Roughly a month ago, if you told Giants fans that they would have -- arguably -- the best tight end in the league through the first quarter of the season, you would either be laughed at, asked who your dealer is, or people would wonder who or how much the Giants gave up in the trade.
Looking back, nobody saw anything like Larry Donnell's rise on the horizon as the season started -- least of all Donnell himself . The most optimistic observer could look at the recent history at the position and predict average performance. But top-5 at his position? Absurd. Laughable even, but that's where we are now.
Play 1 (Week 3)
For our first play we look back to Week 3. For this second down play the Giants are in the shotgun formation with their "11" personnel grouping -- that is, 1 tight end, 1 running back, 3 receivers --. Donnell is lined up as an in-line tight end in a 3-point stance on the right side of the line.
Houston is showing a six-man blitz, but two back off at the snap and they go with a four-man rush. Because of that, Rashad Jennings is able to slip out as a check-down option and Donnell gets a free release.
As Donnell runs his route, we see what has made him so dangerous thus far in the season. Donnell is not an athletic freak, he isn't going to turn a 4.4 40s. But he is a very fluid athlete. What he does here is run this route like a 6-foot-1, 210-pound wide receiver instead of a 6-6, 270-pound tight end. Normally it takes the big guys a bit to slow down, gather themselves, then make their cuts. Not Donnell. He sticks his foot in the ground and makes full-speed and razor sharp cuts (particularly the first one). He then uses his leaping ability and shows some excellent body control to box out the defender and haul in a pass that Eli put where only Donnell could make a play on it.
Play 2 (Week 3)
This play starts out with the same "11" personnel grouping as the previous play, but the alignment is obviously different. Eli is under center, Jennings is behind him and Donnell lined up to the left of the offensive line.
Even though it has improved, Donnell's blocking is still a work in progress. He might never become as good a blocker as Martellus Bennett, but for this play he didn't need to be.
He starts out by giving a quick chip block to outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who is primarily the responsibility of Will Beatty. After making sure Mercilus is accounted for, Donnell gets up to the second level and sets the block on strong safety D.J. Swearinger to create an alley for Jennings to run through.
Play 3 (Week 4 vs. Washington)
Moving along to the Thursday night game, we come to what is easily my favorite play of the season (so far), and probably last season as well.
Once again we see the Giants in their "11" personnel package, and back in the shotgun formation. Unlike last time, and really any time prior to 2014, Donnell is split out at wide receiver at the top of the screen.
The first thing I love about this play is that it creates and then exploits a huge mismatch between the 6-6 former basketball player Larry Donnell and the 5-11 cornerback.
Next is the quick inside fake by Donnell off the snap. It isn't a dramatic move, but it is enough to sell the defender on the quick slant, creating plenty of separation. It shows off his quick feet and route running skills.
And finally Eli throws another great pass, which Donnell climbs the ladder to make a terrific leaping, twisting, "hands" catch. That is another thing that has been a pleasant surprise from Donnell: He almost always catches the ball with his hands. Rather than let the ball into his body, he extends his arms snatches the ball out of the air. More receivers need to learn to do that.
At the start of the season there were plenty of reservations to be had with regards to this new offense the Giants were installing. The starters looked disjointed and Eli looked uncomfortable. The tight end position in particular looked completely bereft of talent. Sure guys looked like they might be serviceable, but nobody really stepped up to look like a legitimate NFL "starter'.
Then Donnell exploded on to the national stage.
He still has improving to do, particularly as a blocker,and not going flying after catching the ball. However his route running, ball skills, and body control have proved to be an incredible surprise and boon for the Giants. Or maybe they're not surprised. They made a point of carrying four tight ends in 2013, and then didn't draft one in the 2014 draft, so maybe they had some inkling of what he could become.
Okay, I lied. That wasn't the "Final" word. I've got one more play I'd like to show you.
No, this isn't about Donnell. It's about "the other" young tight end on the New York Giants, Adrien Robinson.
This play was at the end of the game when the Giants were running the ball and eating up the clock. Robinson had been making appearances on offense throughout the previous two games, but only as a blocking tight end in short yardage situations. Between that, the jumbo formation (2 tight ends, 2 backs), there is absolutely no reason for the defense to think this is anything other than a stretch play.
Instead, it is a play-action bootleg pass with the tight ends breaking off their blocks to run routes. Fells and the receiver on the left side of the formation run crossing routes over the middle while Robinson runs an out route toward the sideline. The crossing routes tie up any coverage over the middle while Robinson gets a chance to show the athleticism we have been waiting (and waiting) to see on the field. Like Donnell, Robinson does a great job of turning back toward the ball without breaking his stride and snatching it out of the air. Then he shows off his speed in a run up the sideline for a nice gain.
Will we see more of this? Will the Giants have a second tight end come "out of nowhere"? Well, that remains to be seen. Personally, I'd like to see more, maybe with both of them on the field at the same time. Only the coaches know if that was enough to earn him another look, but it is fun to think about.