New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Tight Ends

Maybe in retrospect the expectations for the Giants tight ends group were too high given the first year of the offense. But one thing is for sure: this unit needs to step up in 2021 if this offense is ever going to reach its full potential.
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The 2020 season was supposed to be a big one for the Giants tight ends, and in particular, Evan Engram.

Remember, Engram was returning from a season-ending foot injury suffered the prior year, which required surgery. Fully healthy and ready to go under new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's tight-end friendly system, it was hoped that Engram's production might finally skyrocket to the levels his talent suggested he was capable of producing.

Despite playing in 86.8% of the Giants' offensive snaps, Engram's production was disappointing, though not all of that is on him. In the deep passing game, where he was thought to have a significant advantage in matchups against linebackers and defensive backs, Engram received only nine pass targets, six of which were catchable (and five of which he did catch for 167 yards and one touchdown).

The lack of targets up the seam might have had something to do with the offensive line's early-season struggles. Still, with Engram and the rest of the Giants tight ends, one couldn't help but come away every week wanting more than what they were able to give, especially given the receivers' struggles.

Perhaps in Year 2 of Garrett's system (which one might expect remains in place regardless if he takes a head coaching job elsewhere), the production will finally match the expectations in helping an offense that hovered at or near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories eventually turn the corner.

Evan Engram (PFF Grade: 60.5)

2020 Stats: 63 receptions out of 109 pass targets, 654 yards, 1 Touchdown, 32 first downs // Rushing: 6 attempts for 26 yards, 1 Touchdown

New York Giants Pro Bowl tight end Evan Engram does everything an NFL player is supposed to do. He works at his craft, is good in the locker room, and takes care of himself.

Yet, for whatever the reason, this unquestionably talented tight end can’t seem to break through to reach his potential.

He’s on his third offensive coordinator in Jason Garrett (not his fault). While there are some questions about how Engram was deployed in the Giants offense, one argument that doesn’t hold water is the frequency of his pass targets (His 109 pass targets were third-most among tight ends this year.)

From a statistical perspective, Engram hasn’t come close to achieving the statistical production that he did under the Ben McAdoo/Mike Sullivan tandem during his rookie season when he caught 64 of 115 targets for 722 yards, six touchdowns, and 37 first downs.

Granted, injuries haven’t helped the cause. Before this year, the closest Engram came to playing in a full season was as a rookie in 2017, when he made it through 15 games. But this season, he made it through an entire year, an accomplishment in itself.

Engram Video Card

But let’s look at this year. In 16 games, Engram was targeted 109 times, catching 63 balls, a dismal 57.7% catch rate, for 654 yards, a career-low 10.4 yards per reception.

After getting his dropped passes under control the last two years (he had three per season), that total skyrocketed back to eight, three shy of the 11 he had as a rookie and the eight drops leading all tight ends.

He was also the target of six passes (a career-high) that went for interceptions, with at least two bouncing off his hands. And his 59.0 target rating was the worst on the Giants team this year.

The question with Engram is what happened? Why did he have a case of the yips?

Engram himself was at a loss to explain it in his final video conference call with reporters. Still, he plans to get back into the lab and get things straightened out on what’s a big year ahead in 2021, where he’ll be playing on his option year (which pays him $6 million by the way) for a new long-term contract.

Kaden Smith (PFF Grade: 66.7)

2020 Stats: 18 receptions out of 21 pass targets, 112 yards, eight first downs

There’s nothing flashy about Kaden Smith’s game, but if you like consistency and an all-around showing, that’s what he’s usually able to deliver.

Smith, who reminds one of Rhett Ellison when he was in his prime, is a solid blocker with good hands but who lacks the athleticism and speed of an Engram to create those downfield mismatches.

As a receiver, Smith caught 18 of 21 pass targets (85.7%!) for 112 yards. You won't see Smith sent on deep routes—his 93 yards after catch total should give you a pretty good idea of all the short passes he caught that he had to convert into yardage.

But again, Smith’s calling card right now is his blocking. Unlike Engram, whose 240-pound weight makes him a mismatch against the 270-pound defensive end, Smith checks in at 252, which gives him a little bit more bulk to better anchor against his bigger opponents.

An underrated strength of Smith’s game has been his move blocking in space. When he gets out to the second level, he latches on to a man and drives him literally wherever he wants. And if you're going to talk about mismatches, look no further than teams who have tried to pair him against linebackers and defensive backs, where nine times out of ten, Smith wins that battle.

If Smith can lose the one hiccup per game that regularly showed up this year, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be cemented as the No. 2 tight end on this roster in 2021.

Levine Toilolo (PFF Grade: 56.3)

2020 Stats: 5 receptions out of 6 pass targets, 46 yards, three first downs

The Giants went back to the proverbial well in finding a replacement tight end for Rhett Ellison, who retired following the 2019 season. That “well” was the 49ers, the same team that turned a little-known tight end by the name of George Kittle into a star and who produced the very promising Kaden Smith, whom the Giants acquired off waivers in 2019.

Toilolo? He came to the Giants with a reputation as a solid blocker and signed to a two-year $6.2 million contract. He started slow, his blocking spotty early on, but he did improve as the year went on, though never really dominating to where walling off defenders as part of his weekly offerings.

Toilolo is under contract for 2021, but it does look as though Smith passed him on the depth chart. And if that’s indeed the case, then there is no point in retaining a player who carries a $2.95 million cap hit and who could be cut with zero dead money left on the books.

Off-season Outlook

The Giants have already added three tight ends to their off-season roster--Nakia Griffin-Stewart, Nate Wieting, and Rysen John, all of whom were signed to reserve/futures contracts.

While that doesn't represent anything out of the ordinary, it could mean they're on the lookout for another tight end to replace Toilolo, whose roster spot isn't secure due to potential cap restrictions.

The big thing to watch is what the Giants do with Engram. No one is denying his talent or skillset. But this maddening inconsistency in his play is going to be a big reason why the Giants probably won't look to get his $6 million cap number lower in what's has essentially become a "prove it" season for the soon-to-be fifth-year pro.


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