There is perhaps no bigger question mark on the current New York Giants roster than the identity of the team's 2014 starting tight end.
The Giants, who voided the contact of Brandon Myers, last year’s starter, decided not to draft a prospect this year.
When asked why they passed on a tight end in the draft, Vice President of Player Evaluation Marc Ross said, “The tight end position wasn’t a class we felt was very strong.”
So where does that leave the Giants, who Paul Dottino of WFAN reports are no longer in play for the services of unrestricted free agent Jermichael Finley?
For the time being, they’re going to run with what they have, which is a group that includes Adrien Robinson, whom general manager Jerry Reese dubbed the “JPP of tight ends," per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com; veterans Daniel Fells and Kellen Davis; undrafted rookie Xavier Grimble; and third-year man Larry Donnell.
Donnell, whose name hasn’t drawn much mention when the Giants’ tight end spot comes up for discussion, could be an interesting candidate to watch this summer.
A 2012 undrafted free agent out of Grambling, the 6’6”, 265-pound native of Ozark, Alabama, played in 16 games for the Giants last season, recording three catches for 31 yards, with two of his receptions going for first downs.
While not featured much in the passing game, Donnell was more of a utility-type of player. In the 107 offensive snaps that Pro Football Focus (subscription required) recorded him taking last year, Donnell was sent out in 51 patterns.
Donnell also lined up in multiple positions in former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s offense, including as an in-line blocker, fullback spot and, on occasion, from the slot—all positions that Ben McAdoo just happens to be asking his tight ends to be prepared to run in the new Giants offense.
“It’s a good offense; a great opportunity to help in the passing game,” Donnell told me following New York's second OTA last week.
“There’s a lot of opportunity (to get the ball) as opposed to last year; in this offense, we’re a primary target now.”
The problem, though, for Donnell is that he struggled with his production, which makes him a question mark going into this year. As a run-blocker, PFF graded him with a minus-four mark; as a pass-blocker, Donnell received a minus-1.1.
While not one to make excuses, Donnell believes that a broken foot he suffered last spring set back his development.
“That was tough, not being able to do anything other than sit there and watch,” he said of the offseason program in which he was a spectator. “I can’t really learn sitting there and watching and not doing it.”
When he was cleared for the start of the 2013 training camp, it didn’t take long for Donnell to realize just how far behind he had fallen and how he “had to do everything on the fly.”
“Now I can do everything, and that has helped me out,” he said with a chuckle.
What’s also helped the 25-year-old is that he has a better understanding of what it takes to be a pro at this level.
“I’m trying to grow and become a better football player,” he said. “I’m trying to do some of the little things, like watching more film, staying longer and doing some of the things I see the older guys doing.
"I’m trying to get a grasp on everything so I can play faster and know what I’m doing by training camp.”
Donnell, who like several of his offensive teammates lights up when speaking about the promise McAdoo’s new offense brings, said the increased responsibility for the tight ends is really forcing everyone to think things through and to have an understanding of the different variations and options for each play.
“It’s a lot on our plate,” he said. “We’re going to be everywhere. Two of us might be split out wide on a play, be in the slot, be in the backfield moving around a lot, be in line, be split out and then motion to the backfield.
“It’s a good challenge because it makes you really think about the play and remember where you have to be once you break the huddle, but it’s been fun because we get to do new things,” he added.
Despite having had a role in the old offense requiring similar flexibility, Donnell said that learning the new language has been his biggest obstacle so far.
“I know how to do (the different roles); I just have to remember the calls,” he said, adding that he has been studying his playbook and is starting to remember the new calls.
He also knows what he will need to show the coaching staff once training camp gets underway on July 21 if he is to make this team.
“Consistency. Knowing what I’m supposed to do and being where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “Playing fast and not thinking about it.
“I sometimes get in trouble thinking instead of reacting and playing football,” he continued. “That’s where the extra time comes in—the extra hours, the extra film and all that. I feel that I can get better at (those things) and things will slow down for me.”
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