Assessing the wide receiver position for the Giants in 2018
The comeback of Odell Beckham Jr. The solid play of Sterling Shepard. The never-ending search for a No. 3. Those were the stories of the 2018 season for the New York Giants at the wide receiver position. Let’s assess as we look back at the season that was and ahead to what the 2019 season might bring.
We have to do this in two sections — Beckham and Everybody Else.
Beckham’s numbers in the 12 games he played a year after suffering a fractured ankle are fine. They just aren’t extraordinary. Beckham’s 2018, in fact, left me a bit troubled.
Beckham caught 77 passes in his 12 games played, 6.4 per game. That is pretty much exactly what he has averaged every season since snagging 7.6 per game as a rookie in 2014. He had 1,052 receiving yards, his fourth 1,000-yard season. He averaged 13.7 yards per catch, best since 15.1 in 2015. All of those things tell you that his comeback from a fractured ankle was largely successful.
There are, however, things that worry me:
- Missed games: Beckham has now missed 16 games to injury — a full season’s worth — over five seasons. He has missed games to injuries in three of five seasons. Injuries happen, and Beckham might be right that the one he suffered in 2018 was “flukish.” Still, it happened. And it cost him four games.
- A declining passer rating: Eli Manning has always been far more effective throwing the ball to Beckham than any other Giants’ receiver. Not so in 2018. Beckham’s passer rating when targeted was a career-low 95.6, with Manning clocking in overall at 92.4. Beckham’s passer rating when targeted has declined every season of his career, 127.6 (2014), 114.0 (2015), 101.3 (2016), 97.8 (2017) and 95.6 this season.
- Missing explosive plays: Beckham’s longest play from scrimmage in 2018 was 51 yards. In every other full season of his career he has had at least one play of 70 yards or more. By his own admission, at least early in the season, Beckham missed a couple of opportunities to make the kind of catch-and-run magic that has always made defenses fear him.
Missed games are what they are. It’s football, guys get hurt. Even guys who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the offseason on their bodies, and have video teams that post countless hours of incredible workout videos.
The declining passer rating and the missing explosive plays, or the special “nobody else can do that” plays got my attention. Is that about Beckham? The quarterback? The way defenses play him? Don’t know.
Beckham had 17 catches of 20 or more yards. Projected out over 16 games, that’s 23. It’s a number that would have put him top five among receivers in that category. He had three catches of 40 or more yards, and a projected four would have put him just outside the top 10. Not bad at all.
I just know I waited for a game-changing catch-and-run “how did he turn that into a touchdown?” moment, and don’t recall getting one. In other words, the kind of plays that earned him a contract as the game’s highest-paid wide receiver.
Maybe I’m whistling at the wind here. Maybe the standards Beckham has set throughout his career are just so high they seem impossible to duplicate. After all:
Highest graded Giants players in the 2018 season (min 500 snaps):
1. WR Odell Beckham Jr – 90.0
2. ED Olivier Vernon – 86.3
3. RB Saquon Barkley – 85.9
4. DI Dalvin Tomlinson – 78.9
5. T Nate Solder – 74.2
DI Damon Harrison – 89.9 (traded)
TE Evan Engram – 76.5 (475 snaps)
— PFF NY Giants (@PFF_Giants) January 7, 2019
Sterling Shepard had a productive season with 66 receptions, 4 for touchdowns, and career bests in yards receiving (872) and yards per catch (13.4). Shepard also had the most yards after catch of his career (316). The negative in Shepard’s numbers was a career-worst eight dropped passes.
There was an anticipation heading into the season that Pat Shurmur’s offense would rely more heavily on two-tight end sets, and that because of that Shepard would have to play as an outside receiver more often than he had in his first two seasons. Both of those proved accurate.
Shepard played 517 snaps in his customary slot receiver alignment, but a career-high 393 snaps lined up outside. In his first two seasons, Shepard had played only a combined 330 snaps lined up outside.
How did that turn out?
Shepard caught 26 of 44 targets (59 percent) while lined up wide, and 40 of 58 targets (68.9 percent) from the slot. So, he did OK outside but was obviously more efficient from the slot.
The Giants used a number of players to fill out the wide receiver rotation.
Cody Latimer was signed with the hope he would be the No. 3 receiver, but he played only six games and caught 11 passes. Corey Coleman came in midseason and had a big impact returning kickoffs, but caught just five passes in eight games. Russell Shepard (10 catches) and Bennie Fowler (16 catches) contributed in spots. Rookies Jawill Davis and Quadree Henderson were special teams contributors.
2019 look ahead
Beckham will be 27 next season, and should be in the prime of his career. There remains no reason not to be excited about what the Beckham-Saquon Barkley combination can do together.
Asked about the 2019 season, here is what Beckham said:
“The sky is the limit and I know that next year is going to be tough on everybody I play. That’s just how I feel, that’s how I’m coming. I do have a positive outlook for 2019-2020. I say this is going to be my year every year until it is going to be my year. So, next year is going to be my year, and if it’s not next year, the year after is going to be my year. That’s the goal every year.”
Beckham is still, obviously, a special player. Let’s hope the Giants get him for 16 games, and that we see him split defenders a couple of times and turn a short pass into a spectacular touchdown. For me, that second part is the last thing I need to see to believe he is all the way back to his pre-injury form.
Who will join Beckham and Sterling Shepard?
The Giants are set for 2019 with Beckham and Shepard. There is, however, a need to find a dependable third wide receiver. Considering what we have already learned about Shepard’s increased efficiency in the slot, particularly one who can be productive lined up on the outside.
Latimer, Russell Shepard, Fowler and Corey Coleman can all be free agents this offseason. Not all of them will be back, with the guess here being Latimer and Coleman have the best chances of returning next season.
The Giants will face a decision on Sterling Shepard after the 2019 season, as the 2016 second-round pick can be a free agent. With Beckham already bringing in the most money of any wide receiver in the league, how much the Giants would be willing to pay Shepard is a good question.
As the Giants re-tool their roster for next season I have my doubts that wide receiver will be a position where they spend big money or use an early draft pick. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, however, if they find a bargain free agent or mid-round draft choice to add to the mix.