EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The names and receiving options for New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones sound so appealing: Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, to name a few.
If only they didn’t come with so many question marks.
Golladay and Toney are the ultimate enigmas entering this season, especially after what unfolded this summer. Golladay was the Giants’ prized free agent acquisition last offseason but didn’t catch a single touchdown pass in his first year with the team. He has been running routes this summer with the stiffness of a mannequin and was curiously on the field playing with the backups in New York's final preseason tuneup this past Sunday. Much like his first season with the Giants, it was strange and eye-opening.
“We’re playing all the receivers. It’s a competitive group. So they’re out there competing,” coach Brian Daboll said after the 31-27 loss to the New York Jets, where Golladay had one target and no catches.
Golladay is an $18 million per year veteran player. You don’t expect him competing in the final preseason game alongside players who are fighting for their professional lives. But he played 51 snaps this preseason, the most of any wide receiver to make the Giants roster, and caught one pass on four targets for 6 yards. He also dropped a potential touchdown in the preseason opener.
It was simply an extension of what was on display at training camp practices throughout the summer. Minimal separation. Limited explosion. Sloppy routes. It doesn’t exactly portend a bounce-back season.
Former big-bodied receiver Keyshawn Johnson doesn’t see it working out for Golladay if the injuries of the past few seasons have sapped some explosion and his routes haven't improved.
“I understand he’s tall, he’s long. Yeah, yeah. I get it. He catches 50-50 balls,” Johnson said this week on the Keyshawn, JWill and Max show on ESPN Radio. “But I can’t help you. If he doesn’t know how to play by now, nothing I can do for him.”
Golladay, 28, is guaranteed $17.5 million this season and another $4.5 million for next year. It made him all but uncuttable this summer. Maybe Golladay turns it on for the regular season. Or perhaps he's still trying to get explosion back after spending most of the spring in the red jersey traditionally reserved for injured players. This seems to be the Giants’ only hope to salvage something out of the situation. So far, it has been a disaster.
In 2021, Golladay had 37 catches for 571 yards and no touchdowns over 14 games. He was one of just four receivers with at least 50 targets to create less than 2.0 yards of separation per target, per NFL Next Gen Stats. And it hasn't improved so far this year. Golladay had just 1.9 yards of separation in the preseason, albeit in a limited sample size.
“Looks a little labored and stiff at the top [of his routes],” said a pro personnel executive who recently watched Golladay. “His routes were never his strength. ... When someone is good at finishing in contested situations it can also mean they don’t get open.”
Golladay seems to understand the spotlight on him is scorching. He hasn’t shown his best to the Giants or their fans.
“No, I wouldn’t say so. Maybe I probably showed glimpses last year in New Orleans a little bit,” Golladay said this summer, pointing to a six-catch, 116-yard performance in Week 4 last October. “I definitely would say I got a lot to prove, not just to everybody else. I would say to myself I'm always in a daily competition with myself, just trying to better myself each and every day.”
If only this were the only concern involving a Giants receiver. It’s not.
Toney hasn’t been able to stay on the field, Shepard started practicing recently but is coming off a torn Achilles and Slayton spent most of the spring and summer buried on the depth chart. At least second-round pick Wan'Dale Robinson has looked like a promising young player.
Toney is the situation to watch most closely. Just how patient will this new regime of Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen be with a player they didn’t draft? Toney is a 2021 first-round pick brimming with talent, but he just can’t -- for seemingly every reason imaginable -- stay on the field. He didn’t appear in a preseason game and recently has been dealing with a hamstring injury.
The Giants do seem somewhat optimistic that he will be ready for Week 1 in 10 days against the Tennessee Titans.
“I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful,” Daboll said earlier this week. “We’ll just take it one day at a time. He’s been getting better. I think he’s getting close, so I’m hopeful.”
Toney, 23, received a clean slate this offseason. He didn't attend the start of the offseason program for what he has defined as “personal reasons,” and despite eventually showing up, he spent all of OTAs and minicamp on the sideline following a knee procedure. Still, the offseason narrative seemed to be that he was back in good graces with the organization, even though there had been trade rumors at the start of the year.
Toney trained this offseason back in Atlanta with Steph Brown, a wide receivers specialist at Top Shelf Performance, and at Adapt Physical Fitness and Therapy. Things seemed to be trending in the right direction. He was back for the start of camp and even made a great leaping catch in the end zone that sent the head coach and entire offense into an on-field frenzy.
Then the availability concerns surfaced again. This after a rookie year that saw him deal with everything from wrong-sized cleats to two bouts with COVID-19 to shoulder, quad, oblique, ankle, hamstring and finger injuries. At some point, the drama is sure to outweigh the talent.
The Giants are crossing their fingers they don’t get there soon. They need Toney to help them take a real look at Jones. One member of the previous coaching staff told ESPN in the offseason that Toney was “one of the most talented wide receivers in the league.” He thought his talent could put him in the same conversation as the likes of Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, DeAndre Hopkins and Ja'Marr Chase. That was how good Toney could be.
For now, he was unavailable the entire preseason. So was Shepard coming off a torn Achilles. Slayton played only 18 snaps as he dealt with a hamstring injury. He was also a potential trade candidate this week after spending most of the spring and summer working with the second and third teams. Slayton has not appeared to be a favorite of the new regime.
It all has the Giants heading into the regular season (again!) with more questions at wide receiver than the attractive assemblance of names would indicate.
Jones tried to brush off that Toney, Golladay, Shepard, Robinson and Slayton combined for six catches and 24 yards in the preseason. (Slayton accounted for 17 of those in the preseason opener.)
“When you think about the preseason, you think about training camp,” Jones said. “The games are certainly a big part of it, but practice and what we’re doing everyday here is huge also. … These next couple of weeks are important for each one of those guys and for the offense as a whole to continue to build that chemistry. There’s valuable work still to be done. I think guys understand that, and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Time is running out on this group. They have to start to live up to their potential. Now or never.