With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Tight Ends
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW: As the New York Giants entered training camp in July 2014, the tight end position appeared to be a pending disaster. The Giants had parted ways with the disappointing Brandon Myers and jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none Bear Pascoe. The only returning players were Larry Donnell (16 games, 3 catches in his two NFL seasons) and Adrien Robinson (3 games, no catches in his two seasons), both of whom had demonstrated very little to date. The Giants had added Kellen Davis (unrestricted free agent from the Seahawks), Daniel Fells (who was out of football in 2013), and Xavier Grimble (undrafted rookie free agent). Late in training camp, the Giants also signed Jerome Cunningham (who was out of football in 2013).
Few predicted correctly that Donnell would win the starting job followed by Fells as the #2 tight end and Robinson as the #3 tight end. Cunningham was also signed to the Practice Squad.
Overall, while the tight end was not a position of strength for the 2014 New York Giants, it certainly was not the mess many had expected. Donnell had a breakout year as a receiver. He finished tied for 9th in the NFL among tight ends in terms of catches (63), 13th in terms of yards (623), and tied for 7th in terms of touchdowns (6). Blocking is not a strength of his game, but Donnell appears to be an ascending player with enough physical talent to get better. Fells proved to be less dynamic, but was more reliable as a blocker. And he did chip in with four touchdowns. Robinson remained buried on the depth chart, but at least he finally saw some playing time and caught his first NFL touchdown pass.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants signed undrafted rookie free agents Matt LaCosse and Will Tye after the 2015 NFL Draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The main focus will be on Larry Donnell and whether or not he can take another major leap forward in his development. He jumped from a career 3-catch target to the NFL’s 9th-leading receiving tight end in one season. But Donnell needs to improve his consistency, blocking, and ball security. The good news is he knows that and has been working hard to improve his overall game. A potential fly in the ointment is that Donnell missed most of the spring work with Achilles tendinitis.
Assuming Donnell gets and stays healthy, the other story line is which tight ends will round out the unit. Fells is the steady but unspectacular leader of the group. Cunningham really flashed as a receiver during spring practices. Robinson also made some noise in the spring and LaCosse and Tye appear to have more talent than your typical rookie free agents.
ON THE BUBBLE: Ideally, the Giants would probably like to carry four tight ends, but three is more likely. Barry injury, the only sure bet is Donnell. Fells, Robinson, Cunningham, LaCosse and Tye are probably fighting for two roster spots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Kevin M. Gilbride on Adrien Robinson: “Adrien has made tremendous progress this spring. He’s the one who has made the most progress as far as his understanding and grasping of how to get his job done. He could always tells you what his assignment was, but he didn’t necessarily know how to go about doing it. Or he had been taught how to do it, and then moved onto something else, taught how to do that, and then lost what he had learned. He’s made a lot of progress and it’s showed up more this spring than it ever has before. And I’m not talking about making catches because he could always make catches or get open on a particular route. We’re talking about how to execute when he is working with a tackle on the front side of a zone scheme and when to come off on the backer and the angle to take and where to place his hands and how he should pressure his hands and things like that. He’s made the most progress in that area. It’s good to see because we need him to come around.”
Gilbride on Jerome Cunningham: “What stands out is his effort. He is going to give great effort, no matter what. Whether he knew what he was doing or not, he was going to be going 100 miles per hour, whether he knew what block he was supposed to make or not. He was going to be doing it as well as he could. That gives them a chance. It gives every person who plays this game a chance to be successful, or at least to be noticed as far as staying on the squad in some capacity, which certainly he did. He has carried it over throughout the season and then now through the spring where he has made some good strides.”
Gilbride on Larry Donnell: “It is technique and confidence (with his blocking). Having him miss this offseason was not good for him in that regard. He is going to have to come into training camp and pick up where these other guys have left off in the improvements we have made in that area. We focused on certain things this offseason in the run game. It really started to show towards the end of the spring, which we were happy about. Happy to see. Still have a ways to go overall, but much improved. We were happy with where it went. We just want him to be a part of it.”
Gilbride on Will Tye: “Talented kid. He has very, very soft hands. He can run straight-line very well and for as tall as he plays – because he doesn’t play with great bent knees all the time – he can get in and out of breaks very smooth. What he needs to improve is his quick-twitch and his true effort at the snap to the end of the whistle…It’s not instinctual for him to play fast…He’s got a ways to go as far as learning the offense…He has made too many mental mistakes, but that doesn’t mean he won’t eventually get it. We’ve thrown a lot at all of them.”
Gilbride on LaCosse: “Different skillset. He’s a linear guy, a long-legged guy who can get down the field. Very, very bright. Talk about Will (Tye) making too many mistakes, Matt didn’t make many mistakes, which is impressive. We had him in a role where we moved him around all the time as far as motioning and shifts.”
PREDICTIONS: I like this group of tight ends more than most. If Donnell’s Achilles tendinitis isn’t a problem, I truly think he has the ability to develop into one of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL. He looked like a budding star in his Week 4, three-touchdown performance against the Washington Redskins. Donnell can do it. He has an excellent combination of size (6’6”, 265 pounds), athletic ability, and hands. I love the way he adjusts to the football for a big man. He’s a match-up problem for linebackers. So is Jerome Cunningham, but for different reasons. Cunningham is smaller (6’3”, 250 pounds), but even faster and more athletic. He can be a match-up problem for safeties. There were whispers about him being pretty darn good as a Practice Squad player last year and his performance in the spring was impressive.
What the group seems to be lacking is someone who excels at blocking. Fells is the most consistent and reliable. But he may be pressed by Robinson, provided Robinson finally “gets it” in his fourth year.
I also have a feeling that the Giants are going to like what they see in LaCosse and Tye.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Donnell remains the starter, but Cunningham is going to press for serious playing time as more of an H-Back type tight end. Ben McAdoo will find a role for him in his TE-centric offense. The difficult decision here for me is Robinson versus Fells. I think Robinson will do enough in camp to convince the Giants to keep their 3-year investment. But if Robinson continues to falter, Fells retains his job and provides leadership. While the Practice Squad may be the most realistic option for both LaCosse and Tye, if one excels at blocking, he has a shot at the 53-man roster.