Isaiah Hodgins – © USA TODAY Sports
With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
FIND A COMPLETE LIST OF ALL BREAKDOWNS HERE
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Wide Receivers
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Plans quickly went awry at this position in 2022. On paper, $72 million Kenny Golladay, 2021 1st-round draft pick Kadarius Toney, the talented but oft-injured Sterling Shepard, and 2022 2nd-round pick Wan’Dale Robinson were to form the core of group that was supposed to provide a nice combination of size, speed, quickness, experience, and play-making ability. By year’s end, none were contributors. Golladay, perhaps the biggest bust in NFL free agent history, ended up with just six receptions on the season. Toney had two catches before being traded to the Chiefs. Shepard tore his ACL in Week 3 and Robinson tore his ACL in November.
Who picked up the slack? Unbelievably, Marcus Johnson started seven games, but only had nine receptions. David Sills started five games and had just 11 receptions. Richie James, who had been signed mostly for his return skills, led the group with 57 catches. Darius Slayton, who barely made the team as the 7th receiver and wasn’t even active early in the season, started a team-high 11 games at the position, and finished with 46 catches. As a group, Golladay (1), Toney, Shepard (1), Robinson (1), Johnson, Sills, James (4), and Slayton (2) had just nine touchdown catches. It was ugly and you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse group in the League.
The Giants did have some good fortune when they claimed little-known wideout Isaiah Hodgins off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills in early November. Due to the dearth of talent at the position and his experience with Brian Daboll, Hodgins quickly saw the field, playing in eight regular-season games with five starts. He finished with 33 catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns (team high tied with Richie James). In the playoff game against the Vikings, Hodgins caught eight more passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Collin Johnson, who was making some noise early, tore his Achilles’ tendon in training camp. Kalil Pimpleton, Makai Polk, and Jaydon Mickens were on the Practice Squad.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants finally had the cap room in March to cut Kenny Golladay after two seasons of his disastrous 4-year contract. The Giants appear to have made no effort to re-sign their leading receiver, Richie James, and he departed in free agency for the Chiefs. Marcus Johnson remains an unsigned free agent whose NFL career is likely over.
The Giants re-signed Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard, David Sills, Kalil Pimpleton, Makai Polk, and Jaydon Mickens with Slayton receiving the biggest investment at two years and $12 million.
The new additions have been significant. Parris Campbell, Jamison Crowder, and Jeff Smith were signed in free agency. The Giants traded up in the 3rd round to draft Jalin Hyatt. Bryce Ford-Wheaton was signed as a rookie free agent after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The pundits, media, and some of the fans have focused on the apparent absence of a “true number one” wideout. Based on early indications, the number one target in this offense is actually going to be tight end/wide receiver hybrid Darren Waller with the true wide receivers being more complementary targets. The good news is that the Giants now appear to have a plethora of NFL-caliber options. There are no Toney’s refusing to practice. Or $72 million players who can’t get open, but you can’t cut. Marcus Johnson and David Sills won’t be starting. While there may be no Pro Bowlers, there could be eight guys on the team who are legitimate NFL players. The concern? What is the upside of all of these eight players? Will any of them present problems for opposing defenses? That remains to be determined.
The story lines are almost as numerous as the players vying for playing time. Who receives the most snaps? With Waller and Daniel Bellinger at tight end, how often will the Giants use 3- and 4-wide receiver sets? Can seriously injured players such as Wan’Dale Robinson, Sterling Shepard, and Collin Johnson regain earlier form? Will Robinson and Shepard start and/or finish training camp on the PUP? Can Parris Campbell stay healthy and re-capture his collegiate form as a true difference maker? Was Isaiah Hodgins productivity a mirage or did the Bills make a huge mistake? Does Jamison Crowder have anything left in the tank as receiver and returner? Can Jalin Hyatt get off press coverage and how rapidly can he be brought up to speed? How many make the 53-man roster?
ON THE BUBBLE: Last season, the Giants started the year with seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster. They will likely carry six or seven this year. The true locks are probably Wan’Dale Robinson (2nd round draft pick) and Jalin Hyatt (3rd round draft pick), with the caveat that Robinson may start and finish camp on the PUP. Early indications are that Parris Campbell will be a significant contributor and he’s very close to being a lock. One would think Isaiah Hodgins is a lock unless last year was truly a mirage. The Giants did re-sign Darius Slayton to a 2-year, $12 million deal so he should be more favored to make it as well. That’s five, leaving Sterling Shepard, Collin Johnson, and Jamison Crowder vying for one or two spots.
Though long shots, I would not completely discount Jeff Smith, Makai Polk, and Bryce Ford-Wheaton.
FROM TEAM COACHES/PLAYERS: Offensive Coordinator Mike Kafka on Jalin Hyatt: “Jalin is doing a nice job. He’s right on schedule. He’s working. He’s growing. That’s one thing you’ve seen from him from the first day in rookie camp, to the next day, then you’re working through this Phase III part of it, is his growth and his familiarity and comfortability with the offense.”
Wide Receivers Coach Mike Groh on Jalin Hyatt: “I think if we had major concerns (with the route tree) maybe he wouldn’t be here. Very pleased with what he has shown us on the field so far… We have a lot of confidence in the player that he can be. ”
Wide Receivers Coach Mike Groh on Parris Campbell: “I think he has done a great job of coming in and learning our system, being able to assimilate very quickly and build a relationship with Daniel (Jones) out there on the field, build that kind of rapport that is very important between quarterbacks and receivers.” (Note: Groh coached Campbell for two years with the Indianapolis Colts).
Parris Campbell on the wide receivers: “This is definitely probably the fastest total complete group that I’ve played with in my career. I mean, we’ve got speed all across the board. It’s speed that can do a lot of different things. It’s not just guys running in a straight line fast, it’s ball in the hands fast. In their routes fast. We complement each other. I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Sterling Shepard on the wide receivers: “It’s probably the (largest) receiver group I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here… We wanted to bring in competition… We’re definitely going to see what we have because we have a lot of guys that can play some good ball. I love the fact that we added more play-makers. It’s not just on one person to make all the plays. We’ve got a lot of guys that can do it.”
Sterling Shepard on his rehab status: “I’m right on schedule where I wanted to be, a little bit ahead… My goal is to be ready for the season.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: Nothing is set stone and everything seems in flux at the position. That has led to speculation that the 2023 New York Giants will use a committee approach at wide receiver with new starters and/or adjusted playing time on a week-by-week basis. That’s certainly possible. The coaching staff has proven to be flexible and able to adjust on the fly. Players returning from injury or getting injured can certainly change the situation as well. However, cream tends to rise to the top and there are opportunities for players to lock down starting jobs.
I am going to take John Schmeelk’s lead and break down the position into the following three baskets:
- Receivers with size: Isaiah Hodgins, Collin Johnson, David Sills, Makai Polk, Bryce Ford-Wheaton
- Outside receivers with speed: Darius Slayton, Jalin Hyatt, Jeff Smith
- Slot receivers: Parris Campbell, Wan’Dale Robinson, Sterling Shepard, Jamison Crowder, Kalil Pimpleton, Jaydon Mickens
Looking at these baskets, I would think ideally the Giants want two players from each group. That is, two receivers with size, two with outside speed, two who can play the slot. One of these six needs to have return skills on special teams. However, right now, the Giants seem to have more quality at the slot position. You could make the case for Campbell, Robinson, Shepard, and Crowder all making the team, though that seems difficult on paper.
Complicating matters a bit are questions about the ability of Campbell and Shepard to play outside, and Hyatt’s heavy usage as a slot receiver in college without facing press coverage. Really complicating matters are injury rehab questions with Wan’Dale Robinson and Sterling Shepard.
Shepard tore his ACL in September and seems closer to returning. He was running routes at or near full speed in mini-camp. While he might start training camp on the PUP, it does not look like he will be on it very long if he does. The status of Robinson is more vague. He tore his ACL in November. There was one unconfirmed report that he should be ready by training camp, but no updates during the OTAs and mini-camp. That said, Giants.com‘s Lance Meadow recently predicted him making the 53-man roster recently. Does he know something or is he just spit-balling?
Let’s look at the early signs. The starters in spring were Hodgins and Slayton outside with Campbell in the slot. Campbell seemed to be the headliner from the reports, being used in a variety of ways including out of the backfield similar to how the coaches intended to use Kadarius Toney and Wan’Dale Robinson last year. Campbell also has a lot of experience on jet sweeps/end arounds with the Buckeyes and Colts. He’s got a running backs mentality blended with legit 4.3 speed. The question with him is staying healthy.
The presence of Saquon Barkley, Darren Waller, and Parris Campbell is going to place a ton of pressure on opposing defenses in the short-to-intermediate zones, with all three also being able to easily sneak down the field for the big play. Each can also do damage after the catch. Campbell could be poised for a very big year. This offensive scheme is ideal for his skillset, being used on bubble screens, jet sweeps, getting the ball to him on quick passes over the middle in full stride, etc. What will be fascinating to watch is when Wan’Dale Robinson is fully healthy. How will the coaching staff employ him with Campbell? Probably similar to the plans they had in place with Kadarius Toney and Robinson that we never saw. (Remember the “why do the Giants have both Toney and Robinson?” debates).
The wild cards in all of this are numerous:
- The glaring missing component is the consistent outside deep threat. With all of the underneath threats, can Darius Slayton re-capture his eight touchdown rookie season? He doesn’t have to catch 6-8 passes a game, but the team needs him to stretch the defense and not disappear for long stretches. He proved he could be that deep threat in 2019, but has been far too inconsistent since then. Which version do we get?
- If Slayton can’t do it, can Jalin Hyatt? He has great speed and great hands. But he has to prove he can get off press coverage. And it usually takes rookie wide receivers some time to learn pro-level concepts. If Hyatt can develop quickly, this offense could be a nightmare to defend. When Hyatt is on the field, the defense has to respect his deep speed, opening things up underneath for Waller, Barkley, Campbell, Bellinger, and company.
- What is the true upside of Isaiah Hodgins? Is he as good as he looked late in the 2022 season, meaning that the Bills made a huge mistake in cutting him? If he can develop into a reliable, consistent security blanket for Daniel Jones, that would be a huge asset. Keep in mind, he scored five touchdowns in nine games for the Giants.
- Collin Johnson was making noise in training camp last year before he got hurt. He’s also saw a lot of action this spring in non-contact drills. He is not a speedster, but he is intriguing because of his 6’6”, 220-pound frame. Preseason flash-in-the-pan or a legitimate roster contender?
- Sterling Shepard is the kind of guy you love to root for. However, he simply has not been able to stay healthy. Shepard has missed significant time in five of his seven NFL seasons and has played in just 10 games the past two years. Every preseason we hope for breakout season and every year he gets hurt. But can you completely count him out? I wouldn’t.
- Jamison Crowder. Full disclosure, I live in the DC area so I saw a lot of Crowder when he played in Washington. He’s always impressed me. Quarterback issues with the Jets and a broken ankle with the Bills in 2022 limited his productivity, but we’re talking about a 30-year old with 4,667 yards and 28 touchdowns. It shows you how much the talent level has improved at the position that he’s on the fringe on this roster. He also has experience as a returner. Crowder and Shepard may be vying against each other for the final roster spot and the return ability helps his cause.
If I had to go out on a limb, I say by the end of the year, Hodgins, Campbell, and Hyatt are the core group with Robinson being the jack-of-all trades/gadget player. Not impressed? Just keep in mind the presence of Waller and Bellinger at tight end.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Isaiah Hodgins, Parris Campbell, Jalin Hyatt, Darius Slayton, Collin Johnson, and Jamison Crowder.
Wan’Dale Robinson to start the year on the PUP for four weeks.
The toughest call is on Shepard, an extremely popular player. The issues here are three-fold: (1) injury-proneness, (2) lack of special teams value, and (3) how much playing time would he receive? He would have to push Hodgins outside or Campbell inside for playing time. It is possible the team keeps seven wideouts again, however.
Look for 3-4 wide receivers to be on the Practice Squad again. I would think Jeff Smith and Bryce Ford-Wheaton are two obvious choices.