The New York Giants find themselves in a familiar situation heading into 2015. Once again they did not invest resources into their tight end position over the offseason. The big difference between 2015 and 2014, is that Larry Donnell has proven to be a good receiving option -- ranking as a top 10 receiving tight end -- and Daniel Fells has proven to be a dependable veteran. However, the Giants also have a pair of tight ends vying for spots on the roster who offer exciting upside, but also come with some significant questions.
Adrien Robinson is actually the longest-tenured Giant among the tight ends, but he is also one of the roster's biggest enigmas. He came into the league as an athletic freak of a blocking tight end, but has yet to translate that raw potential into an impact on the field.
Jerome Cunningham was a late addition to the Giants' roster in the 2014 training camp, signed after Xavier Grimble and Daniel Fells were sidelined with injuries. Cunningham quickly impressed the Giants' coaches and earned a spot on the Giants' practice squad. He has proven to be an athletic and soft-handed receiver, but he still needs to prove his mettle as a blocker.
Both players featured heavily in the Giants' scoring drive to start the second quarter against the New York Jets. Since it was the third game of the preseason, this game heavily featured starters as well as some basic scheming and game-planning, that gives us an opportunity to see these two young players against the same competition in the closest thing to regular season action August has to offer.
So let's take a look.
Despite being a Giant since 2012, Robinson is still largely a mystery on the field. Thanks to the University of Cincinnati's offense and class schedule, Robinson was a project his rookie year and wasn't expected to even begin to make a contribution until 2013. That next season season, however, Robinson missed the entire season (aside from one play) to injury.
2014 finally saw Robinson on the field for the Giants' offense, and he was largely used as a blocking tight end behind Larry Donnell and Daniel Fells. Even though Robinson isn't to blame for how his career began, Robinson is having to prove that he can be a contributing member of the Giants' offense in 2015 for a chance to make the team.
For our first play, we'll take a look at Adrien Robinson's pass protection.
This play happens on a third-and-7, which is an obvious passing situation. To help nullify the Jets' potent pass rush, the Giants call a bootleg for Eli, moving the pocket to help buy time to find an open receiver.
Robinson starts the play matched up on Quentin Coples (No. 98), however Coples stunts inside, freeing Robinson up. Rather than block nobody, Robinson goes to block rookie linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin. Robinson's block of Mauldin isn't perfect, but he keeps the pass rusher from getting a free run at Eli as he rolls out.
Credit to Coples, he does a nice job of recognizing the roll out and is able to reverse back outside before fully committing to his inside rush. The combination of the Jets' stunt and the Giants' blocking scheme essentially means the Giants have three players -- Dallas Reynolds, Geoff Schwartz, and Marshall Newhouse -- blocking Muhammad Wilkerson, while nobody is able to block Coples. That leaves Coples free to get pressure on Eli without any blockers. Fortunately, Eli's roll out had bought enough space, and Robinson's block of Mauldin bought enough time, for Eli to find Odell Beckham to convert the third down.
It isn't a flashy play, but Robinson was pretty key in the Giants extending their drive.
Last play we looked at Robinson's run blocking, this play we're going to take a look at his run blocking. This isn't a successful play. Despite all of Shane Vereen's speed and quickness, the offensive line can't hold their blocks long enough for him to pick his way through the line of scrimmage.
Robinson is lined up next to Marshall Newhouse and is matched up on Jason Babin, who is in his typical four-point stance at the 9 technique. This is a stance and alignment that Babin has used to great effect to fire off the .snap and into the offensive backfield.
Though Babin does get a good jump off the snap, Robinson does a nice job of making first contact and not letting Babin get into his chest. He keeps a wide base, and even though Babin keeps outside leverage, Robinson is able to turn him perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. The tight end does his job in opening up a running lane, the play fails becase the offensive linemen get beaten. At right tackle, Newhouse can't lock in or sustain a block on the linebacker, who easily sheds him to fill Vereen"s running lane. that slows Vereen enough that the nose tackle, who slipped past Schwartz, can make the tackle from behind.
The third job of a tight end is to catch the football, and it just so happens that Robinson had a reception on this drive.
Before the snap Eli Manning had identified the Jets' double A-Gap blitz, to go along with the rushing SAM linebacker on the left side of the offensive line. He knew he had to get the ball out quickly, before the pressure even had a chance to get to him. The offensive line does a nice job of picking up the blitz and holding firm -- one brief highlight is Justin Pugh launching Leonard Williams backwards to the ground.
Robinson runs a quick out-route, slipping into an open space in the defense created by a nice block by Odell Beckham, who was in the slot. The wide receiver runs a post route to help clear out the the field as well. That matches Robinson up on safety Marcus Gilchrist, who was in a deeper zone coverage. Robinson does a nice job of turning his shoulders back to give a good target for Eli and making a hands catch. He also makes a point of securing the ball before turning upfield to turn a 2-yard completion into a 5-yard catch and run.
This definitely isn't the sexiest play. It doesn't have the tight end streaking down the seam, blowing past an overmatched linebacker, or out-muscling a smaller defensive back. But what this is, is a staple play for the West Coast offense, that is well executed to keep the offense on schedule.
The mantra here is "You don't go broke making a profit". It might only be a 5-yard gain, but Eli didn't have to throw the ball away, and it was out long before he had to worry about taking a sack.
The Giants have another tight end on the roster who, while receiving praise throughout the preseason and training camp, is still an unknown to many fans. Since I decided to hold to just this drive, there won't be any receptions by Cunningham. And that's okay. We already know that he is athletic and can catch the ball. What we, and more importantly the Giants, need to see, are his abilities as a blocker.
This play sees both Robinson and Cunningham on the field at the same time. Robinson is lined up inline next to left tackle Ereck Flowers, and Cunningham is behind and between the two.
Just prior to the snap, Antonio Cromartie walks up to the line of scrimmage and comes on a blitz. The Giants' blocking scheme here is pretty interesting.
Rather than blocking a defensive lineman or a linebacker, Flowers pulls outside while Robinson downblocks. That puts Flowers on Antonio Cromartie... Which honestly isn't fair, and I almost feel sorry for Cro.
But back to the tight ends. Robinson gets a very nice block on Leger Douzable, knocking him roughly three yards off the line of scrimmage.
Cunningham gets out in front of Jennings. He makes a bit of a bad read and tries to block Cromartie as he flashes past -- even backtracking a step before seeing Flowers smother the corner -- but then gets back in front of Jennings. Once back in the play, Cunningham manages to keep a pair of would-be tacklers from touching him down as he streaks and stumbles for a first down.
From a pure blocking perspective, Robinson's block is more impressive, but Cunningham's blocks help turn a decent gain into a first down. Really, both tight ends help make this play a success.
Very often, the difference between a good run and a great run is the blocking by the skill players. In this case Vereen gets a few good blocks from the Giants skill players to turn a quick toss play into a 19-yard pick-up.
Cunningham lines up next to Ereck Flowers and immediately gets out into space to block inside linebacker David Harris. Odell Beckham gets a nice block on the defensive back who is covering him in the slot before Cunningham finishes his block on Harris. The combination of those two blocks gives Vereen the window of space he needs to turn make a break for daylight and pick up a big chunk of yards.
Cunningham's block here isn't pretty. He mostly gets in Harris' way before creating a mess that occupies three defenders as he goes over Beckham. But while the block isn't pretty, it is effective.
For our final play looking at Cunningham on the Giants' scoring drive, I chose one that highlights both his strength and weakness as a blocker.
This play was largely doomed from the start, and it has not much to do with Cunningham. He releases to the second level off the snap, and his block would have once again been the difference between a good and a great run.
What doomed this run was a bad block by Newhouse and a missed block by Dallas Reynolds. Newhouse gets controlled by Quentin Coples, allowing him to set the edge ad string the play out. That poor block forces Rashad Jennings back inside where David Harris, who Reynolds failed to block at the second level, is able to make the tackle.
As for Cunningham, he shows a tremendous energy and willingness to engage his defender off the ball. However, he either stumbles, or has poor technique and forgets to take his feet with him, lunging into the linebacker. Demario Davis is easily able to avoid Cunningham's block and is basically unimpeded to help with the tackle of Jennings.
Cunningham's energy and willingness are great to see, but if he didn't stumble, his technique definitely needs polishing.
Who wants to see the Giants score a touchdown?
I know I do.
For the final play of the Giants' second-quarter scoring drive, we see the Giants break out a three-tight end, two-back package to try to pound the ball into the end zone.
The play is successful, Jennings gets the touchdown, so obviously the offensive line does their job. But we want to take a look at the tight ends. On the field for this play are Daniel Fells (next to Ereck Flowers), Adrien Robinson (yellow box, next to Newhouse), and Larry Donnell (2-point stance, next to Robinson.
At the top of the formation Fells gets matched up on a defensive lineman (it appears to be Coples), and his block is exactly what we expect: Effective, but unspectacular. He loses a step or so of ground at contact, but makes it back when the lineman's attention turns to the inside of the formation. He keeps his pads lower, his base wide, and his hands inside the lineman's shoulders, so he isn't likely to get bulldozed, but he also isn't going to drive the lineman back.
Robinson gets matched up on 300-pounddefensive end Stephen Bowen, and makes a successful block. He doesn't give an inch at the point of contact, keeps his base wide, and gets his hands into Bowen's pads, even managing to turn him sideways. This block helps create enough room for Jennings to fight through for the score. If Robinson gets pushed back, there is no hole for Jennings to hit, and he's running into Henry Hynoski's backside.
At the bottom of the screen Donnell makes a decent block on linebacker Jamari Lattimore. Donnell keeps his base wide and shows willingness to make the block, but his hands go wide. That lets Lattimore into Donnell's pads and makes this much more of a battle than it needs to be. Like Fells, this isn't a key block, but it does keep another defender from coming inside to potentially keep Jennings from scoring.
So what do we make of all this? Well, it does tell us how the Giants view Cunningham and Robinson.
When blocking, they use Robinson similarly to an offensive tackle. He is an in-line blocker, who lines up tight to the formation. His size and strength let him effectively take on linemen and linebackers at the line of scrimmage with a reasonable expectation of winning.
It was nice to see the Giants also turn to Robinson as the first -- and only -- read in a play designed to beat the blitz. It was a quick, safe, and routine play, but for a player who has had questions about his receiving ability, it's important that he got it right. Eli went back to Robinson the very next play, and he drew a pass interference call over the middle to keep the drive moving. It was also nice to see plays designed to go to Robinson and neither were the two-tight end play-action fake that the Giants used exclusively in 2014.
Cunningham was used more like an industrial-sized receiver, making blocks at the second-level and in space. That not only protects Cunningham from having to give up 40, 50, or more, pounds in body weight and from having to rely on suspect technique, but also allows him to use his athleticism. Though Cunningham's blocking still needs refinement, he shows willingness in spades. While technique is important, the willingness to block is more important. A willing player can always be coached up.
That being said, it is a welcome change over some previous years to see players put in position to both maximize their skills and minimize the exposure of their weaknesses.
Now, will both young tight ends make it onto the Giants roster? I have no clue, and we'll just have to wait until cut-down day to find out. But it might be an encouraging sign that both were featured heavily with the Giants' starters against the Jets' starters in the beginning of the third preseason game. It should definitely be encouraging that both performed well.