As NFL offensive play callers have increasingly looked to exploit advantageous matchups in the passing game, tight ends like Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, George, and going back a bit Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski, have become stars.
Evan Engram of the New York Giants has, over three NFL seasons, teased the ability to join that ilk of tight ends. A confluence of an inability to stay healthy and sometimes mystifying usage by Ben McAdoo and then Pat Shurmur has conspired to keep Engram out of the ranks of the league’s best tight ends.
Will that change in 2020? Let’s take a closer look.
Age: 26 when 2020 season begins
Position: Tight end
Contract: Year 4 of four-year, $10.718 million rookie contract. [Fifth-year option for 2021 picked up by Giants].
How he got here
Since being selected 23rd by the Giants in the 2017 NFL Draft, Engram’s talents have always tantalized.
As a rookie, Engram caught 64 passes for 722 yards (11.3 yards per catch) and scored 6 touchdowns. He played in 15 games and, with Odell Beckham Jr. and other wide receivers sidelined, was at times the focal point of whatever passing attack the anemic Giants’ offense had.
Over the past two seasons, the biggest issue for Engram has been health. Or lack thereof. He missed five games in 2018 and eight games in 2019. Engram was averaging career bests in catches per game (5.5) and yards receiving per game (58.4) last season before a foot injury ended his season. He was on pace to catch 88 passes, which would have easily led Giants’ receivers.
The Giants chose to exercise Engram’s fifth-year option for the 2021 season, which means they will pay him $6.013 million.
Engram has spent this offseason rehabbing from a foot injury.
Any look at what to expect from Engram has to be looked at through the lens of wondering how many games he will play. Engram’s participating has declined from 15 to 11 to 8 games over three years.
I can’t help but think of Jordan Reed, the ultra-talented former Washington Redskins tight end who never played a full season in six NFL campaigns, hasn’t played since 2018, and is now looking for a new team. The Giants have to hope Engram’s career isn’t headed down a similar path.
The other question, of course, is how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will utilize him. Despite 4.42 40-yard dash speed that put Engram in the 98th percentile for tight ends when he came out of Ole Miss, both Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur seemed too often content to use him on traditional underneath tight end routes or shallow horizontal routes rather than using him to attack linebackers and safeties down the field.
In 2018, Engram averaged 2.17 yards per route run, 42nd among tight ends, and had an average target distance of 6.0 yards, 34th. In 2019, his average yards per route run was only 1.85 and his average target distance was 6.2 yards, 31st. Player Profiler ranked Engram 30th in target quality.
All of that indicates that perhaps the West Coast offense tendencies of McAdoo and Shurmur perhaps didn’t take full advantage of Engram’s skills.
Will the more vertical offense run by Garrett, one steeped in the principles of the Air Coryell offense, use Engram in more of an attacking fashion?
Garrett never really had a tight end like Engram in Dallas. Witten will be a Hall of Famer and he has 1,215 career receptions, but he has not been a true downfield threat, never averaging more than 11.9 yards per catch. The original Air Coryell tight end, Kellen Winslow, averaged 12.5 yards per catch for his career and was above 13 yards per catch three times.
Can Garrett find a way to bring that kind of production out of Engram, who’s career-best to date was 12.8 yards per catch in 2018? We’ll find out — if Engram is healthy enough to stay on the field.