Giants Unit Review: So What Exactly Do They Have at Tight End?

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Patricia Traina

Talk about a season taking a 180-degree turn in the wrong direction!

The Giants tight ends group was supposed to be a strength of the offense—no, make that team. Encouraged by what Evan Engram was able to accomplish in the final five games of the 2018 season, the potential production of this hybrid receiver was supposed to ease the sting after the Odell Beckham Jr trade and put Engram in a position to have a breakout season.

The only “break” Engram had, however, was in his body as once again this uber talent missed time—a Week 6 knee injury and then a foot sprain later revealed to be something more significant that required surgery.

Rhett Ellison, the primarily blocking tight end paid like a No. 1 despite being the No. 2 guy behind Engram on the depth chart, also caught the injury bug, missing the last six games of the season with a concussion.

Not all was lost for this unit, however, as Kaden Smith—one of those guys whom fans ask “who?” when he acquired off waivers from the 49ers, quietly developed into an option for next year that is likely going to end Ellison’s tenure on this team.

And along the way, there were others brought in to help like Garrett Dickerson, Eric Tomlinson (who lasted just long enough to have a cup of coffee before being let go), and Scott Simonson (brought back after being waived with an injury settlement earlier in the year).

So what do the Giants have at this position?

Let’s start with Engram, who has yet to make it through a 16-game season (the closest he came was in his rookie year when he made it through 15 games).

In the spring and summer, we saw different and intriguing looks in which Engram was lining up all over the place—out wide, in the slot, int eh backfield and inline. Yet when the season rolled around, much of that intriguing creativity seemed to disappear—per Pro Football Focus’ by-position snap counts, Engram lined up 284 times inline, 121 times in the slot, 39 times wide and no times in the backfield.

It’s his inline work that highlights the continued dilemma this team has with Engram, injuries aside. He is not a traditional tight end, yet he continues to be used that way mostly. To ask Engram to block a defensive end is asking for trouble—and it wouldn’t be surprising if some of his injury issues are tied into his usage.

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You’ve heard of the phrase “trying to fit a round peg in a square hole,” right? Engram is neither a round peg nor a square one; he’s a specialty type of piece to the offensive puzzle, yet the problem in the two coaching staffs have tried to put him into a box that is not quite the best fit for what he does best.

Engram is at his best out on space where he can take advantage of a fast track, yet he lacks the quick twitch needed to be a full-time wide receiver. He has legit long speed and a knack for finding the first-down marker—he finished fourth on the team with 23 first-down receptions, a total that easily would have rivaled those in front of him had he played more games.

His long speed is legit; he's explosive; he has an excellent nose for the first down marker, and though he has his dropped balls, he’s also capable of making the spectacular catch. In eight games, he caught 44 balls for three touchdowns.

So how should the Giants use Engram moving forward? If he’s going to be used inline, let him chip block rather than try to handle a player who typically has anywhere from a 20-30-pound advantage against him. Engram isn’t a lousy blocker—he should have no trouble handling smaller defensive backs and perhaps even a linebacker, and some of his better blocking efforts have come in space as opposed to at the point of attack.

The bottom line with Engram is the Giants won’t ever find out what they have in him until a) they start using him to optimize his abilities and b) he stays healthy. Maybe if they commit to the first part, the second part will also fall into place.

Thanks to the development of Kaden Smith, the 31-year-old, high priced Ellison likely has played his last down for the Giants. 

Ellison was initially brought in here to primarily a blocker, but after a solid first season with the Giants, he’s declined in that area. Ellison is a good receiver, but with the Giants having so many other and younger options to target in the passing game, it doesn’t make sense to continue carrying a guy paid like a No. 1 tight end, but whose status is anything but.

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No one benefited more from injuries at tight end than Smith, who if there as an award for Giants “Rookie of the Year,” would be the unquestioned runner-up to receiver Darius Slayton. Smith saw his workload increase starting in Week 10 when he began to deliver some solid blocking against defensive ends that the team had lacked.

Starting in Week 12 against the Bears, the Giants rushing game, armed with a much healthier Saquon Barkley, became much more productive, averaging 123.8 yards per game versus the 94.2 yards per game it had averaged before Smith’s snaps increased.

As a bonus, Smith finished up with 31 receptions (out of 41 pass targets) for 268 yards and three touchdowns in six games, showing an excellent feel for running patterns and reading coverages, and never wasting a single step.

After sitting out the start of the season while his injury settlement stemming from a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason finale, Simonson returned and in limited snaps showed just enough to warrant another look for a spot as this team’s third tight end.

Dickerson meanwhile didn’t get much of a chance to contribute on offense, though he is a little bit more effective as a move tight end than an inline blocker. If the Giants are looking to, as head coach Joe Judge said in his introductory press conference, punch guys in the mouth for 60 minutes, they’ll need to get physical at every level of the depth chart at this position.

Where Do They Go From Here?

Ellison is a good locker room guy who always showed up for work and who barely made a peep in the locker room. However, his $7.88 million cap hit can’t be justified on a team that needs to address in some way pass rusher, offensive line depth, and perhaps even adding veteran cornerback—all premium positions that will take premium dollars.

As for Engram, the Giants will need to decide whether to exercise the option year in his rookie deal by early May. Doing so is a no brainer as if the team does decide at some point to trade Engram, the option year gives the acquiring team some breathing room to test him out to see if he’s a fit.

Smith is likely to be a starter next year, having shown enough to earn it, regardless of who the next offensive coordinator is. But the Giants will probably need to add a third, physical style tight end somewhere along the line, especially given Engram’s injury woes.

The Bottom Line

This unit group is still something of a mystery due to not knowing what they have in Engram. The injuries haven’t helped, but neither has the usage of the 6-foot 3-inch, 240-pounder out of Ole Miss.

It might be very eye-opening to see what Engram, who is still on his very affordable rookie deal—can bring to the table. He'd need to stay healthy, but with that said, it would be interesting to see if the two elements are indeed somehow related. 

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