The Giants’ depth chart remained pretty consistent this spring. There were rotations at several positions, but no unexpected numbers were called on with the first-team offense or defense.
Until, that is, rookie wide receiver Darius Slayton lined up with the first-string offense at Tuesday’s OTA practice, found separation 20 yards downfield on his first rep, and received a strike from Eli Manning.
This was not a case of Pat Shurmur calling Slayton’s name to get his confidence up, either.
“No, it just so happened that I was open and that’s where (Manning) chose to go with the ball, fortunately,” Slayton, 22, said with a smile. “It was exciting.”
This has been a quick ascent for Slayton from his first day of rookie minicamp, when he dropped at least four passes, including two in 11-on-11 drills from fellow rookie Daniel Jones.
The fifth-round pick out of Auburn earned his early promotion, however, by correcting what Shurmur called early “yips” and doing what Slayton described on Tuesday: getting open.
“Darius has done a really good job,” Shurmur said Tuesday. “I think he is the most improved in my eyes.”
Slayton, who is wearing No. 86 for the Giants, is a burner. He was a Georgia high school state champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and caught six touchdowns of 50 yards or more for the Tigers between 2017-18.
He caught 35 passes for 670 yards for a 19.1-yard average a team-leading five touchdowns in 12 games last season, making some noise despite playing on a disappointing Auburn offense.
The 6-2, 190-pound speedster is working in the Giants’ punt and kick return rotation, too. He was ecstatic, of course, about earning first-team offensive reps alongside Manning on Tuesday.
Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate and Corey Coleman had been working primarily as the top three receivers recently, but Slayton now has inched up into the rotation alongside Cody Latimer.
It’s a high-profile position that will be in the spotlight given the tall task of replacing traded star Odell Beckham Jr.
“I knew before practice I was going to rep with the (first team). The receivers coaches told me,” he said. “So when I did get in there I was excited, I wanted to do well, because I think it’s important for quarterbacks to have trust in their receivers. So if I’m in there with Eli, if he happens to throw the ball my way, I want to be able to make a play.”
Slayton earned this opportunity, though, by observing his veteran teammates, learning from his mistakes, adapting to his surroundings and even learning how to temper his greatest strength.
Imagine being too fast, for example. Hard to do for most of us, right? Well Slayton said one thing he has worked on is having patience and pace with his routes.
“It kind of happened the other day: Sometimes when you’re so fast, you get going and you just get up on somebody so quick, and it’s almost like, ‘whoa, I just closed the gap on him and I’ve got to make a move,” Slayton said. “So definitely learning to play with pace has been something I’m (working on) … That’s one thing Sterling Shepard’s really good at; he plays with great pace and gets in and out of his breaks. And Corey (Coleman) is more experienced and a speed guy like me, so having somebody like him helps, as well.”
Slayton also said at the Giants Town Hall at the Beacon Theatre on Tuesday night that it was “a little different trying to track the ball” in New Jersey because of the wind.
The receiver was labeled with inconsistent hands coming out of college, but he attributed his early rookie minicamp drops to “trying to do a little bit too much.”
“You want to impress the coaches and do well,” he said of those early jitters.
Slayton said he finds the Giants’ receivers room extremely confident, and watching them has emboldened him. So as the weeks passed after rookie camp, he built up his belief, started stretching the field with Jones and Alex Tanney, and then arrived at Tuesday’s opportunity.
“Sterling Shepard seems like he’s always open,” Slayton said. “Bennie, Golden, they just play the game at such a high level and it looks like there’s just no doubt. And watching them, I just try to emulate everything they do ya know. I try to be a 6-foot-2 version of Sterling Shepard.”