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Are the Giants receivers playing in the right spots?
Despite their many ups and downs over the last decade, the New York Giants have always enjoyed good production from the slot receiver position. From Steve Smith’s 107 catches for 1,220 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2009 through Victor Cruz’s explosion onto the scene, and the start to Sterling Shepard’s career, the Giants have rarely lacked a good, reliable receiver in the slot.
Unfortunately, they haven’t had the same consistent success on the outside. And over the last couple years — and last year in particular — their production from the wide receiver position has waned.
A recent study by analytics website Football Outsiders puts that discrepancy in sharp relief. Football outsiders looked at how often the NFL’s top receiving targets (receivers who had a minimum of 50 catches in 2019) lined up wide and in the slot, then compared how they performed in each alignment. The Giants’ top three receivers, Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, and Darius Slayton each had enough receptions to qualify for the list, so we can get a look at how each of them performed as a slot receiver and a wide receiver.
DYAR: “Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement” Football Outsiders’ metric for how many yards more, or less, a receiver produced than a replacement-level player (a “0” would indicate an average replacement player). Further Reading
DVOA: “Defense Adjusted Value Above Replacement” Football Outsiders’ signature efficiency metric. Football Outsider’s explanation:
“DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.” Further Reading
So what conclusions can we draw about the Giants’ receivers from Football Outsiders’ study?
Let’s start with the two things that really jump off the page, and put them in a bit of perspective. Those, of course, being Darius Slayton out of the slot and Golden Tate out wide. Looking at their respective DVOA’s fans are sure to ask “Did Pat Shurmur play them in the wrong spots?”
And that’s understandable. After all, Slayton’s DVOA out of the slot was the highest among all qualifying receivers, and Tate’s DVOA as a wide receiver was the second highest. But there are a few nits that need to be picked with those scores. The first is the obvious issue with small sample sizes. Golden Tate only had 8 targets as a wide receiver in his 12 games in 2019, and that small sample size means that any significant outlier is bound to have a distorting effect on the data. And it just so happens that one of Tate’s longest (or perhaps “longest” considering the catch was made 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage) catches of the season came on one of those wide receiver targets — his 61-yard touchdown on a screen pass against the New York Jets.
Likewise, Slayton had just 17 targets in the slot. In addition to the issues with a small sample size, the slot tends to have better efficiency numbers overall with the average wide receiver DVOA being -3.7 percent this year and the average slot DVOA being 3.4 percent. Football Outsiders says, “Slot targets have been more efficient than wide targets in each of the four years we’ve been able to do this study, although the size of the gap has varied; it was as low as 3.1% in 2016. This year’s 7.1% gap is the biggest we’ve seen so far, though I would wager that that is mostly due to year-to-year variation rather than anything real and replicable going forward. But while the size of the gap has fluctuated, its presence has remained a constant.”
If we also take a look at the league wide averages, there’s also a pattern that emerges in which players have the highest DVOA out of the slot: 7 of the top 12 are prototypical “outside” receivers. That is, they are all big, strong, and fast receivers who typically line up as either X or Flankers for their offense — players like Slayton, D.K. Metcalf, Michael Thomas, or Mike Evans. Lining up in the slot gives these receivers some advantages they typically don’t see out wide, such as a match-up against a smaller third cornerback or a safety, and a free(er) release off the line of scrimmage. It’s likely that if either Tate or Slayton saw a similar number of targets in both the slot and out wide, their DVOAs would be much more similar.
So while these results shouldn’t be used as evidenced to move Tate to outside reciever and Slayton to the slot, it does show that they — Slayton in particular — can be effective when moved around the offensive formation.
So with the surprising outliers out of the way, let’s take a look at each of the receivers.
Sterling Shepard – Shepard is widely considered to be the Giants’ best receiver, but Football Outsiders charting shows him to be a replacement level player at the slot and a liability out wide. It fits the narrative around Shepard that he is better from the slot than as a wide receiver, but it doesn’t fit that he is only marginally better than a hypothetical replacement player as a slot receiver.
Interestingly that’s a significantly change from his 2017 and 2018 charting. Last year Shepard came in at surprising -5.8 percent DVOA in the slot and an impressive +14.1 percent as a wide receiver. In 2017, Shepard came in as a +5.7 percent as a slot receiver and +19.3 percent DVOA as a wide receiver. We have to ask whether Shepard’s broken thumb and concussion issues impacted his ability across the field more than we might have realized in the moment last season. We have to hope that Shepard stay healthy and will play more like his 2017 and 2018 form in 2020. It is worth mentioning that Shepard is still the Giants’ best receiver when it comes to generating separation with 3.1 yards per route run (per NFL NextGenStats player tracking data, minimum 43 targets). That ability to get open and expand catch windows could be signal that last year was just an injured-ridden outlier and he will improve when healthy.
Golden Tate – While Tate has the second-highest DVOA as a wide receiver and the biggest positive difference between slot and wide DVOAs, the thing we should probably concentrate on is his surprisingly low DVOA as a slot receiver. A -6.5 percent DVOA isn’t the worst mark among qualifying receivers, though the fact that a slot specialist is poor from the slot is certainly concerning. Tate had the fourth-highest percentage of targets from the slot of all qualifying receivers and only three receivers (Danny Amendola, Tyler Boyd, and Dede Westbrook) had more total targets and lower scores from the slot. As with Shepard, we should also take note of Tate’s ability to generate separation, as the ability to get open is closely tied with ability as a receiver. In this case, however, Tate was in the bottom 10 of (qualifying) receivers and tight ends with just 2.2 yards of separation per route run per NFL NextGenStats.
Advanced analytics and metrics have shown Tate to be in decline since the Detroit Lions traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018. And while he is certainly capable of exploiting defensive mistakes for big plays, it’s fair to ask how much the Giants can rely on him to be a productive option on a down-to-down basis.
Darius Slayton – The Giants are clearly counting on Slayton to be an important part of their offense in 2020 and beyond. As it stands now — barring a rebound from Sterling Shepard — the Giants don’t have another outside receiver, which is a big problem for a team looking to run an Air Coryell based offense. And at first blush, Slayton’s -1.3 percent DVOA as a wide receiver is concerning, as it paints him as a less-than replacement level player. However, it’s worth remembering that, league-wide, all passes to wide receivers averaged a -3.7 percent DVOA, so Slayton was at least better than average. It’s also worth noting that his spot as the 39th most efficient wide receiver on the list is complicated by several players with small sample sizes. If we limit the list to players with 50 or more targets at wide receiver, Slayton is just out side the top-20 (21st). That still isn’t great, nor is his 2.2 yards of separation per route run (per NFL NextGenStats), but unlike Golden Tate, Slayton is still a young player learning the NFL game. Considering that Slayton is still developing after playing in a (very) limited passing offense at Auburn, there is at least optimism that he can continue to improve and become a more efficient player.
So what are we to make of all this? The first thing, I think, is that we have to be a bit careful drawing too many conclusions. We need to guard against small sample sizes with Tate and Slayton, and remember that Sterling Shepard dealt with a pair of brain injuries last year.
That being said, it’s okay to be both hopeful for Shepard and Slayton as well as concerned for the coming year. Sterling Shepard has more years of good play — particularly out wide — and it’s entirely possible that 2019 was an outlier caused by injury. It’s also completely possible Slayton will continue to develop and get better at separating against tighter coverage on the outside.
But it’s also okay to be concerned. Small sample sizes aside, the Giants’ receivers didn’t play particularly well last year, and that is a very real issue for an offensive scheme which depends on wide receivers stressing defenses and creating chunk plays to open up the playbook for the other positions. The Giants might be able to get by with the creative usage of Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram in the passing game. However, they might also struggle if Shepard doesn’t rebound, Slayton doesn’t take a step forward, or Tate declines. If all of that happens, Giants fans could look at the decision to bypass what appeared to be an exceptionally good wide receiver class as a serious mistake.
For now, only time will tell.