In this installment of my New York Giants position previews, I look at the tight ends.
2015 in Review
The Giants' tight end group that began the 2015 regular season might have lacked star power, but there was little reason to believe that it couldn’t be effective.
That was, at least, until the injury bug tore through the unit. In-line blocking specialist Daniel Fells, who had an ankle injury early in the year, contracted MRSA, which required multiple surgeries to his foot.
Larry Donnell, the starter, would go on to suffer a cracked bone in his neck, something he let slip when he spoke to reporters last month before clamming up on providing further details.
When it was all said and done, no one from this group passed the 500-yard mark in receiving—rookie Will Tye, who wasn’t even on the 53-man roster to start the season, led the team with 464 receiving yards.
By comparison, of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs last season, nine of them had a tight end who recorded at least 500 yards receiving, with Kyle Rudolph of Minnesota falling short of the 500-yard mark by five yards.
Then there was the in-line blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, the Giants averaged 3.7 yards per carry when running to both the right and left ends. That average was the second-lowest on the team behind runs that went between the center and right guard.
2016 Outlook: Where Can This Unit Improve?
I’ll let Giants tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride answer this question.
"I just think we need to improve as a tight end group as far as our finishing in the run game, and then working those combination blocks with tight ends-tackles,” he told me last month. “That’ll come with the more they continue to do it.”
To that end, it will be important to keep the guys on the field. Besides Donnell and Fells missing time, Tye didn’t join the team until after the season started.
Matt LaCosse was another guy who wasn’t with the team the entire year, so really there is nowhere for this unit to go but up.
“For the most part, as long as the same techniques are being taught to the same men, which they are, typically you can develop as a player, and then the man next to you is going to develop as a player as well, as long as those techniques are being executed,” Gilbride said.
The X-Factor: The Offensive Line
I mentioned the offensive line as the X-factor in my look at the running backs, but it bears mentioning again in this breakdown of the tight ends because the in-line blocking tight end is as much a part of the running game as the offensive linemen.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan was asked by reporters if having a solid and consistent in-line blocking tight end was a missing element in the running game.
"Well, there is so much that goes into the run game and it is not just a particular position group. It can be a variety of factors," he said. "It is the decisions that the quarterback makes as far as which runs to keep on, which ones to check out of, where to direct the run, it is a combination of the read of the back, it is a combination of the execution of the line."
Sullivan, perhaps anticipating a follow-up question about rookie Jerell Adams and how he factored into the mix, added to his response.
"I think certainly there is an in-line technique that we have seen (Adams) do in his college tape, that I think is going to help us," he said. "I think he also has some skills that we saw as far as the ability to be very strong after the catch and show a burst and explosiveness up the seam that can help the passing game as well, so that is exciting."
In other words, yes, having a consistent in-line blocking tight end to help the run blocking certainly isn’t a bad thing.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the offensive line, particularly on the right side, the Giants can only hope that someone from the young group they have steps up and is the second coming of Howard Cross.
Will They Keep an Extra Tight End?
If the Giants don’t keep a traditional fullback—and I discussed this possibility when I looked at the running backs—then, yes, I could definitely see them keeping a fourth tight end and perhaps another on the practice squad.
Why so many, you ask? Donnell signed his restricted free-agent tender worth $1.671 million, a deal which was the lowest of the three tenders available to restricted free agents.
While part of the reasoning behind that was due to the uncertainty regarding his neck, another part no doubt had something to do with his development—in particular his tendency to play high and his ball security issues.
“He’s got to protect the football,” said Gilbride of Donnell, who has four career fumbles, all of which came in 2014.
“The last thing we want him to do is bend at the waist and straighten his legs, and that’s what he has a tendency to do, especially in the 2014 year,” Gilbride said. “He improved in the 2015 year, but still, there’s growth still yet to be had in that area. It’s twofold—it’s protecting the football, and it’s protecting himself—and that’s very important for him moving forward in his career.”
If Donnell doesn’t make progress in those areas, it’s hard to see him on this team’s roster beyond this year.
So Who Will They Keep?
Barring injury, Donnell, Tye and rookie Jerell Adams will be three of the four projected tight ends.
The fourth guy could end up being Will Johnson, a fullback/tight end hybrid who will likely become the lead blocker from the backfield if he has a solid showing in camp.
I also mentioned that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Giants keep another tight end on the practice squad. My guess there is it will be Matt LaCosse, who ended up missing a large chunk of last year due to a hamstring issue suffered early in training camp that led to him being waived with an injury settlement.
If Donnell does end up moving on after this year, LaCosse—with a solid year—could ultimately be in the mix to replace him.
Who Will Be the Starter?
Normally, it’s unfair to “Wally Pipp” a guy because of injury, but when one is running a business in which production is key, there’s little room to be nice or understanding.
While one can appreciate the struggles that Donnell must have gone through in not knowing if or when he might be cleared to return to football, Tye certainly showed more than enough as the starter to remain the incumbent.
Let’s compare some career numbers between Tye and Donnell, keeping in mind that the latter has three years of experience to the former’s one year.
The second and perhaps biggest number?
Tye averaged 4.9 yards after the catch to Donnell’s 3.3. Simply put, Tye did a better job of staying on his feet after making the catch than Donnell. The proof is in the pudding not just in terms of YAC but also considering that Donnell’s career-long reception is 32 yards (in 2014) while Tye recorded a career long of 45 yards last year.
Johnson is an interesting acquisition, a fullback/tight end hybrid who has allowed just three backfield disruptions on 851 career snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
In tandem with Roosevelt Nix this past season, the Steelers were averaging 3.4 yards per carry on the ground. The year prior with Johnson as the primary fullback, that average was 3.6 yards per carry.
Where Johnson can potentially provide an upgrade is as a receiver out of the backfield. He has caught 70.5 percent of his pass targets over his career for 235 yards, 163 after the catch, a 5.3 YAC average.
Having a hybrid fullback/tight end line up as the lead blocker can potentially give the Giants offense another dimension it hasn't had since the days of Greg Comella.
His receiving skills need a little more refinement, though. Per PFF, Adams caught 58.3 percent of his pas targets in 2014 and 54.4 percent in 2015, with seven drops over that two-year span. On the plus side, he averaged 8.2 yards after the catch, which certainly has to appeal to the Giants coaching staff.
Adams is also proficient on special teams and in fact volunteered to help his college team in that area.
“Our special teams weren't doing that great, and in the meeting room, (the coach) asked a couple guys that if we wanted to, we could come on the field and volunteer,” he said during the rookie minicamp.
“I was one of the guys that stepped up and played my part on special teams.”
Hey, the more a guy can do.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.