The last time the New York Giants faced the Washington Redskins, Giants tight end Larry Donnell had one of those 'announce yourself to the nation' games. With the national spotlight of a Thursday night game, Donnell caught seven passes, three for touchdowns.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Donnell dominated Washington defensive backs physically, leaping over them or out-muscling them for the ball.. That game, a 45-14 victory by the Giants, was the high point of a blistering start by Donnell that conjured up visions of the Giants having their own version of Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski. Donnell had 25 receptions and four touchdowns in those first four games.
So, how have things played out for the third-year tight end from Grambling? Well, Donnell not only got the attention of a national viewing audience he also got noticed by NFL defensive coordinators.
In the two games following his Washington outburst, Donnell caught only one pass for six yards. In the nine games since that tremendous night Donnell has 30 catches, two for touchdowns. He has committed four costly fumbles.
Overall, Donnell has 55 catches for 544 yards and six touchdowns. He hasn't turned into Gronkowski or Graham, but he is certainly the most productive tight end the Giants have had in a long time. With one more catch Donnell will surpass the 55 catches Martellus Bennett had in 2012. The last time a Giants tight end caught more passes than that was 2007 when Jeremy Shockey had 57 receptions.
Donnell, of course, has been around the Giants since 2012. He was an undrafted free agent who spent the 2012 season on the practice squad beginning the process of learning to be a tight end. He caught three passes while playing sparingly a season ago. This season he has been a full-time player.
"He's obviously a young guy coming literally out of nowhere that is talented, that, quite frankly, we're trying to get more out of. We're trying to make him the best player he can possibly be. We want to see him step up in the areas that are not natural for him, the blocking areas, for example, and obviously ball security," head coach Tom Coughlin said recently. "I think there's upside, I do."
Donnell's primary deficiency is in run-blocking, where he has a Pro Football Focus grade of -9.4. Donnell is certainly big enough and strong enough to eventually master that part of the game.
On the flip side, Donnell has dropped only two passes in 75 targets, a drop rate of 3.51 percent that is second in the league among tight ends. That makes him a reliable target -- when he doesn't fumble.
Tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride said at mid-season that Donnell is "so green with eveything he does."
Like many of the young Giants we have discussed recently, the 26-year-old Donnell is another player the Giants have to feel good about going forward. They have searched for a long-term solution at tight end ever since Kevin Boss went to the Oakland Raiders as a free agent before the 2011 season. Donnell may never be Gronkowski or Graham, and that might be an unfair thing to even ask of him.
He could, however, be the Giants best tight end since Shockey. That's not too shabby.