Mark Herzlich told reporters who dropped by the Gridiron Gala on Tuesday night that he had a logical reason for changing his number to 44 for the 2017 season. He needed an eligible receiver’s number because he has been working at tight end this spring in hopes of becoming a two-way player.
You have heard this from me before, but for years I have been expecting the Giants to move on from Herzlich. I keep doing final 53-man roster projections that don’t include Herzlich. I keep being wrong.
Herzlich is entering his seventh season with the Giants. During the last couple of years of Tom Coughlin’s tenure as coach, there was a tendency to wonder if Herzlich was still around simply because he was a “Coughlin Guy,” a favorite because of his character. Surely, the Giants would move on last season when Ben McAdoo became head coach. Nope. Herzlich stuck around, even though that meant the Giants opened the season with a ridiculous eight linebackers on the roster.
How does he do this?
Herzlich is a guy who just keep defying expectations. Many didn’t expect him to live when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2009, much less play in the NFL. He made the Giants roster in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, and has been around ever since.
By now, we know he isn’t a starting-caliber NFL linebacker. He played only 14 defensive snaps last season, used mostly in goal-line situations where the thing he does best — crashing recklessly into opposing blockers — can perhaps help blow up running plays.
Herzlich is considered a key special teams player, mostly on coverage units. Yet, he played 387 special teams snaps in 2016 (87.06 percent) without registering a single tackle.
So, how does he stick around? By continuing to make himself useful. As an emergency linebacker. As a “do whatever is asked on special teams” guy. As the emergency long snapper. As a guy who never complains about his role, is respected in the locker room and in the community.
And now, maybe as a two-way player.
Can Herzlich actually play tight end?
There is a big, make that HUGE, difference between playing the role of a tight end on the scout team while basically walking through plays, which Herzlich told reporters he has done, and doing it for real against NFL defenses.
Here is the scouting report from a teammate who makes his living lined up against tight ends:
The 6-foot-4, 246-pound Herzlich has impressed in practice. Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson said Herzlich could be one of the top tight ends in the NFC East. Robinson realized he may have been over-hyping his fellow linebacker a tad, but he said Herzlich is a legitimate offensive weapon.
"He's that good from what I see every day in practice," Robinson said. "He can run routes with the best of them. He can block better than probably most of them. He's just a versatile athlete. He's got the size and frame, so that helps, also."
There’s probably a good bit of hyperbole in Robinson’s statement, but it does give you the idea that there is some legitimacy to this experiment.
Would the Giants really use him on offense?
They already have.
You might not remember, but Herzlich played three snaps on offense as a blocking tight end goal-line situations during the 2015 season. The Giants lost Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells and Matt LaCosse to injuries that season and were short-handed. That was also the season fullback Nikita Whitlock played 61 snaps at defensive tackle, so using a player both ways is hardly unprecedented for the Giants.
Interestingly, Herzlich told reporters that adding tight end to his resume wasn’t his idea. He was asked to do it.
“The more I can learn, the better. And the better I can help out, the better, too ... "I'm learning the whole offense and figuring out where I can help, wherever that is to return to the Giants this offseason. "That's always been my thing: Wherever the Giants need me to help out, I'll be there. So learning offense is the next part of that."
What about the “real” tight ends?
The Giants drafted Evan Engram in the first round. He will be a pass-catching weapon, not a guy depended on as an inline blocker. That’s what the Giants signed Rhett Ellison for. I wondered recently what role there was for last year’s starting tight end, Will Tye. This adds to that intrigue, as well as whether or not the Giants have plans for 2016 sixth-round pick Jerell Adams.
Herzlich might bomb as a tight end. Maybe preparing as a defensive player, special teamer and offensive player simply proves to be too much responsibility. Maybe, though, he will actually be good at it. Good enough to at least be a blocking option in short yardage and goal-line situations. What then? Does someone from the tight end group lose a job?
There are only 53 roster spots, and 46 game-day jerseys. With Davis Webb on the roster, the Giants will almost certainly keep three quarterbacks. Versatility will be at a premium and players who can fill multiple roles will have increased value.
Herzlich, again, may have found a way to increase his.
There is an important question we haven’t yet asked, though. If Herzlich really plays tight end, and manages to catch a touchdown pass, what would a Mark Herzlich touchdown dance look like?