Darren Waller – © USA TODAY Sports
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.
FIND A COMPLETE LIST OF ALL BREAKDOWNS HERE
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Tight Ends
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Heading into 2022, it appeared the New York Giants had arguably the weakest group of tight ends in the NFL. The team had parted ways with their top three tight ends: Evan Engram (who signed with the Jaguars in free agency), Kyle Rudolph (who was cut in March), and Kaden Smith (who was also cut in March after failing his physical). Chris Myarick was the only returning player. The Giants signed Ricky Seals-Jones, Jordan Akins, and Tanner Hudson, but the first two didn’t even make it to the end of August. The Giants drafted Daniel Bellinger in the 4th round and signed undrafted rookie free agents Austin Allen and Dre Miller after the draft. When the season started, the team’s three tight ends were Bellinger, Myarick (listed as a fullback), and Hudson. Not exactly a murder’s row.
Bellinger proved to be pleasant surprise and one of Daniel Jones’ few reliable targets. Coming out of the draft, he was considered more of a blocking tight end, but continued to flash in the passing game, demonstrating better-than-anticipated on-field athleticism and adjusting to pro passing concepts sooner than expected. However, he suffered a very scary and possibly career-threatening eye-injury in Week 7 when his orbital bone was fractured. Somewhat miraculously, Bellinger only missed four games. He finished the year starting 11 games, catching 30 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored on his only rushing attempt.
Lawrence Cager was signed to the Practice Squad in October after the Jets cut him and then the 53-man roster in November. He ended up playing in six regular-season games with three starts, catching 13 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown. Nick Vannett was signed to the Practice Squad in November after he was cut by the Saints and the 53-man roster in December. (Hudson was also cut at this time after playing in 11 games and catching 10 passes). Vannett ended up playing in six regular-season games with three starts for the Giants, catching four passes for 42 yards. Myarick played in 16 games with eight starts, catching just seven passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
In summary, the position was a bit of revolving door most of the year, aside from Bellinger who had his rookie season interrupted by the eye injury.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants re-signed Lawrence Cager and Chris Myarick. They also signed unrestricted free agent Tommy Sweeney from the Bills and signed Ryan Jones as a rookie free agent after the draft. However, perhaps the most significant offseason addition to the entire team was the trade for former Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller in March.
The team made no attempt to re-sign Nick Vannett and waived Dre Miller after he failed a physical in mid-June (Miller had spent part of 2022 on the Practice Squad).
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The significance of the Darren Waller acquisition still seems underappreciated. Waller’s two best seasons in the NFL were 2019 and 2020, when he caught an incredible 197 passes for 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. He missed five games in 2021 with ankle and knee sprain injuries and eight games in 2022 with a nagging hamstring injury. None of these injuries required surgery and Waller appears completely healthy now and was a daily standout in spring practices.
Barring injury, Waller seems destined to be the team’s #1 pass receiving threat. He’s more of a TE/WR hybrid who can threaten defenses with size, speed, hands, and ability to adjust to the football. He’s a legit 6’6” target, with a big wing span, who can also run. Waller is “open” even when covered and can threaten defenses vertically down the field. Combine that skillset with Brian Daboll’s history of coaching tight ends with the Patriots (2013-2016) and Mike Kafka’s exposure to the Chiefs’ passing concepts, and it’s easy to see where this is heading. Waller will be deployed in multiple ways to create match-up problems for defenses. It’s quite telling that observers, coaches, and players were raving about him this spring.
Daniel Bellinger was getting lost in the Waller hoopla until a photographer snapped a picture of his huge arms this spring. Bellinger not only has worked his butt off this offseason to reshape his body, but he has drawn praise from Travis Kelce and George Kittle, two of the headliners at the position in the NFL. Indeed, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Waller and Bellinger could be viewed as one of the best tight end combos in 2023, quite an accomplishment given how weak the depth chart looked a year ago at this time.
The third and possibly fourth tight end spots also are now more intriguing. Lawrence Cager flashed in his limited chances as a pass receiver and could have the inside track on Waller’s primary back-up as a receiving target. Tommy Sweeney was signed from the Bills as a blocker. Chris Myarick offers tight end/fullback flexibility and special teams value. Also note that of the nine rookie free agents the team signed, Ryan Jones was given the third-most guaranteed money ($125,000).
ON THE BUBBLE: Darren Waller and Daniel Bellinger are locks. Lawrence Cager, Tommy Sweeney, Chris Myarick, and Ryan Jones will be vying for one or two roster spots.
FROM TEAM COACHES/PLAYERS: Head Coach Brian Daboll on Darren Waller: “He’s a good pro. He’s smart. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s a good communicator. He’s played a lot of football and been productive. Again, we’re still utilizing him in different ways. We’re seeing what he likes, what he feels comfortable with, what the quarterback feels comfortable with, but he’s been a pleasure to be around both in the classroom and out on the field.” (Note: Coach Daboll rarely throws praise around like this, particularly in the spring).
Mike Kafka on Darren Waller: “He’s a really talented player. He’s a great person. He’s a really good teammate. That’s one thing I’ve learned about him. He cares about his guys. He’s competitive, which we really like. We value that here. He’s doing everything we’re asking him. He’s working hard, putting in the time and effort to learn the offense and get in sync with D.J. (Daniel Jones) and the quarterbacks. He’s done a great job.”
Tight Ends Coach Andy Bischoff on the impact of Darren Waller on the other tight ends: “These guys are like a sponge. So a guy like Bellinger, he’s improved immensely in the air of Darren Waller. Lawrence Cager is improving daily just being around this guy. It’s good for the whole group in so many ways.”
Tight Ends Coach Andy Bischoff on Daniel Bellinger: “Bellinger is a guy who can help us win plays and lead to winning games, every down. Bellinger is a better version of himself today by leaps and bounds from this time a year ago. And it’s because of his own commitment, his own awareness, his own learning… He’s a guy who can play the position, he’ll do whatever’s asked. A great teammate.”
Safety Xavier McKinney on how Darren Waller changes the offense: “Really different… added piece that’s explosive, that’s able to make plays. Obviously when he’s out there, you’ve got to be aware of where he’s at, at all times… because he can make a lot of plays.”
Wide receiver Darius Slayton on Darren Waller: “He’s impressive… Somebody asks what’s an NFL tight end, you just point to Darren Waller; big, fast, can catch it. He’s been a great addition to our team.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: I suspect pundits will soon be asking how the heck the Giants acquired Waller for a late 3rd-round pick.
It is difficult to believe that Daboll and Kafka will have many offensive formations that have Waller or Bellinger standing on the sidelines, suggesting a heavy emphasis on 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). But flexibility may still come from the fact that Waller is more of a WR/TE hybrid and may be employed as more of a wide receiver on many plays.
The Giants had 15 passing touchdowns in 2022. Waller had nine touchdown receptions in 2020 alone. Believe it or not, the Giants had one of the NFL’s best red-zone offenses in the NFL in 2022. Their problem was getting to the red zone. That should be less of a an issue now. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Waller-Bellinger-Cager alone will tie the Giants’ total touchdown mark from last season. I don’t think it is crazy to think Waller could have eight touchdowns, Bellinger six touchdowns, and Cager one touchdown with Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka calling the plays.
The presence of Waller changes the entire complexion of this offense. He will draw double-team attention, opening up opportunities for Saquon Barkley (both as runner and receiver), Daniel Bellinger, Parris Campbell, Isaiah Hodgins, and the other receivers. This coaching staff knows how to use tight ends. Waller can become New York’s version of Kelce or Kittle. And if the latter two are correct about the emergence of Bellinger? Look out!
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Darren Waller, Daniel Bellinger, Lawrence Cager, Tommy Sweeney (Chris Myarick to the Practice Squad)