Let’s start with something surprising. At a position where it typically takes a year or two to make an impact, Evan Engram of the New York Giants has been one of the most productive tight ends by receiving yards over the first two seasons of his career.
Only 4 tight ends over the last decade logged more receiving yards in their first two NFL seasons than #Giants TE Evan Engram's 1,299:— Evan Silva (@evansilva) July 16, 2019
1. George Kittle 1,892
2. Rob Gronkowski 1,873
3. Jimmy Graham 1,666
4. Aaron Hernandez 1,473
* Engram has missed 6 games due to injury
But while there has been a lot of yards, there hasn’t exactly been a lot of value. In 2017, Engram was 33rd of 50 qualified tight ends in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. Last year, Engram improved to 19th of 49. But for someone with so many receiving yards — he’s seventh among tight ends in receiving yards over the past two seasons — the full potential of Engram’s receiving ability has yet to be realized.
So much of that comes from usage. Last year, per Next Gen Stats, Engram’s average target came 4.9 yards down the field. Among tight ends with at least 30 targets, that ranked 24th. Among 114 combined wide receivers and tight ends, it ranked 111th. Engram can be a yards after the catch machine — he ranked ninth in YAC per reception among those 114 players last season — but like Saquon Barkley’s ability to make defenders miss and run after the catch, his role doesn’t have to be exclusively that.
Engram’s NFL usage so far has been puzzling, especially considering the type of prospect he was coming out of Ole Miss. In college, Engram dominated as a receiver and regularly lined up in the slot, out wide, and in the backfield. For the Giants to get the most out of Engram and the passing game, especially should Sterling Shepard miss significant time, they should bring a little Rebel back to his game.
Below, Engram lined up as H-back just behind the offensive line. Ole Miss ran a fake pitch to the running back while Engram ran a wheel down the sideline. Engram was quick enough that a chip from the defensive end didn’t slow him down and the linebacker couldn’t keep up after moving horizontally with the first part of Engram’s stem. Engram had a clear path down the sideline and was slowed only by a poor throw.
Last season Engram did not have a target from the backfield. He lined up there for just six snaps all season. The closest the Giants came to using Engram out of the backfield was a play in Week 3 against the Houston Texans where Engram initially lined up as a fullback, then motioned to a traditional tight end set, and caught a short pass that traveled five yards in the air. Engram ran for another 14 after the catch for a total gain of 19 yards.
In college, Engram was a consistent threat to win down the field. It was one of the biggest reasons he was a first-round pick. He was too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Here he is winning down the seam from the slot against Florida State.
Last year, Engram was targeted on two seam routes, per Sports Info Solutions. Twenty-four tight ends were targeted more often on that route. Rob Gronkowski and David Njoku led the league with 12 each. Though despite the lack of targets, only five tight ends had more receiving yards than Engram on seam routes in 2018. Both of Engram’s seam routes last season saw him matched up on linebackers (two considered among the league’s best — Lavonte David and Darius Leonard) after lining up in-line.
The play against Indianapolis could have been a touchdown with just a slightly better throw. The one against Tampa Bay showed Engram can still have the ability to run after the catch even if the target happens downfield.
Those downfield targets present a massive gap in what Engram can do and what he’s been asked to do. Only nine of Engram’s 64 targets (14 percent) last season traveled 10 or more yards in the air, per SIS. Compare that to Travis Kelce, who saw 39.3 percent of his targets travel that distance or George Kittle, another athletic yards after the catch monster, who was at 32.4 percent. It wasn’t just a health thing, since Engram did deal with some injuries in 2018. This was consistently how he was used throughout the season.
Scheming tight ends open downfield wouldn’t be a new concept for Pat Shurmur, either. In 2017, 35.8 percent of Kyle Rudolph’s targets came 10 or more yards down the field with Shurmur as offensive coordinator in Minnesota.
Using Engram down the field more could also play with the defense’s expectations. No longer would a linebacker or defensive back be able to creep up to the line if the potential of Engram blazing past them is a real and consistent threat. That can help open up the box for the run game and clear out space in the short and intermediate areas for the likes of Saquon Barkley, Golden Tate, and another tight end in the passing game. Properly using Engram like he can be used will benefit more than just him in the offense.
As the Giants start to figure out how to construct an efficient passing game without one of the game’s best wide receivers, possibly for a time without their current projected No. 1 receiver, and potentially a rookie quarterback at some point, Engram should be a huge piece to that puzzle. Engram’s usage to this point has picked up a ton of yards and has occasionally looked impressive, but there’s still another level that can be brought out of his game. In order to better set up Engram’s future, they should heavily rely on his past.