confidence issues throughout his time in college as well. It’s possible that there’s enough wasted motion and energy in his play, as well as tentativeness, that it disguised his athleticism.

For all of Ford-Wheaton’s athletic upside, he might just need too much development to earn a spot on the Giants’ 53-man roster. That said, if he doesn’t survive final cut-downs, it does seem likely (at least at this point) that the Giants will be able to stash and develop him on the practice squad.