As the New York Giants entered 2015 NFL free agency, it was anticipated that the team would pursue a quicker, shiftier running back with pass receiving skills in order to compliment the bigger bruisers, Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams. The Giants signed arguably the best candidate on the open market in Shane Vereen to a 3-year, $12.35 million contract that included $4.75 million in guaranteed money.
“Vereen gives us lots of versatility as a receiver and runner,” said General Manager Jerry Reese. “He is one of the best as a receiver out of the backfield or detached. He is very hard to handle for most linebackers. And he has big game experience.”
Vereen has been favorably compared to another former Patriot all-purpose back: Kevin Faulk. For Giants fans unfamiliar with Faulk’s body of work, think David Meggett, who ironically signed with the Patriots as a free agent in 1995. While many remember Meggett for his special teams kickoff and punt return exploits, Meggett was also a major component in the Giants offense from 1989 to 1994. On a team that did not emphasize the short passing game, Meggett not only rushed for 1,228 yards and five touchdowns, but more importantly he caught 231 passes for 2,194 yards and 10 touchdowns. He kept the chains moving for Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler, and at times provided the big play.
If he stays healthy, Vereen should put up bigger numbers for the Giants. In the last two seasons in New England, Vereen caught 99 passes despite missing half the year in 2013. In the Giants West Coast-style offense under Ben McAdoo, the running back is a featured component in the passing game, not only as a check-off option when other targets are covered, but as a primary receiver. The West Coast offense is designed to exploit the field not only vertically, but horizontally, exploiting holes in defensive coverages. Vereen is a smaller, shiftier back who is a match-up problem for most linebackers. If teams focus their attention on Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz – as they should – then Vereen could feast against the underneath coverage.
What makes Vereen such a good receiver is not just his athletic ability and hands, but he is a precise, trustworthy route runner. He doesn’t make mental mistakes. And his skill set allows him to not only catch shorter passes on dig, drag, swing, and screen passes but also deeper routes where his split out wide like a conventional wide receiver. Indeed, there are times when the observer will understandably initially confuse Vereen for a wide receiver because of his route-running and pass-catching adeptness. He is like having another legitimate wideout on the field. Vereen has pass receptions of 83, 50, and 49 yards in the past three seasons.
What will be interesting to see is how the Giants use Vereen. Under Kevin Gilbride, Vereen probably would have been limited to a third-down back. But in Ben McAdoo’s system, although Vereen won’t be a conventional “starter”, he should see the field much more on first and second down, depending the opponent and game plan.
There are those who say it does not matter how good a pass catcher Vereen is because Eli Manning doesn’t have a good feel for throwing to running backs. While this certainly isn’t the strength of Manning’s game, the numbers don’t support that argument. When Eli had Tiki Barber, Barber was a favorite target of Eli’s, catching 54 passes in 2005 and 58 passes in 2006. Derrick Ward caught 41 passes from Eli in 2008 and Ahmad Bradshaw 47 passes in 2010. Despite being limited to 11 games with just nine starts, Jennings caught 30 passes from Manning in 2014. What these figures demonstrate is that even in an offense that was more vertically-oriented, Manning has productively thrown to running backs when the talent is there.
Another important component to Vereen’s game is that he does a good job or recognizing and picking up blitzes despite his lack of size. He has only fumbled twice in his pro career, losing one.
Vereen usually will not wow you as runner. He has good quickness and speed, but he is not a dynamic breakaway threat. His longest run from scrimmage at the pro level is only 21 yards. And at 5’10 and 205 pounds, he is not going to run over a lot of defenders. But Vereen can be a factor in the running back, especially out of the shotgun formation that McAdoo likes to employ. In his last two seasons in New England, Vereen ran the ball 140 times for 599 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
Perhaps the biggest negative on Vereen is that in three seasons, he has only played a full 16-game schedule once. And that was in 2014. He missed 11 games in 2011 with hamstring issues, three games in 2012 with a foot injury, and eight games in 2013 with a fractured wrist. Obviously, for a New York Giants team that has been ravaged by injuries in recent years, Vereen’s injury-plagued past is a bit disconcerting.
But if Vereen stays healthy, it is not unreasonable to project him as a 50+ catch target in the New York offense. He should become a key figure in keeping drives alive and therefore increasing overall offensive productivity and scoring. Keeping drives alive will allow more opportunities for Manning, the wideouts, and the running backs. In the simplest terms, Vereen will make the New York Giants a much better offensive football team.