Which Giants Pass-Catcher Is Poised To Lead The Way?

Photo: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, the New York Giants’ win-loss record wasn’t as good as some had hoped. But I purposefully didn’t say “as planned” because when you’re moving on from a nearly two-decade-long franchise quarterback in exchange for a rookie, it should never be the plan to succeed right away.

The Giants drafted quarterback Daniel Jones No. 6 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, and though drafting a quarterback that high always opens the possibility to early playing time, Jones being named the starter going into Week 3 meant that team was in for a ride.

The ride ended in a 4-12 record, but Giants faithful certainly hoped lessons were learned and the foundation of future strategies were formed.

One of those strategies moving forward deals with how the team will deploy its weapons in the passing game. Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram, and even guys like Corey Coleman, David Sills, and Kaden Smith could be in the mix for targets in 2020. But who will be the leader among them?

Versatility and a deep receiver group is good, in theory, but you have to know how to use them to get the most of each. After all, the saying is true that there is only one ball, and there are only so many targets that can be divided between the group throughout each game. And often you’ll find that the return on investment for where you chose to send your targets is not an even split among three or four guys. There is always someone—one, maybe two players—who the team should lean on more than others.

To find out who that might be for the Giants in 2020, we have to go into the mind of the offensive coordinator. 

Jason Garrett comes to New York to serve as the Giants’ offensive coordinator and offensive play-caller under new head coach Joe Judge after previously coaching the Dallas Cowboys for nine seasons as head coach—and 13 seasons total if you count his years as the team’s offensive coordinator before that.

It’s important to note that Garrett had been head coach since 2010 but stopped calling plays after the 2012 season. In the six seasons he was the play-caller for the Cowboys (between 2007 to 2012), Garrett's offenses were 11th or better in the league in terms of yards-per-play and yards-per-game—outside of 2008 when they were ranked 13th. According to John Schmeelk of Giants.com, with Garrett calling plays, the Cowboys’ passing offense was never ranked lower than ninth in yards-per-game or 11th in yards-per-play, including two top-five seasons in both categories. On top of that, the rushing offense was top 10 in yards-per-play four times.

When it comes to the coaching tree, Garrett’s roots and branches don’t give us as much of a hint as it might for other coaches around the league. He could technically be a fruit of the Bill Parcells coaching tree, as you could trace Garrett’s coaching influence from Nick Saban, who he was the quarterbacks coach for when Saban was in Miami; you then would use Saban to get to Belichick and then to the Parcells root. But in all honesty, it’s hard to really think those connections would have too much of a foundational influence for Garrett over other factors since his time with Saban was so short and his experience in Dallas with other coaches he has hired has been much longer and likely more meaningful. 

So instead of branches and roots, we must look for hints in his words. Garrett had this to say about his offense during the early Cowboys days.

"When we came to Dallas in 2007, we wanted to put in a system of offense that was something we would have with us regardless of the players that we had," Garrett said. "A system that's comprehensive and flexible to cater to the strengths and weaknesses of our team. The early part of that tenure, I was the play-caller and then three other guys were able to do that, but it was our system. It was flexible."

Flexible is a positive point, but installing an offense regardless of the players they had at the time isn’t as much and is sort of contrary to how you get the most out of your guys year in and year out—but perhaps he didn’t mean that as literally as he could have.

Garrett went on to say, “There's no question it has evolved. There's no question the language over the years has evolved and grown. But that's part of the system. You don't want your system to be stagnant.” So that’s encouraging.

As for the passing attack in New York, in 2019, Slayton, Shepard, and Tate all saw more than 80 targets. Tate saw the most with 85, then Slayton with 84, then Shepard with 83. Engram was on pace to get over that threshold, but he only played half the season due to injury, so his target number was cut short at 68. The trio of receivers all played significant amounts of snaps. Slayton led the team with 701 (just over 65%), then it was Tate at 624 (just over 58%), with Shepard not far behind at 602 (just over 56%).

How do these trends hold up with what Garrett might prefer?

Snap count numbers on Pro Football Reference don’t go back as far as 2007, but they do at least go back to 2012, which was the final season with Garrett as a play-caller. In that season, receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin dominated the offensive focus, both playing more than 850 snaps each; Bryant with 920 and Austin with 860. That was more than 78% of the total offensive snaps for Austin and more than 83% of the snaps for Bryant. 

That sounds like a heavy lean on two guys at most. But we do know that offenses have evolved a lot in eight years, so Garrett might not be as hard on that two-player system as he was back then. But when it comes to Tate, Shepard, or Slayton, though each has assets of their game that are valuable, I wouldn’t say any of them are in the mold of how Dallas used Bryant and Austin. That doesn’t really give us a clear picture of how Garrett might use that trio or who he might emphasize out of them.

But there was another number on that snap count chart that caught my eye in a big way. That would be the snap count and snap percentage of tight end Jason Witten. Witten, who had an incredible career with the Cowboys, logged 1,079 snaps over the course of the 2012 season, which was more than 98% of the total offensive plays. As someone who was pretty high on Engram coming out of college, this is something that really caught my attention. After doing some research on how Garrett himself sees Engram, we might be talking about a major focal point of the Giants offense.

“There's this idea that, hey, this is a receiving tight end, this is a play-making tight end,” Garrett said. “I don't think there's any question about that. But he's also someone who's willing to be a complete tight end and block, block in line and do the things he needs to do to be an every-down player for us. He's been fantastic. He has a great thirst for knowledge, a great thirst for trying to understand what we're asking him to do and it shows up in his work every day.”

When Garrett says the phrase “every-down player” I don’t think he’ll mean more than 1,000 snaps for Engram like he did for Witten back in 2012. But if I had to guess who was going to lead the Giants passing weapons in snaps in 2020, if Engram is fully healthy, it’s him. Even before the arrival of Garrett, Engram led the Giants in targets-per-game with 8.5—Shepard was next with 8.3, Tate was after him with 7.7, and Slayton averaged six. Now that gap between Engram and the rest might be even greater.

In all honesty, the Giants offense is going to be built around what Saquon Barkley can do for them; I have a feeling this team is going to lean on Barkley in both the run game and in the pass game with quick screens and deeper routes on mismatch situations. But that in and of itself also leans toward favoring Engram as a constant in the passing game, as Garrett has not been shy about utilizing play-action to complement his passing attack.

When orchestrating the offense for the Cowboys in 2012, Garrett liked to keep his outside receivers isolated so they could thin out the linebacker as to limit how much they could help against in-breaking routes beyond or just outside the reach of the linebacker level. To me, this really plays well in the hands of Shepard (who played a lot more on the outside in 2019) as a crisp route-runner and Tate (who led the team in yards after the catch) as potential outside quick-hit guys. But it also lends to Engram being able to attack the seams vertically with little traffic outside of the players he needs to beat in coverage. As one of the more controlled route-runners for the position, Engram is poised to thrive in such an offensive philosophy.

Engram averaged the lowest yards-per-catch average of his career in 2019 with just 10.6. But his yards-per-game, his snaps-per-game, and his targets per-game were all career bests. If we get a healthy Engram in 2020, I believe the Giants will run their passing offense through him.