One of the biggest mistakes general manager Dave Gettleman has made in his three-year and counting tenure with the Giants was he never replaced the production of receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham was the last Giants wideout to record a 1,000-yard season in 2018. While that didn’t get the Giants anywhere as far as a postseason berth was concerned, having a true No. 1 receiver had a ripple effect on the rest of the offense.
Sterling Shepard, the only receiver who remains on the roster from that 2018 team, recorded a career-high 872 yards in 2018, catching 66 out of 107 pass targets (both also career highs). The Giants passing offense ranked 11th and the scoring offense 14th.
Since trading away Beckham’s production capabilities, the Giants have tried to “replace” that with aging veteran Golden Tate, a Day 3 draft pick (Darius Slayton), and this year a bunch of undrafted free agents from a historically deep receiver class.
These shortcuts haven’t worked. The Giants' receivers finished with just eight of the team’s 12 receiving touchdowns (for perspective, Slayton alone had eight in 2019).
They failed to score 20 points in nine of their games, and they finished having averaged 17.5 points per game. As the injuries piled up—first Saquon Barkley and then later the loss of Daniel Jones’ mobility as a runner—the offense sputtered down the stretch, going over 300 net yards just once in the last five weeks of the season following the Jones injury.
One could point to the fact that both Slayton and Shepard were banged up throughout the season, Shepard missing four games with a turf toe only to return to have to deal with assorted other injuries. Slayton struggled through a foot issue. But if we’re being fair, we also have to point out that if a player is out there, he needs to produce and that injuries cannot be an excuse.
The bottom line is the Giants need some firepower at the receiver group. Just as the patchwork attempts to fix the offensive line didn’t work, neither did the patchworking of the receiver group work.
Whether it’s via free agency or the draft or both, the Giants need to allocate some premium resources to their receiving game if they’re ever to get the most out of Jones.
Sterling Shepard (PFF Grade: 79.6)
- 2020 Stats: 66 receptions out of 88 pass targets, 656 yards, 3 TDs
Sterling Shepard didn't lead the Giants wide receivers in yardage--that honor went to Darius Slayton. But if we're talking consistency, Shepard was the hands-down winner, finishing with a team-best 75% catch rate.
As he's done since Day 1, Shepard continued to be a master at finding the soft spots in zone coverage and then have the ability to find extra yards after the catch.
Shepard finished with a team-best (among receivers) 204 YAC and led the Giants receivers in average yards per route run (1.7), a PFF metric which, as explained by the site, "takes into account the number of snaps a player went into a pattern."
And if you don't think his absence wasn't felt in terms of production, think again. The Giants passing game averaged 198.58 yards with him in the lineup and 160.75 yards without him.
The one on-going concern with Shepard is his durability. After missing six games last year with concussion-related issues, Shepard missed four games this year with turf toe.
But with that said, Shepard is still very much the closest thing to a difference-maker among the wideouts group and should still be a part of the team's plans in 2021.
Golden Tate (PFF Grade: 66.0)
- 2020 Stats: 35 receptions out of 51 pass targets, 388 yards, 2 TDs
No one player returning from the 2019 team saw his production fall further than Golden Tate, who saw 30 fewer targets this year (but who also had a better reception rate). Tate's reduced workload also meant fewer snaps in the slot from last year, though during Sterling Shepard's injury-related absence in Weeks 3-6, Tate did see a healthy dose of slot snaps and, in fact, his highest game snaps over that stretch.
But let's look at the production. Tate's yards after the catch, his bread and butter, sharply decreased this season, the veteran racking up just 79 YAC, the first time in his career that he failed to hit at least 100 YAC in a season. While he was still the best of the receivers in going for the contested catches, he also saw a reduction in his average yards/route run, from 1.60 in 2019 to 1.28 this season.
Tate also was removed from punt return duty this year, playing just 14 special teams snaps versus the 32 he recorded in 2019. And let's not forget his little "me-first" outburst on Monday Night Football against the Bucs in which he screamed into the television camera about wanting the ball.
That little outburst earned Tate a de facto one-week suspension from head coach Joe Judge, who saw the veteran's reaction as being in direct contrast with the "team first" attitude he expected every player to show.
With a $10.852 million cap hit for 2021, which is currently the second-highest number on the team, Tate, who missed the last two weeks of the 2020 season, has likely played his last down as a Giant.
Darius Slayton (PFF Grade: 67.8)
- 2020 Stats: 50 receptions out of 96 pass targets for 751 yards, 3 TDs
To understand what appears to be a "sophomore slump" of a season for Darius Slayton, we need to go back to his stellar rookie campaign.
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As a rookie, Slayton saw an unexpected uptick in opportunities mainly due to injuries to running back Saquon Barkley, receiver Golden Tate, receiver Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram, all of whom combined to miss 22 games.
And if you also recall, quarterback Daniel Jones didn't once have his full slate of weapons on the field in 2019, though of the lot, Slayton was the most available and consistent.
Fast forward to 2020. Jones had his full group for five quarters of play before a season-ending injury ended Barkley's campaign, and another injury (turf toe) put Shepard on IR for four games. Meanwhile, Slayton began showing up on the injury report with foot and shoulder ailments, though he never missed a game.
Let's take a look at the numbers. Despite seeing more targets (94) in 2020, Slayton's catch percentage dropped (53.2%) from his rookie season (60%). Other stats that fell from his rookie season included touchdowns, yards per reception, and yards after the catch per reception, while his drops rose.
Where Slayton has remained consistent is as a deep threat. Although he was targeted on passes of 20+ yards 21 times this year, only seven were deemed catchable by PFF. And of those 7, Slayton caught six for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
So who is the real Slayton? Stay tuned as we should finally get some answers one way or another in Year 3 of Slayton's career.
CJ Board (PFF Grade: 67.4)
- 2020 Stats: 11 receptions out of 15 pass targets, 101 yards
CJ Board is another receiver who made more of a contribution on special teams than on the offense. Board was a gunner on the punt coverage team, a role in which he lacked consistency as he frequently struggled in getting off blocks.
He also primarily lined up on the kickoff coverage team, a unit that by the way, finished tied for 25th in the league in allowing 910 kickoff return yards. That's not all on Board, but he was one out of 11 who contributed to the less than stellar showing this year.
Board suffered a scary hit in the team's first game against Washington when he was knocked unconscious. He was briefly hospitalized as a precaution but was later released after it was determined he had suffered a concussion and a sprained neck.
Austin Mack (PFF Grade: 62.5)
- 2020 Stats: 7 receptions out of 12 pass targets, 91 yards
Mack, a big physical receiver (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) out of Ohio State, was probably the most intriguing of the young receivers.
After being promoted to the roster in Week 6, Mack would finish with seven receptions out of 12 pass targets for 91 yards. He stood out, at least from a big-picture perspective, as a downfield run blocker, where, per PFF, he was the highest-graded receiver in run blocking (69.2) and the fifth-highest graded player on offense in that category.
Mack's toughness also served him well on special teams, where he contributed to the kickoff return team as the LF1 for most of the season.
Dante Pettis (PFF Grade: 63.7)
- 2020 Stats: 4 receptions out of 5 pass targets, 76yards, 1 TD
- Note: He also had one pass target with the 49ers.
The Giants were awarded Pettis off waivers from the 49ers, who gave up on their former second-round pick after less than three seasons. More than likely, the Giants were enthralled with Pettis' ability as a punt returner--at the University of Washington, Pettis returned 90 punts for 1,274 yards with nine touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Pettis tested positive for COVID-19 not long after arriving at the Giants. He made a recovery from the virus itself. Still, in a video conference call with reporters in December, he admitted that the virus affected his overall strength and stamina, which led to his delayed debut for the Giants.
Pettis finally made his Giants debut in Week 16 against the Ravens and finished the season with four receptions, including an impressive 33-yard touchdown catch, and overall performance that should earn him an invitation to the Giants 2021 training camp.
If the Giants are truly committed to Daniel Jones as they have indicated, then wide receiver absolutely, positively must be the top priority this off-season. As previously noted, Tate probably is finished as a Giant, and the possibility of the Giants addressing the position via both the draft and free agency is certainly strong given how much the offense struggled last year.
Shepard, Slayton, and Pettis look like early favorites to be part of the Giants' 2021 receiving corps. Beyond those three, the rest of the position is still to be determined, with early names in free agency to watch being Kenny Golladay of Detroit and Allen Robinson of Chicago.
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