With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Tight Ends
2016 YEAR IN REVIEW: Not good. The West Coast Offense, particularly the Green Bay Packers version that Ben McAdoo brought to the New York Giants, is heavily dependent on the performance of the tight ends. Entering the 2016 training camp, pundits and fans outside of the organization worried that the Giants had not invested enough serious resources to address the position. Both leading candidates to start (Larry Donnell and Will Tye) were former undrafted rookie free agents. The position was not addressed in the 2016 Draft until the 6th round (Jerell Adams). The other two prospects in the picture were also undrafted free agents (Matt LaCosse and Ryan Malleck).
Based on 2016 results, those pundits and fans were right to be concerned. The poor performance of the tight ends was a major factor in the team’s offensive decline, from 8th in the NFL in 2015 to 25th in 2016. Run blocking by the tight ends was sub-par. And any pass-receiving tight end should have feasted on opposing defenses that double-teamed wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. and had to address slot receiver Sterling Shepard.
Larry Donnell was the starter before the bye, but he only averaged 2.5 catches per game and finished the year with an embarrassing total of 92 yards and one touchdown. Donnell was benched after the bye with Will Tye becoming the new starter. Tye was better, but not by much. In his 10 starts (one before the bye), Tye averaged just 3.2 catches per game and also finished the season with just one touchdown. Factoring in rookie Jerell Adam’s lone score, Giants tight ends scored just THREE touchdowns all year. No wonder this team had issues in the red zone.
This may have been the worst group of tight ends in the NFL in 2016.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Fortunately, the Giants made dramatic moves in this area. The Giants chose not to re-sign unrestricted free agent Larry Donnell. The team then signed Rhett Ellison to a 4-year, $18 million contract. The final big move was drafting TE/WR hybrid Evan Engram in the 1st-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In addition, the team did re-sign exclusive rights free agents Will Tye and Matt LaCosse and added rookie free agent Colin Thompson after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The obvious focus will be on 1st-round pick Evan Engram and how the coaching staff plans to employ the hybrid. It is hoped and expected that Engram will be a Cover-2 buster and help open the entire offense for the receivers, particularly Odell Beckham, Jr. Rhett Ellison will probably have the similar, unsexy role he had in Minnesota and that is of versatile (tight end/H-Back/fullback) blocker who occasionally catches a pass. First, he has to prove he has moved past a nagging calf injury that sidelined him the entire spring.
The focus beyond the top two will be do the Giants keep three or four tight ends, and who do they keep? The injury-prone Matt LaCosse turned a lot of heads this spring, but he has to prove he can stay on the field.”(LaCosse) is a big target down there in the green zone,” said Ben McAdoo. “Matchup-wise, he gives you that length that you are looking for, he can run and he is a functional blocker, so he has a nice skillset.”
Jerell Adams has the size/athletic ability to become a quality two-way tight end, but he has to show he can mentally handle the pro game. With one former starter (Larry Donnell) already gone and still unemployed, the other 2016 starter (Will Tye) will have to fight just to make the team.
One of the interesting things to watch is how often the Giants now move away from the 11-personel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) that they used almost exclusively in 2016. And when they move away from it, how much will that cut into the playing time of a player like Sterling Shepard?
ON THE BUBBLE: Evan Engram and Rhett Ellison are safe. One would think Jerell Adams is still very much in the picture given his potential, but he is no sure bet. Everyone else is on the bubble, specifically, Will Tye, Matt LaCosse, and Colin Thompson.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Kevin M. Gilbride on Rhett Ellison: “He can catch more than he’s shown from a statistic standpoint. He has good routes and is a good run blocker as everyone knows.”
Gilbride on Evan Engram: “He can (block). It’s important to him. He’s very functional in that area… He shows a very much so willingness to block and to finish and strain the way we’re asking our guys to strain. Again, that’s not pads so that’ll change things to an extent, but I don’t see him backing down. He has a toughness and a willingness to go against anyone on our defense and I’m hoping that remains through the course of this season… He understands coverage and understands the leverage of the coverage, how it changes and how he needs to run his route. He came in with that and it has continue to progress from there. “
PREDICTIONS: There were a lot of reasons why the Giants offense was so bad in 2016. Many have focused on the blocking of the offensive line. Others correctly point out that former skill position STARTERS were readily cast aside this offseason (running back Rashad Jennings and wide receiver Victor Cruz). But a major sore spot both in the blocking and pass-receiving departments was the play of Larry Donnell (now also gone) and Will Tye (fighting for his NFL future). On paper, the Giants are vastly improved at tight end. Evan Engram could develop into one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tight ends. Rhett Ellison is one of the NFL’s better run blocking tight ends. Jerell Adams – who has two-way skills – will be entering his second season. Matt LaCosse was consistently making plays during spring practices. If the Giants get the tight end position fixed, the entire offense will benefit, including the running game as perimeter blocking hopefully will be much improved. And when Eli Manning drops back to throw, coverage should be looser on Odell Beckham, Jr., Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard. On paper, this is a very dangerous (albeit finesse) offense.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Evan Engram, Rhett Ellison, Jerell Adams, and Matt LaCosse.