On the NFL calendar, July is the time for optimism. Teams tout their potential, coaches fawn over their young athletes’ development, and the players insist they are in the best shape of their lives. From the team to the media to the fans, everyone basks in what could be. This year is no different …
… Except for the New York Giants, who have found a way to trip over their own feet before the race has even begun. Three days into training camp, the team that traded Odell Beckham Jr. away this offseason is down three receivers. On Thursday, the first day of camp, Corey Coleman tore his ACL. Now, the favorite to be the team’s no. 3 wide receiver and handle kickoff return duties will spend the year on injured reserve. During the same practice, no. 1 wideout Sterling Shepard fractured his thumb attempting to catch a ball on a curl route. It’s the third time he has fractured the thumb. While the injury will not require surgery and he is expected to return after a few weeks, it will cost him most of his first training camp as the team’s no. 1 receiver.
Two days later, offseason free-agent acquisition Golden Tate was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Tate, who earlier this decade was critical of teammates who fail drug tests, attributed the failed test to a fertility treatment. (He has said he will appeal the suspension, but is unlikely to win.) Roughly 72 hours into training camp, the Giants receiver depth chart was blown to smithereens.
“The problem is it really affects the way practice operates,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman told reporters last week about the impact of the injuries. “It affects the way Pat [Shurmur] writes the script, Pat and Mike Shula write the offensive script and everything, so it hurts.”
With the second-team unit essentially promoted to first team, Eli Manning is working with special teamers. First-round pick Daniel Jones is working with training-camp fillers who have no chance of making the team. And with the offense worse, the defense is practicing against lower-quality opponents.
“In this league, it’s a next-man-up mentality,” Shepard told reporters when asked Saturday about the mood of the wide receivers’ meeting room. “This is the sport of football, and the next guy has to be ready.”
Just how ready they’ll be is relative. Even if Shepard returns for Week 1, the Giants have four serious options to replace Tate and Coleman as their no. 2 and no. 3 receivers. Fifth-rounder Darius Slayton is speedy, but already has a hamstring injury and is too green to start at wideout in 2019. That cuts the list to three, and two of them are special teamers. Russell Shepard (no relation to Sterling) is one of Gettleman’s favorite players dating back to both of their tenures in Carolina, but he has just 57 catches for 822 yards in his career. At 28 years old, he is likely already who he is going to be as an NFL receiver.
The other two options are Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler, former Broncos receivers who washed out of Denver and followed former Broncos receivers coach Tyke Tolbert to in New York. Latimer was Denver’s second-round pick in 2014, but he has just 46 catches for 635 yards in his career and has proved to be a special-teams contributor at best.
Fowler was an undrafted free agent in the same draft class, has 72 catches for 897 receiving yards in his career, and his main skill seems to be picking up the Giants offense quickly. After signing with the team in Week 7 last year, Fowler still managed to play the most snaps of any Giants wideout after Beckham and Sterling Shepard. (Latimer, Fowler, and Russell Shepard have 175 catches for 2,354 yards over a combined 16 seasons—less than Beckham has in his past 32 games.) Fowler’s claim to fame is catching the two-point conversion for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 that doubled as the last pass of Peyton Manning’s career. Considering that this is possibly the last year of Eli Manning’s career, Fowler may become the Mannings’ personal Grim Reaper. Throw in that Gettleman was the GM for the Panthers in that Super Bowl loss, and it’s poetic.
“We have nothing to lose,” Russell Shepard told ESPN’s Jordan Raanan over the weekend. “That’s what you want. You want people to doubt you at times so you can prove them wrong. You want people to kind of give up on you.”
The first part, “We have nothing to lose,” is mostly true. The Giants have squandered almost everything worth having. In October, Gettleman traded Damon Harrison, the league’s best run-stuffing defensive tackle, for a fifth-round pick. In March, Gettleman declined to use the franchise tag on safety Landon Collins, who is 25 years young and was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2017. With the foreshocks still rippling, Gettleman completed the earthquake later that month with The Big One, trading icon Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland for the no. 17 overall pick (which New York used on Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence), the no. 95 overall pick, (used on Old Dominion defensive end Oshane Ximines), and safety Jabrill Peppers, who was the no. 25 pick in the 2017 draft. The Giants exiled their best defensive tackle and their best safety and then traded the best receiver in franchise history to fill the holes at defensive tackle and safety. That doesn’t even include Gettleman shipping Eli Apple, the cornerback the team took in the first round in 2016, to New Orleans for a fourth-rounder at the trade deadline only for Apple to promptly resuscitate New Orleans’s pass coverage. It also doesn’t include drafting Jones at no. 6 overall, which the NFL draft media industrial complex has decided is going to go down as an all-time draft blunder. Nor does it include passing on USC quarterback Sam Darnold for Saquon Barkley with the no. 2 pick in 2018. As Barkley told ESPN last week, “Why have 3,000 yards and go 5-11? What does that really mean? What did you really do for your team?” At least someone in the organization is asking these questions.
To the second part of Russell Shepard’s quote (“You want people to kind of give up on you.”)—if that’s the goal, then things are going great. The Giants’ Super Bowl odds are 100-1, tied for the third-worst odds behind the Cardinals and Dolphins. Daniel Jones was booed at Yankee Stadium after being shown on the video screen, and every tweet from the official Giants account of anything Jones does gets ratioed. Collins is so upset with how the Giants handled his departure that he won’t even refer to the Giants by name. Beckham correctly pointed out to GQ that the team kept getting prime-time games in part because of his fame.
The Giants are not the only team having a tough training camp. The Bengals lost receiver A.J. Green for six to eight weeks with an ankle injury and already lost rookie tackle Jonah Williams for the year. Two NFC north coaches are conducting training camp from golf carts. But the Giants are the league’s laughingstock. While every fan base is wondering what could be this season, Giants fans are already wondering what could have been.