Welcome back to Know your Eagles’ Enemy. With the first week of games come and gone, the job of analyzing position groups gets that much easier. For the first time we got an up-close look at Pat Shurmur’s new offence in New York. Aside from a spectacular run from Saquon Barkley, the Giants struggled against the top defense from last season the Jacksonville Jaguars. Opinions on what the passing game could be are still up in the air. Receivers struggled with drops, Eli Manning was under constant pressure, and yet Odell Beckham Jr. gained 111 receiving yards. Today I will do my best to put things in perspective.
It’s ultimately unfair to compare this year’s group of receivers to the rag-tag assembly of next-men-up that donned the blue uniforms in the Big Apple last season. However, two holdouts from the dreadful 2017 season, tight end Evan Engram and slot receiver Sterling Shepard, figure to be a big part of the Giants’ 2018 passing attack. The biggest change will be the return of superstar Odell Beckham Jr. Simply based on the return of OBJ, the team should be better through the air this season. Pro Football Focus gave the NYG receiving corps a 7th place ranking heading into the new season. The team is also transitioning to a new offence under new head coach Pat Shurmur. Against the Jaguars, Shurmur relied on short crossing routes, yards after the catch, play action passes and getting Eli out of the pocket. Not much should change going forward, but expect Manning to take more shots downfield against weaker secondaries. Short or long, most of Eli’s targets will go to the returning Odell.
It’s hard to poke holes in the game of one of the most successful receivers of our generation – at least over his first three seasons (288 receptions for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns). This off-season he secured a 5-year $95-million contract with $65 million guaranteed. He elected not to hold out, instead negotiating with his new head coach amicably after having a rocky relationship with former Giants’ head coach Ben McAdoo. The soon-to-be 26-year-old receiver is an excellent route runner with an outstanding catch radius for 5’11”, but he is most known for his spectacular catch ability. Admittedly, there has been a slight decline in his production since his rookie year. Despite tallying his highest total receiving yards in his second season, his receptions per game and yards per game totals have dropped each year, along with his catch percentage. A decline in catch percentage usually comes with the territory of an expanded role in the offence, and it could be argued that coach McAdoo’s incompetence and an ageing Eli Manning played a role in stunting Beckham’s production over the last two seasons. Nevertheless, it is possible that we will see OBJ’s ridiculous early numbers even out as the years go on.
In line with shrinking statistics, Odell’s efficiency has deteriorated since his rookie season, according to Football Outsiders. In 2016 he actually registered a negative value in defense-adjusted value over average, meaning the average receiver would have performed better given his opportunities. 51 receivers were more valuable to their team in terms of efficiency – that’s not what you’d hope for from your star player. Again, much of this could arguably be placed on the shoulders of the anaemic offensive scheme brought in by the last head coach. However, it is not a secret that Beckham has a kryptonite of his own. As talented as Odell is between the whistles, he often struggles to control what is between his ears. See: a drawn-out saga with a kicking net, sideline temper tantrums, boat parties, a mysterious “powder” video which surfaced this summer, etc.
DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement
DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average
E Yards: Effective Yards
One hopes that a combination of a season to reflect, a massive new contract, and the start of his fifth season has helped Beckham put things in perspective going forward. If he can stay collected, he is debatably the most explosive offensive player in the league. He provides instant value as a receiver (2.43 yards per route run in 2015) and with the ball in his hands (29 missed tackles on 101 receptions in 2016). Look at his moves after the catch during the Jacksonville game at 4:02 in the video below. By all accounts OBJ will get his opportunities in Shurmur’s new offence.
Per Odell himself: “This offence allows me to move around, it allows me to be inside, outside. I’m running more routes. It’s more creative. This offence allows us to be interchangeable. I like being able to move around, I like being able to get inside. It’s harder to guard somebody inside than it is on the outside.”
Accordingly, and unsurprisingly, he received a lion’s share of the targets in the first game of the season, collecting 11 of his team high 15 against Jacksonville. Only 11 of those targets were catchable balls as reported by PlayerProfiler.com. Unfortunately for the average viewer, he was not once lined up mono e mono against cornerback and loud-mouth extraordinaire Jalen Ramsay. He was able to outrun him on a few occasions, such as 5:00 in the video above. In fact, OBJ saw more zone coverage than man, and was never left without safety help over top. A conservative, but intelligent tactic from a top tier defense. Nonetheless, Odell has struggled against premier cover corners in the past. Below are his stats when facing Detroit’s Darius Slay and Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes.
Beckham also earned both of Eli Manning’s red zone targets on Sunday, catching one of them. He was held without a touchdown despite his large share of looks. This is becoming a more constant occurrence. Every single year, OBJ has had a harder time finding the endzone. While his touchdown totals are relatively even, they are now more susceptible to come in bursts. Likewise, there have been more and more games where Odell is held out of the endzone.
|Year||Games Played||Games without a touchdown||% of games without a TD|
In 2015 and 2016, the offence was aided by 8 touchdowns from their number two receiver. It remains to be seen if Sterling Shepard can repeat his 2016 rookie season touchdown total. In terms of total yardage, Shepard actually did more with less in his second season. The drop off in touchdown production echoed the team’s offensive production.
Young “Shep” is known almost exclusively as a slot receiver. 72 of his 84 targets in 2017 came in the slot position. Taking the reigns as the Giants’ top receiver due to injuries, Shepard finished the year ranked 9th on PFF’s list of top slot receivers. His issue with drops that plagued his rookie season was much improved the second time around. As a route runner, he is at his best when facing man coverage on short to intermediate routes, where he can use his lateral quickness and head-fakes to outmanoeuvre his opposition. As Eli Manning so aptly puts it: “he does a great job of getting open against man. You like that match up. He gets separation and that’s what you like from those guys.” Well said Eli. Pat Leonard also reported that Sterling was, “unguardable in 1-on-1s with DBs.”
Shepard was better against zone last season as well, settling in to find the soft spots in coverage. As a more nuanced receiver, he will benefit greatly from the return of Beckham. However, his target share is almost guaranteed to diminish and he will be asked to do more with less again in 2018. He was forced to miss five games last season due to recurring migraines, which may be cause for concern, but so far has not hampered him this year. The biggest question mark for Shepard this season is what he will do with an increased opportunity to take snaps on the outside. In the incredibly small sample size from last season – 9 targets – the young receiver was actually more efficient on the outside according to Football Outsiders. Logic would say that he is lacking the size and strength to be a consistent contributor in that role. There were some indications in preseason that he can be a downfield stretcher on the outside. He had 10 receptions for 114 yards – two of his catches went for 27+ yards. He only had four receptions of 27+ yards all of last season. Nonetheless, the game against Jacksonville was not a good indication of what is to come. Facing mostly zone coverage, Shepard was held to just five receptions, 48 yards and a drop on seven targets (100% catchable according to PlayerProfiler.com). He did, however, play 86% of offensive snaps, and that shouldn’t change going forward. It remains to be seen if S. Shepard can be a suitable counterpart to Odell, or if he will continue to play an awfully apparent second fiddle.
The third receiver on the roster Cody Latimer received zero looks against the Jaguars and looks to be more of a special-teams contributor. He totalled 445 yards and 3 touchdowns on 35 receptions in four years with the Denver Broncos. Some have said he just needs an opportunity to showcase his skills. Coach Pat Shurmur was quoted saying: “he has the ability to make a contested catch, runs pretty good routes.” His contested catch ability can be seen in the video below.
Fade TD to Cody Latimer #Giants pic.twitter.com/Tsg0QQZ0Tf
— Ryan Dunleavy (@rydunleavy) August 12, 2018
Regarding the final notable receiver on the roster, Russell Shepard, the Pro Football Focus quip says it best. “Shepard has a huge problem with drops due to poor technique and low confidence in his hands. He doesn’t do any one thing well and was one of the worst receivers in the league considering how many snaps he played for the Panthers. He probably shouldn’t be on an NFL roster.” Ouch. Maybe Shurmur sees something we don’t. Russell Shepard will likely not see much playing time barring an injury to Sterling Shepard.
The New York Giants’ tight end group will be headed by second-year pro Evan Engram. Engram’s skill set it pretty easy to analyze. He’s a wiry, long-limbed target with above average route running skills. He’s also a terrible blocker with a drop problem. In fact, he led the league in drops last season with 11. As we’ve seen with Nelson Agholor, drops can be solved. However, Engram has already registered a drop only one game into the season. He has reportedly been dropping passes all summer as well. He registered a dreadful two catches and 18 yards on five targets. PlayerProfiler.com counted all his targets as catchable. He was also zero-for-two on contested catches. Engram was pretty productive in his rookie season: 64 receptions, 115 targets, 722 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also had a 55.7% catch rate. You’d expect better from a tight end known for his pass catching ability.
Engram may lose snaps to backup Rhett Ellison, who is more of an in-line blocking tight end. Against the Jaguars, he caught his sole target for a 16-yard gain. Surprisingly, Ellison was also the single most efficient receiver on quick outs last season, posting a stat line of ten receptions for 92 yards, four first downs and a touchdown on 11 targets. It may be worst case scenario if Ellison begins to overtake Engram for snaps, but at least he has reliable hands.
Best Case: Odell will do Odell things, no matter what I say. The hope is that he isn’t injured or reprimanded for off-field issues. Best case scenario for this team would be the development of their young stars Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard. A big step forward from Cody Latimer would be fortuitous as well. I truly believe Sterling can be a thousand-yard receiver in this league. I think the same for Evan Engram, if he can limit his drops. The question will be if the Giants’ porous offensive line can give Eli enough time to get his play makers the ball. The answer after one week: no, no they most certainly cannot. It may be unfair to judge this offence prematurely since their first game was against such a formidable opponent. Upcoming match ups don’t get much easier, but expect Beckham to hit his stride sooner rather than later.
Worst Case: Despite Odell doing Odell things, not much else is happening on this offence. Evan Engram continues to drop the football and cannot be counted upon to make tough catches over the middle of the field. Shepard just can’t fathom the transition to a more fluid positional role. The offence becomes – or continues to be – a one man show. OBJ can carry a team to a winning season, but can he carry his team to the playoffs? In the NFC, I don’t think so.
Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports