One Giant Discovery
One of the things that’s fun about the NFL is the invention of new stars. Well, sometimes they’re not stars, but just players who pop up and all of a sudden, within a week or two, they’re irreplaceable.
This year, Justin Forsett of the Ravens is one of those; he’s made the football loss of Ray Rice insignificant, running for 5.8 yards a carry. Will Beatty has turned around a flagging career in one off-season, playing strong left tackle for the Giants. Perrish Cox, a marginal cornerback in his prior career, has been a godsend for the 49ers.
The one I’m writing about today was a 6-5, 200-pound freshman quarterback at Grambling, who threw a bomb for a touchdown in relief against Mississippi Valley State, who was converted to tight end because of a spate of injuries there when he was a sophomore, who went undrafted in 2011, who went unemployed in 2011, who signed with the Giants and was put on the practice squad in 2012, who made the team in 2013 mostly as a special-teamer because the Giants were so utterly bereft of talent at tight end … and who won the starting job in the last month for that exact reason. The Giants have stunk out loud at tight end since Martellus Bennett signed with Chicago after the 2012 season, and Larry Donnell, from the no-stoplight town of Ozark, Ala., is the beneficiary.
Last Thursday, Donnell became the first Giants’ tight end in 52 years to catch three touchdown passes in one game. And I was fascinated because he looked like a power forward, a man among boys, playing this game against Washington, and I knew absolutely nothing about him except his last name was pronounced dah-NELL. He looked so fluid, so smooth, while appearing so physical. So I reached out to him over the weekend, and I got an education in how exactly someone so un-famous could become so famous in one evening.
First: Eli Manning trusts him. He’s thrown 31 passes in Donnell’s direction in four games, connecting on 25 (32 to Victor Cruz, connecting on 18). Manning trusts the 6-6, 269-pound manchild because he knows he can throw the ball up for grabs and Donnell physically will beat whoever is covering him and win the ball.
Second: Opportunity. And coaching. The Giants desperately needed a tight end once Bennett left for Chicago (a huge loss), and 2012 third-round pick Adrien Robinson just wasn’t the guy. Then-tight ends coach Mike Pope rode the inexperienced Donnell hard. “I can never, ever repay Coach Pope for making me believe that hard work and determination could turn me into a player, and it did," Donnell says. Pope made sure, during Donnell's stint on the practice squad in 2012 and on the bench and on special teams in 2013, that Donnell could really play in the NFL.
Donnell is a cordial southern kid, a gentleman beyond his years. Talkative, polite. And I asked him how in the world he got here.
“I grew up in Ozark, Ala., and I’m telling you, if you blinked driving through it, you missed it. [Laughing] I played quarterback all through school, and I went to Grambling as a backup quarterback. The starter has a couple years left. Late in my freshman year, I threw the only touchdown pass of my college career, a 51-yard bomb. I’m telling you, it looked like a punt. I threw it with everything I had, and it came down in the receiver’s hands. Touchdown. The next year, our tight end goes down, and our coach says to me, ‘You want to play?’ Well, of course I want to play. But I’m 6-5, 200 pounds soaking wet. Tight end? So I do it. And it goes okay. I play a lot, and by the time my career there is over, a couple of NFL scouts are coming by. The NFL’s a dream I always had, but I’m not really thinking too much about it. Then the Giants have me up for a workout before the  draft. First time I’ve ever been in the north. First time! First time I ever saw snow. So they sign me as a free agent [in 2012], then I make the practice squad, and then last year I get to play special teams and get in the game a little at tight end. And I think, ‘I can do this.’
“But what happened the other night, no, it’s unbelievable. Me, catching touchdowns from Eli Manning. Eli throwing me six, seven, eight, nine balls a game. What I realize now is how this is really just football. One of my strong suits is just going up for the ball and winning the ball, because I just don’t think there are many DBs who can separate me from the ball. And Eli is so smart. He sees that. So we get to the line of scrimmage sometimes, and Eli just looks at me. Gives me that look. He sees a mismatch. And there’s the look. It’s the eye contact, and the trust. It’s a great feeling, when your quarterback trusts you to go up in the end zone and get the ball. That’s what happened the other night. I just hope we keep it going."
Pro Football Focus, the gametape-analysis service that is so trusted that 13 teams employ the firm, came out with its four-week ratings, position by position, on Monday. How they see the first month of the season, at tight end (minimum 100 snaps):
1. Larry Donnell, Giants.
2. Delanie Walker, Titans.
T-3. Martellus Bennett, Bears
T-3. Jason Witten, Cowboys
5. Jimmy Graham, Saints
6. Julius Thomas, Broncos.
The dawn of a good career, maybe a great one, is upon us. We’re watching another converted position player play great at tight end.
“It’s a shocker," said Donnell, really sounding stunned. “I can’t believe this is happening to me. No, not this soon.”
Yes, this soon.