The New York Giants are positioned to take the phrase “dink and dunk” to a never-before-seen level in 2019.
Gone is Odell Beckham Jr., as you may have seen on Twitter, and while Saquon Barkley is bound to become the true heartbeat of the offense as a whole, the passing game is going to be heavily based on short passing. Then more short passing. And more short passing.
Last year, of the 47 receivers to get 75 or more targets, Beckham finished 14th in the NFL with an average depth of target (aDOT) figure of 12.3 yards, per AirYards.com. His 1,515 total air yards on completed passes and off-target throws, drops, and pass breakups was the 10th-highest among wideouts.
And 2018 wasn’t an aberration for Beckham in terms of his ability to get downfield and have the football thrown his way. His average aDOT from 2014 to 2017 was 11.8 yards.
In short, for as electric as Beckham is creating after the catch and making ridiculous grabs outside his frame, he’s consistently been able to taken the top off defenses.
And now that proven vertical commodity plays for the Cleveland Browns.
In a roundabout way, Golden Tate will be Beckham’s replacement. While they’re similarly dynamic with the football in their hands, there’s a sizable age disparity (31 vs. 26), and Tate simply can’t stretch the field like Beckham.
On 69 targets in Detroit last year, Tate’s aDOT was 6.5 yards. On 42 targets after being traded to Philadelphia, his aDOT was 7.9.
That 6.5 number would’ve been last among qualifying receivers. The aDOT of 7.9 would’ve tied Danny Amendola for 43rd out of 47 qualifiers at the position.
But having a low average depth of target doesn’t automatically mean Tate’s a pedestrian pass catcher. In fact, he’s long been the premier yards-after-the-catch wideout in football. Per Pro Football Focus, Tate has forced an astronomical 114 missed tackles since 2014, the most among all receivers. Jarvis Landry is in second in that category with 83. Beckham’s third with 81. Tate had 414 yards after the catch last season, the 13th-most among receivers, per AirYards.com.
In the end though, Tate’s has a clearly defined niche role. He’s an ultra-slippery underneath wideout.
Across from him will be Sterling Shepard, who’s been more vertically capable early in his NFL career. Then again, his average depth of target in 2018 was 10.4 yards, putting him in 26th place among those qualifying receivers. His aDOT was 9.3 yards in each of his first two seasons. He accumulated 302 yards after the catch last year, the 27th-most among wideouts.
As you probably can guess by now, tight end Evan Engram didn’t have a high aDOT in 2018 either. It was 5.3 yards, the lowest of the 18 tight ends to see 50 or more targets. His 398 yards after the catch placed third among all tight ends.
The Giants picked Auburn wideout Darius Slayton in the fifth round of the 2019 Draft. Slayton’s a 6-foot-1 receiver with 4.39 speed and a 40.5-inch vertical who averaged 20.3 yards per grab in his three seasons with the Tigers. On paper, he’s exactly the type of vertical element New York desperately needs, but it’s a stretch to expect him to make a major impact right away.
The Barkley Effect
Barkley won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, an award that capped a marvelous debut season that met all the hype. Despite the Giants’ clear dedication to him — Barkley finished second in the NFL with 352 touches — only 22.9 percent of his runs featured eight or more men in the box according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Is 22.9 percent high? Not really. There were 23 running backs who saw eight-plus defenders in the box on a higher percentage of their runs in 2018.
And despite the general consensus that Eli Manning was completely washed in 2018, he did finish with a rather hefty 7.5 yards-per-attempt average, his highest since 2009, and completed 66% of his passes, a career best.
Without having the defensive game plans for each opponent the Giants faced last year to confirm, it’s not a reach to surmise that Beckham’s presence helped keep an extra defender or two out of the box for Barkley and played a significant role in Manning’s underrated efficiency as a passer. Graham Barfield of NFL.com recently provided Manning’s split stats with and without Beckham since the receiver came into the league in 2014:
But now, without Beckham’s downfield prowess and New York’s receiving personnel consisting of Tate, Shepard, and Engram, teams know the threat of the deep ball will be minimal against the Giants. Defenses can play them much differently in 2019.
Everyone’s keenly aware of Barkley being the real deal and the Giants’ emphasis on getting him the football. Therefore, pushing that safety into the box to help against Barkley runs won’t be nearly as dangerous against the Beckham-less G-Men as it was with him on the roster.
Don’t be surprised when Barkley sees a much higher percentage of runs with eight or more defenders in the box in his second NFL season, not only because of his vast success as a rookie but because the Giants simply are very unlikely to have a viable downfield option anywhere close to Beckham’s caliber.
And then there’s Daniel Jones
In good faith, I couldn’t write about the Giants’ passing game in 2019 without including Jones. A large contingent of people believe there’s absolutely no chance Jones plays at all as a rookie. Some believe if Manning is bad enough, New York will essentially have no choice but to play him for a portion of the season.
But even if Jones does see the field this year, he’s not going to be the savior of the deep passing game for the Giants. That’s just not the type of quarterback he was in college, so it’d be foolish to expect him to incorporate that style in his debut NFL campaign.
According to the Sports Info Solutions Rookie Handbook, Jones’ aDOT in 2018 was 8.1 yards, the second-lowest among the first six quarterbacks selected in the 2019 Draft. While he did flash some downfield accuracy, Jones was mostly a quick-passing signal caller at Duke.
What the Giants must do to be successful
New York is unlikely to have a true field-stretcher in its passing offense in 2019, which can create a host of problems for the offense as a whole.
For the Giants to be successful through the air, they’ll need to lean on and get outstanding contributions in the YAC department from Tate, Shepard, Engram and of course, Barkley, who had 752 yards after the catch as a rookie, the second-highest total among all ball carriers.
In general, the loss of Beckham’s tremendous ability on the vertical route tree will have a seismic impact on New York’s aerial attack, almost assuredly rendering it as one of the league’s least aggressive in 2019.