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.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Wide Receivers
2016 YEAR IN REVIEW: While Odell Beckham, Jr. continued his assault on the record books as one of the game’s premiere wide receivers, more was expected from this unit in 2016. It was assumed by many that the departure of the frustratingly-inconsistent Rueben Randle would be addition by subtraction. Sterling Shepard was considered a 2nd-round steal by many. And there were high expectations about the return of Victor Cruz from three injury-sabotaged seasons in a row.
In 2015, quarterback Eli Manning’s top three wide receiver targets were Beckham, Randle, and Dwayne Harris. These three totaled 189 catches for 2,643 yards, and 25 touchdowns. In 2016, Beckham, Shepard, and Cruz totaled 205 catches for 2,636 yards, and 19 touchdowns. The telling stat was there was a 24 percent decline in touchdowns.
Opponent defensive game plans were obvious and consistent: double- and sometimes even triple-team Odell Beckham and dare the Giants to beat them with their running game or passing the ball to other targets. The Giants failed to be able to make other teams pay and the passing offense fell from 7th (271.4 yards per game) to 17th (242.4 yards per game). Much of this decline had to do with the loss of running back Shane Vereen (59 catches for 494 yards and four touchdowns in 2015) and the unproductive tight ends (only 79 catches and three touchdowns as a group).
But while Beckham continued to produce, and Shepard had a respectable rookie season, it was Cruz who was the biggest disappointment. Slowed by three consecutive leg injury issues from 2013-2015, Cruz seemed miscast as an outside receiver instead of the slot position which Shepard now occupies. Cruz struggled to separate from defenders and finished the season with only one touchdown – ironically a game-winner that he scored in the opener. In other words, he was kept out of the end zone for the final 16 regular- and post-season games. Randle had 57 catches for 797 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015 as an outside receiver. Cruz had just 39 catches for 586 yards.
The nadir of Beckham’s 2016 season was obviously the playoff game. Much was expected and Beckham failed miserably to deliver (four catches for 28 yards) against a weak secondary. Exacerbating the situation – right or wrong – was his boat trip to Miami six days before the game on the players’ day off. But keep in mind that the receivers as a group went on that trip – including the veteran Cruz – and the top three all failed to perform at a high level (Cruz had three catches for 30 yards and Shepard four catches for 63 yards). None scored.
Beckham is extremely competitive and the best player on the team. But he clearly is a diva with a media target painted on his back. How much of this is self-promotion, blown out of proportion to sell newspapers, or distracting to the team are questions subject to passionate debate.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Easily one of the biggest changes the team made this offseason was at the wideout position opposite of Odell Beckham, Jr. The Giants unceremoniously cut Victor Cruz in February and signed the aging but still-productive super-stud receiver Brandon Marshall in March after the Jets released him. The Giants also signed undrafted rookie free agents Travis Rudolph, Keeon Johnson, Kevin Snead, and Jerome Lane.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Right or wrong, the media has smelled blood in the water with Odell Beckham, Jr. and he will likely remain the subject of unsavory media attention for the remainder of his NFL career. Much of this is self-inflicted, but also much of it is media-whore click-bait. The focus on Beckham distracts from real issues and is a waste of print space and Q&A media time, but it is what it is. Expect of a heavy does of boring and repetitive Beckham stories in camp.
The real focus of attention should be two-fold: (1) how much does Brandon Marshall have left in the tank? and (2) is Sterling Shepard ready to make a huge impact on the passing game?
Marshall is the only player in NFL history with six seasons of 100 or more receptions. Two years ago, Marshall put up huge numbers and had a Pro Bowl and All-Pro season, catching 109 passes for 1,502 yards, and 14 touchdowns. But the 33-year old Marshall suffered through a injury-plagued 2016 campaign where his numbers dropped to 59 receptions for 788 yards and just three touchdowns. He says he only wants to play two more years. If Marshall can regain even a bit of his 2015 form (with crappy Jets quarterbacking), look out. Eli Manning hasn’t had a big, physical receiver like this since Plaxico Burress in 2008.
Shepard largely flew under the radar with a promising initial season, starting all 16 regular-season games as a rookie, catching 65 passes for 683 yards (10.5 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns, mostly out of the slot. But Shepard did not make many impact plays, his longest reception being just 32 yards. Shepard made a lot of noise this spring during non-contact workouts. He could be poised for a big season with defenses focused more on Beckham and Marshall.
“What am I looking to work on? Really just after the catch,” said Shepard. “I feel like I could have gotten a lot more YAC (yards after catch) yardage last year. That is something that I looked at on film and I want to get better on.”
With special teams ace Dwayne Harris likely to make the squad, much fan attention will be spent on which players fill out the #5 and probably #6 receiver spots. 2016 hold-overs Tavarres King, Roger Lewis, Darius Powe, and Kevin Norwood will compete with the four undrafted rookie free agents signed after the draft. King passed Lewis on the depth chart late in the 2016 season and made some noise with a couple of long receptions. King received some quality snaps with the first unit during spring workouts while Lewis was arrested on a substance-abuse charge. But don’t discount Lewis or 2016 practice squad player Powe, who has good size and has worked hard this offseason. Of the newcomers, Rudolph probably has the best shot. Those who stand out on special teams will have the inside track.
ON THE BUBBLE: Tavarres King, Roger Lewis, Darius Powe, Kevin Norwood, Travis Rudolph, Keeon Johnson, Kevin Snead, and Jerome Lane.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Adam Henry on Brandon Marshall: “He has been really good and a really good professional. Just helping the guys with little things for us, just pulling them to the side and helping them on different techniques and things like that… The thing is he goes out there and blocks. He does like the dirty work and he is not scared to do that. It’s just him finding a role and he knows he embraces whatever we ask him to do. He’s been good about it.”
Henry on Sterling Shepard: “Right now he has been working hard and he has been out there and he looks really good right now.”
PREDICTIONS: Victor Cruz and Larry Donnell/Will Tye were major drags on the passing game in 2016. The additions of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram should not only be substantial upgrades in themselves, but should dramatically open things up for Odell Beckham, Jr. and Sterling Shepard. If Eli and Marshall can develop anything similar to the chemistry Eli had with Plaxico Burress, then the passing game should become one of the NFL’s best again. Watch out for Shepard, who may feast on single coverage out of the slot. (Though with the additions of Engram and Rhett Ellison at tight end, Sheppard may see his playing time cut, particularly in the red zone).
Barring injury, it will be hard for any other receiver to make substantial noise with Beckham, Marshall, Shepard, Engram, and Ellison bound to see so much playing time.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, Dwayne Harris, Tavarres King, and Darius Powe. (The last WR spot is one of the hardest predictions to make).