You wouldn’t say that the Giants are completely set at the skill positions in the passing game. But they’re not that far off. This is a statement that would have been impossible to make a year ago after they traded away Odell Beckham Jr. But during the 2019 season, we were able to see the potential this offense has behind Daniel Jones. The Giants have the players to be one of the more versatile passing attacks in the NFL in 2020, with the tight end and running back positions being the differentiating factors.
Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram
From a pass-catching perspective, you’d be hard pressed to find too many better RB-TE combos in the NFL than Barkley and Engram. Both players have exceptional receiving skills for their positions as well as the ability to create huge plays off of short, safe throws.
The below play from Week 16 against the Redskins is a perfect example. Here, the Giants aligned Barkley on the perimeter and called a screen pass for him. He turned a 10-yard play into a 51-yard gain.
The below Week 3 catch and run against the Buccaneers shows you just how explosive Engram can be. He turned a first down into a 75-yard touchdown pass.
That’s some significant burst and breakaway speed for a tight end.
When you have effective pass catchers at the running back and tight end positions, you end up with advantageous matchups against safeties and linebackers more frequently. And that makes Barkley and Engram, two premiere athletes at their respective positions, nightmares for defenses. You can see that advantage on the below two plays against the Lions from Week 8.
On this first play, watch Barkley get matched up on a linebacker out of the backfield and leave him in the dust on an option route.
That’s simply not fair. It was also a great job by Pat Shurmur of getting Barkley isolated in space against a severely outmatched defender.
From that same game, watch Engram get matched up against a safety in man coverage and easily create separation.
Engram’s quickness, shiftiness, and burst are tough for any NFL safety to match up to.
Aligning in their conventional positions inside naturally creates mismatches for Barkley and Engram against safeties and linebackers. But both are also very dangerous when on the perimeter (as you saw on the Barkley screen above). Not only does aligning on the outside get both playmakers in advantageous 1-on-1 situations in space, but it also helps Daniel Jones more easily identify the coverage. It opens up opportunities for other receivers as well.
On this 3rd down against the Cardinals in Week 7, Engram and Barkley were aligned to the right of the formation with 3 wide receivers aligned to the left. The Cardinals matched up to Engram and Barkley with linebackers.
Linebackers generally don’t align on the perimeter when playing zone. Jones therefore knew pre-snap that this was most likely man coverage. He then went to work picking his best match up.
Since Golden Tate’s defender was playing with outside leverage and the softest cushion of any 1-on-1 matchup, and because Tate was running a slant route inside, Jones targeted him.
All Jones had to do was make sure no help defenders could take away Tate’s route.
Converting on 3rd down is how you sustain drives and generate consistent offense. Having players like Engram and Barkley who can align on the perimeter to help identify the coverage in these critical situations (and who are also real threats against any safety or linebacker matched up on them) is a distinct advantage. In fact, this was an approach used often by the Patriots from 2010-18 and was a significant reason for their consistent success in the passing game during that stretch.
It’s not a surprise that Daniel Jones was a better quarterback in games when he had both Barkley and Engram at his disposal. Jones completed 64.7% of his passes for 7.13 yards per attempt and a 97.7 QB rating in the 4 games with both players in the lineup. In games without either, Jones completed just 60.3% of his passes for 6.35 yards per attempt and an 82.6 QB rating.
The Wide Receivers
In Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate, the Giants have two good slot receivers who can take advantage of 1-on-1’s inside against nickel and dime defensive backs. They also end up with plenty of matchups against linebackers and safeties in zone coverage. Tate and Shepard are both very good at navigating the middle of the field and finding the soft spots of the defense. They help create that sustaining element to the offense and fit perfectly with a quarterback like Jones who is most comfortable in the quick passing game.
In Darius Slayton, the Giants also have the ability to attack vertically on the outside. During his rookie season, Slayton showed himself to be a very good route runner. On this touchdown against the Vikings, watch Slayton at the top of the screen. After selling the route inside, he quickly was able stack on top of cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Slayton showed great patience and route-running instincts on this play. His speed kind of sneaks up on defenders, as you could see there.
From the above touchdown you can also get an idea of how good Slayton’s hands are and how comfortable he is catching the ball away from his body. On the below touchdown against the Lions in Week 8, you can see that he has the ability to make tough, contested catches.
Slayton is also effective in 1-on-1 situations underneath due to his patient route-running and ability to create separation by selling routes with his stems. The below 4th-down TD reception against the Jets is a great example. Slayton was running a slant but initially sold the go-route, getting his man to turn his hips to the sidelines. This created the separation inside.
Most importantly, Slayton has clearly developed a rapport with Daniel Jones. Those two should be a fun combination to watch in 2020.
The Giants have the makings of what can be a versatile passing game. There are some areas where they have to get better this offseason, though. The offensive line still has to improve (especially at tackle). At wide receiver, despite Slayton’s presence, the Giants still need more speed on the outside to help stretch the defense. Given how deep the NFL Draft is this year at wide receiver, it’s not hard to see the Giants effectively addressing this in the middle rounds.
Injuries and durability are also a concern. How many games did the Giants play with Slayton, Tate, Shepard, Barkley, and Engram all in the lineup in 2019? Sadly, not one. Football is a physical game. Injuries are going to happen. Unfortunately, they will happen again in 2020. While the potential is there for this group, the Giants need to ensure that they have quality depth at their skill positions. This is especially true at tight end, where Evan Engram has now missed 13 games over the last two seasons. As special of a talent as he is, his inability to stay on the field has held this offense back.
While the most significant chunks of the Giants’ team-building capital (money, draft picks) should be poured into the offensive line and the defense this offseason, Dave Gettleman and company need to make sure they don’t neglect adding to their young group of pass-catching threats.
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