Have you ever bought ingredients to make a specific meal, and then changed your mind and made something completely different? That’s what the New York Giants’ offense will try to do in 2020. And Sterling Shepard is the mashed banana that will have to do as the egg replacement in those crepes you’re making.
Big Blue featured a West Coast influenced attack ever since Ben McAdoo became their offensive coordinator in 2014. That means a reliance on the quick passing game using short and intermediate routes, and a running game based on counters and misdirection. They drafted and acquired players accordingly to fit that system.
Now, new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is likely to implement his Air Coryell derived scheme. The Giants will have to fit their talent to an offense for which it wasn’t collected.
Air Coryell based teams feature a power running attack and vertical pass concepts. Luckily for the Giants, much of their offensive personnel should transition nicely to this new scheme. They have a bell cow running back in Saquon Barkley, a quarterback who’s shown the accuracy and willingness to take shots downfield in Daniel Jones, and the makings of a young, power-blocking offensive line.
Receiver is where the fit could get awkward. Darius Slayton has the speed and contested-catch ability to thrive in the deep passing game, but both Golden Tate and Shepard are better suited to win underneath. Cole Beasley’s success with the Dallas Cowboys proved there’s room for a smallish slot receiver under Garrett. One of Tate or Shepard will have to move outside and get open at the third-level of the defense.
Tate’s age and yards-after-catch prowess make him the favorite to stay in the slot. That leaves Shepard to become the wide receiver opposite Slayton. The fifth-year Oklahoma product doesn’t profile as the classic “X” receiver we’ve seen with Garrett before (i.e. Dez Bryant, Terrell Owens). But he does more closely resemble Dallas’ most recent number-one receiver, Amari Cooper.
The 6’1 Cooper may have a height advantage over the 5’10 Shepard, but they win in similar ways. Both rely on short-area quickness, precision route-running, and craftsmanship to get open and make plays. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Shepard led the Giants with 3.1 yards of average separation, which actually exceeded Cooper’s 2.6 yards.
Depth of target is where Cooper had the edge. His 12.8 average targeted air yards easily eclipsed Shepard’s 9.9, but that could be thanks to usage rather than ability. Shepard was pigeonholed as a slot receiver coming into the league because of his shiftiness and smaller stature. That typecasting underestimates what he can provide. In Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid scheme during his final year at Oklahoma, Shepard averaged 15 yards per reception catching passes from Baker Mayfield.
Sure, it would be nice to have a big-bodied receiver that can win jump balls down the field, but it’s far from necessary. The Kurt Warner-led “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams team was an Air Coryell offspring. Neither of their star receivers (Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt) were taller than 6 feet. Deep comebacks, digs, and corner routes are staples of the Air Coryell offense that require quickness over size. Shepard, much like Cooper, has the skill set to excel at all of them. And remember, Slayton is still there to run go-routes and posts to take the top off the defense.
Garrett may not have the exact ingredients he wants. If he can find a way to work with the ones he has, this Giants offense can get cooking in 2020.