It was an every-so-often discussion, and each time Eli Manning artfully navigated around the question, praising while never actually comparing one group to the other.
Every few summers, Manning was asked, “Is this the best group of wide receivers you’ve ever had?’’ Before too long, he anticipated this query in training camp and cracked a smile before dutifully responding that yes, this has the potential to be a good unit.
There was the Amani Toomer-Plaxico Burress-Steve Smith trio. There was the Hakeem Nicks-Victor-Cruz-Mario Manningham trio. There was the Odell Beckham Jr.-Cruz-Sterling Shepard trio that never really gained any traction because of Cruz’s devastating knee injury.
Manning is gone into retirement and his successor, Daniel Jones, brings back the same group he broke in with as a rookie last season. The top three Giants receivers are Shepard, Golden Tate and Darius Slayton and it is a threesome that is not overwhelmingly big or exceptionally fast. It is not an especially diverse corps, as Shepard and Tate are similar in stature and style. Slayton, a fifth-round pick last year out of Auburn, was the most pleasant surprise in a dismal year for the Giants.
The Giants did not use any of their 10 draft picks this year on receivers, so they clearly did not view this position as an area of great need. Some disagree with that view.
“I think it’s lacking,’’ Toomer told The Post recently.
Toomer continues to sit atop the Giants’ franchise leaderboard with 668 career receptions. He did it in 13 years and it seemed as if it was only a matter of time before he was overtaken by Beckham, who had 288 receptions in his first three seasons. If Beckham continued that pace, he would have needed only seven seasons to supplant Toomer. Beckham was derailed by injuries and finished his five-year stay fourth on the Giants’ all-time list for receptions — second only to Toomer among wide receivers — with 390 catches. He is now hauling passes in for the Browns.
Players usually do not like to get labeled or put in a box, as far as hearing they are designated as “a No. 2 receiver.’’ It would be hard to argue, though, that the Giants have a true No. 1 receiver. This makes it even more imperative for running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Evan Engram to be major targets. Shepard and Tate are legitimate NFL starters, but more complementary pieces in an offense, best when paired with a greater threat.
Shepard, 27, took off as a rookie in 2016, with 65 receptions for 683 yards and what remains a career-high eight touchdowns. He was limited to only 10 games last season and it was an extremely difficult experience for him, as he was forced out twice with concussions, always a troubling turn of events. In 2017, Sheppard missed five games because of migraines, an ankle injury and a neck injury.
Tate, 31, caught 49 passes for 676 yards and six touchdowns in his first year with the Giants, sitting out the first four games on a suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. He is entering his 11th NFL season.
“I’m a little disappointed with Shepard, I don’t know,’’ Toomer said. “My dad always used to tell me, ‘He’s hell when he’s well, he’s just sick all the time.’ That’s what I think when I think of him. He’s just always, there’s always something hurt, or something.
“I think Golden Tate is just a tougher version of him. Basically they’re the same receiver, but Golden Tate is a tougher version of him.’’
Interestingly, Slayton — with 48 receptions for 740 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns as a rookie in 2019 — is the receiver on the roster that excites Toomer most of all.
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“I think he’s the guy what has the most upside,’’ Toomer said.
The entire feel and look of the receiving corps would be different if Beckham was not sent to Cleveland. It is a trade that continues to mystify Toomer.
“I’m still confused on why they got rid of Odell,’’ he said. “Really confused. And every time I ask somebody in the office, it’s like, ‘Well, it was a fit thing’ and all this nebulous, circumstantial stuff. Or, ‘Oh he wasn’t a good fit in the locker room.’ But everybody I talked to loved him. Even the trainers all loved him. So I don’t know.
“They went from having a strength to now it’s a position where they need something else.’’