The New York Giants' Offense Could Use More Shane Vereen
There was a sense of optimism when the New York Giants signed Shane Vereen in the offseason -- he was coming off being an important, versatile piece of the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots, and was even the a focal point of the formation controversy against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Game. His ability as a pass-catcher allowed that formation to happen, forcing a defender to line up across from him out of habit. The same type of formation couldn't be used with such effectiveness with, say, Andre Williams out in the slot.
That’s what made the Vereen signing exciting. Not only had the Giants and Eli Manning not had that type of weapon at their disposal, but there are only so few weapons like that in the entire league.
After Manning had a bounce-back season under the West Coast based offensive system of Ben McAdoo, Vereen was supposed to be an added element to that quick strike offense.
Then games happened, and Vereen was little more than a typical third-down back sharing snaps with Williams and Rashad Jennings. Through the first four weeks of the season, the snap share between Vereen, Jennings and Williams was almost as split as it could be for a running back-by-committee approach: 105, 91, 70.
Even in last Sunday’s win over the San Francisco 49ers, which kind of turned into Vereen’s breakthrough game for the Giants, his playing time with Jennings was just about even, 39 to 30.
But Vereen got the most important snaps of the game -- when trailing on the final drive -- and that’s what should matter the most here.
On a Fateful Drive
During that final drive on Sunday night, the Giants were in trouble. Not just because they had blown yet another lead late in a fourth quarter and found themselves needing a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, either. The Giants had no receivers. Not in a literal sense, of course, but due to hamstring injuries to both Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle, the Giants were running out 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with Dwayne Harris, Geremy Davis and Myles White as their three wideouts. Vereen took the field as not just the best running back for the situation, but arguably the best receiver.
Vereen was targeted three times on the eventual 10-play game-winning drive, and each Vereen reception positively impacted expected points and win probability. Vereen’s second catch of the drive, a 16-yard gain on 2nd-and-10 from the Giants’ 40-yard line, added 12.87% to the win probability, per numberFire Live. His third catch, a 24-yard gain on a 3rd-and-10 from the San Francisco 44 was worth 19.26% in win probability. Only two entire drives during the game, excluding the game winner, swung win probability more.
Yes, late in close games, win probability is more volatile than it would be in the middle of a game, but Vereen was very much the Giants’ best chance of advancing the ball on that drive, and he came through.
More to Come?
This wasn’t just a one drive exception, though it should be the catalyst for and inclusion on more plays going forward. Vereen has been the best option in the backfield according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
Not a single back on the Giants has stood out among peers across the league, but Vereen has clearly been in the lead among the three backs on the roster. Vereen hasn’t been used much as a runner -- just 25 attempts -- but he’s been the most efficient of the three, as his Rushing NEP per attempt of 0.01 is just above the league average, which stands at 0.00 through five weeks. Jennings has been just below average with -0.02 Rushing NEP per attempt on his 53 carries, and Williams has been the worst option of the three at -0.19 Rushing NEP per attempt on 40 carries.
But still, before the final drive of the San Francisco game, Vereen appeared to be underutilized by the Giants. With Beckham and Randle still potentially plagued by their injuries heading into a Monday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles -- Beckham was not practicing on Thursday, but Randle was expected to -- more use of Vereen could be an easy way to kick start the Giants offense.
Now, Vereen is already the third-down back and has been on the field more than Jennings and Williams, so how could he be implemented more into the game plan than he already has been? He quite obviously isn’t the type of back to handle the full-time load and get 200 carries in a season -- he never has been -- so more snaps in general is not a simple answer.
A quick way to do this could be more touches in the red zone. Of the three backs, Vereen has been the least utilized inside the 20 with only three total touches -- two rushing attempts, one catch and one other target. Meanwhile, Jennings has eight carries for five yards, and Williams has seven for four inside the red zone.
Vereen’s one catch also came this past Sunday and resulted in a two-yard touchdown. Lined up next to Manning in the shotgun, Vereen was able to fake a step inward to freeze linebacker Navorro Bowmann just enough to create separation for an out and an easy catch. Vereen’s ability to do this from the backfield and the slot makes him New York’s best mismatch in this area, with the possible exception of any human attempting to cover Beckham.
The Giants are already the eighth most efficient offense this season by schedule-adjusted NEP per play, while not using one of their best weapons to its full potential. Sunday was the best glimpse of what that potential could be, and if the Giants are smart it should only serve as the beginning.