For nearly a decade now the Giants have been talking about a “Big Three” at wide receiver. It started back when they had Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and a young Steve Smith early in Eli Manning’s career, and continued through the Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz eras.
Always, it seems, they’ve had two stellar receivers joined by a third one filled with promise.
And year after year, it just never seemed to work out.
It didn’t work out last season, either, because it was clear that after two surgeries and approaching age 30, Cruz just wasn’t the receiver he once was. So the Giants revised their expectations and headed into the offseason content with their dynamic duo. They were thrilled with All-Pro Odell Beckham, obviously, and encouraged by the rookie season that Sterling Shepard had. They just weren’t sure they’d be able find a good enough receiver to turn their twosome into a trio.
“And then, all of a sudden,” Giants co-owner John Mara says, “he becomes available.”
The gift came on March 2 when Brandon Marshall was released by the Jets, widening the eyes of the Giants’ front office and springing their phones into action. In every way, Marshall was the perfect fit — an experienced veteran, skilled in handling the New York media, mature enough to mentor a young and impressionable receiving corps, and with good enough skills that as recently as two years ago (2015) he had 109 catches for 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Maybe most important, he’s big — 6'4", 230, the kind of huge target that Eli Manning hasn’t had since the 6'5" Burress was helping him win Super Bowl XLII.
“I’ve seen film of Eli and Plaxico, but in my mind that didn’t factor into this decision,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo says. “It’s a different player, a different time. But there are a lot of advantages to having a bigger receiver on the outside. You can throw it up, especially with someone like Brandon with his strength and his catch radius. He almost didn’t fit through my doorway when he came into the building. He’s a big man. He’s like a tight end body out there — a big, strong man.
“There’s a lot of value in that.”
That’s exactly what the Giants are counting on as they head into the home stretch of Manning’s career. Their franchise quarterback is 36 years old and signed for three more seasons. The Giants, coming off an 11–5 season and a return to the playoffs, with a top-10 defense and one of the most exciting receivers in the NFL (Beckham), believe they’ve got nearly enough talent to win at least one more Super Bowl before the Manning Era ends.
But they know something is missing — which was clear last season when what had been a top-10 offense slipped to 25th in the league and never once scored more 30 points in a single game. Some of that was the porous offensive line. Some of it was their struggling running game.
But some of it was a lack of options in the passing game. Beckham was his usual stellar self with 101 catches, 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns. Too often, though, he was the only reliable option. Shepard was more of a possession receiver than a dynamic presence in the slot (65-683-8), and Cruz was a shell of his old self and miscast as an outside receiver. He caught just 39 passes for 586 yards and one touchdown and showed no ability to get open consistently.
Marshall, perhaps by his sheer size alone, should never have that problem.
“(Big receivers) can be open when they’re not really open,” Manning says. “You don’t want to get into a habit — it’s not a jump ball — but you can throw him open. He’s been in lots of offenses and he gets open a lot of different ways. He’s very disciplined in his route-running and understanding concepts. I think he’ll be good for that receiver room and in our locker room, having that veteran presence.”
The veteran presence is another reason why the Giants believe the 33-year-old Marshall will provide instant improvement. Beckham, still only 24 years old, has been often criticized for his immaturity, for his lack of ability to stay under control on the field, and for his propensity to let things bubble over off the field — like when he punched a hole in a wall outside the interview room in Lambeau Field after the Giants’ playoff loss to the Packers.
The whole playoff experience, actually, was a textbook display of Beckham’s issues at this point in his career.
He kicked off the week by joining his fellow receivers on a day-off flight to Miami where they partied on a boat and then went clubbing (documenting the whole thing on social media, of course). Midweek, while trying to downplay the boat trip, he put on a mask in the locker room during the media interview period and began doing wrestling moves and poses for the TV cameras.
Then, after a week of “look at me” histrionics, he had three huge drops in his first playoff game, including one in the end zone, and he finished with just four catches for 28 yards — all of which led to his fist going through the Lambeau wall.
A day later, Giants general manager Jerry Reese talked about how this offseason would be a good time for Beckham to “grow up.”
Marshall, who had his own maturity issues early in his career, has actually spoken to Beckham at times over the last few years, offering to counsel him about the perils of handling all the attention and fame.
Being a counselor or mentor wasn’t the primary reason the Giants signed Marshall. After all, as co-owner Steve Tisch says: “[Beckham’s] not a problem child. He’s a work in progress.”
But outside of Manning, Beckham is probably the best and most important player on the Giants. So they’ll do anything they can do to help him.
“We’ve got to remember that Odell is, what, 23, 24 years old?” Marshall says. “We all have our own journey. He’s the ultimate competitor. So I want him to stay exactly where he’s at.
“Sometimes it’s easy for us as wide receivers and football players to cross that line, but he’ll grow. The type of guy Odell is, he’s a sponge. And he really wants to learn from different people and pull from different people. I’m sure that he’s going to use me when he needs to, and he’s going to pull from my experiences, both good and bad. I’m excited to see him take it to another level. This kid isn’t even in his prime yet and he’s a monster.”
The Giants believe Shepard has “monster” potential too — certainly the potential to surpass the 10.5 yards per catch he averaged last season. And now, adding Marshall with his huge size, long arms and ability to provide the biggest target Manning has had in years...
Once again, if everything falls into place as expected — from Beckham’s maturity to Shepard’s potential to the talent Marshall brings — the Giants are envisioning a three-headed monster that will be difficult for defenses to stop. After years of searching, Marshall could be the missing piece.
“I just think that there is a lot of opportunity on the other side of Odell,” Marshall says. “Obviously every team tries to take out Odell. (I can) help out the offense, the quarterback, to be able to keep defensive coordinators and the opposing defense honest. I think there is a lot of opportunity to definitely produce, given that Odell is on the other side.”
“(Signing Marshall) was a spark to the entire organization, getting a player of that caliber,” Mara says. “I think that’s really going to help us. He’s got a great attitude and he wants to win and I think he’ll be a good influence in the receiver room.”
“He’s a talented guy and I think he’ll be a great leader of this team and a great playmaker, and he’ll give us another weapon,” Manning says. “You’re always excited about that.”
— Written by Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) for Athlon Sports. This feature appears in Athlon Sports’ 2017 Pro Football Magazine, which is available for purchase online and at newsstands everywhere.
(Top photo courtesy of www.giants.com)