New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett loves tight ends.
And why shouldn't he? Tight ends are a quarterback's best friend in that they can work the middle of the field, often getting the best of slower (and often smaller) plodding linebackers that still exist in the game.
They can also serve as in-line blockers to help a young and developing offensive line, and they can be ideal red-zone threats.
Yes, there are many reasons for an offensive coordinator to love tight ends, and Garrett, while he was in Dallas, was spoiled for several years by having future Hall of Famer Jason Witten in his offense.
But with the Giants, well, the tight end position has been one with which Garrett has likely had a love-hate relationship in their first season together.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Giants targeted the tight ends in the passing game 27% of the time, the eighth-most in the NFL. But in terms of the success rate (completed passes), the Giants completed 43% of their pass attempts to the tight ends--32nd in the NFL.
So let's put the magnifying glass on the tight ends, taking a look at the personnel, the battles, and the questions that the Giants are sure to want to be answered by the time training camp and the preseason ends.
Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph, Kaden Smith, Levine Toilolo, Cole Hikutini, Kelvin Benjamin, Rysen John, and Nakia Griffin-Stewart.
Engram is playing out the option year of his rookie deal, which will count for $6.013 million against the cap.
Rudolph is in Year 1 of a two-year, $12 million contract. He'll count for $4.750 million this year.
Toilolo agreed to a salary reduction that lowered his 2021 base salary from $2.925 million to $1.35 million, the reworked final year of his deal carrying just a $650,000 dead money cap hit.
Smith is in the third of his four-year rookie contract, which the Giants acquired when they were awarded Smith off waivers from the 49ers in 2019.
The rest of the tight ends are on reserve/futures deals or, as in the case of Kelvin Benjamin, a Veteran Salary Benefit deal.
Altogether, the Giants' tight ends count for $15.5 million against the team's total cap and are the fourth-highest paid group of tight ends in the league, counting for 8.36% of the Giants' 2021 salary cap.
Will Kyle Rudolph be ready for Opening Day?
Rudolph is recovering from off-season foot surgery, a procedure that before he had it, he expressed optimism that he wouldn't miss any football (presumably, he meant the regular season).
That Rudolph was able to stand on the field watching his teammates as they wrapped up their recent mandatory minicamp was a positive sign, as usually players who are still not quite at the halfway part of their rehab are kept inside. That said, an even better indication will come when Rudolph can do some running at some point during training camp.
Can Evan Engram Bounce Back from a disappointing 2020 season?
It sounds wrong to call a season where a player was voted to his first Pro Bowl a disappointing season. At the same time, using that adjective is undoubtedly fair and accurate for many reasons.
First, there were the drops--eight of them--a total that was more than the six he recorded in 2018 and 2019 combined. Regardless of how Engram was or wasn't deployed in the offense, there is no excuse for concentration drops.
Engram knows it, the coaches know it, and the Giants' front office knows it.
"Obviously, there were a lot of things I feel like could I have done better," Engram said, adding, "There were a lot of things did I well and there are things that I can build on. Definitely throwing last year away, there was a lot of things to learn from."
The drops weren't the only disappointing aspect of Engram's game. His contested catch rate fell worse than a lead-filled balloon. Engram had 21 contested catch opportunities, the second-highest total in his career, yet he only came down with four of those opportunities for a career-low 19%.
I mentioned Engram's deployment in the offense, and I found it interesting that, although Garrett ran more Y-stick option routes (not an Engram strength as 2020 revealed), that resulted in a career-low 1.28 yards per route run for Engram.
As far as the depth of Engram's pass targets, 11% of his pass attempts were of the deep variety, just a tad less than the 14% he had in his rookie season, which remains his most productive campaign to date.
Pro Bowl or not, Engram, who could see his touch opportunities decline with Rudolph now in the house, needs to be a lot better.
Does Kelvin Benjamin have a chance at making the roster?
Coaches and general managers will never come right out and say a guy who doesn't have a chance to make the roster doesn't have a chance. That said, Benjamin's chances with making the Giants 53-man roster are probably less than 1%.
Benjamin received a lot of one-on-one coaching during the spring, with a great deal of coming from head coach Joe Judge. And while the spring practices don't tell you everything, what they did tell us that he has a long, long way to go before he's ready to make his debut as a tight end.
Could Benjamin find a spot on the Giants practice squad? That's certainly possible, considering the Giants like to hold on to players that don't make the 53-man roster but who were with them in training camp.
When it comes to Benjamin, one can't help but wonder if the Giants are merely trying to do him a favor by allowing him to put together some new film for the rest of the league.
What Would Surprise Me
The Giants move on from Kaden Smith. The Giants obviously saw enough in Kaden Smith's film to keep him around through two coaching staffs.
However, as Nick Falato noted in his breakdown of Smith's film, Smith was the lead pulling blocker from the H-Back position on the Giants base counter trey play, which is one of his bread and butter contributions--and a role that free-agent fullback Cullen Gillaspia could eventually take on if he manages to win his battle against Eli Penny.
What Wouldn't Surprise Me
Evan Engram sees a reduction in his red-zone pass targets. Last year Engram was targeted 14 times in the red zone, the 15th most out of all NFL tight ends and had a 42.86% catch rate but only one touchdown scored.
Although Rudolph didn't fare much better--this largely due to the emergence of the Vikings receivers which lessened the dependency on Rudolph--if we go back to 2017 when Rudolph tied his season-high touchdown total (9), he caught 14 out of 16 red-zone pass targets, and seven of his nine touchdown receptions from inside the red zone.
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