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Friday spotlight: Can the Giants get more out of Evan Engram?

With Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard down, Giants could use added production from tight end

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants
Evan Engram
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In Week 5 of the 2017 NFL season the New York Giants lost wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Dwayne Harris for the season. They also lost Sterling Shepard for a few games with an injury.

That thrust rookie tight end Evan Engram to the forefront. Whether he was ready or not, Engram had to become the focal point of the Giants’ passing attack. He responded with 45 catches for 522 yards (11.6 yards per catch) with five of his six touchdown catches over the season’s final 10 games.

That was a tantalizing glimpse into the possibilities for the Giants’ 2017 first-round pick.

Unfortunately, Engram has not really been able to build on that rookie success. Injuries have been the primary culprit as he has played in only 21 of 34 potential regular-season games since. He has averaged a respectable 4.62 receptions per game, but that’s not the more than six catches per game tight ends like Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers have averaged.

It’s not like Engram has been unproductive. He did average 5.5 catches per game last season, sixth among tight ends. He was on pace to catch 88 passes, which would have tied him for third among NFL tight ends with Zach Ertz.

It’s just that his crazy for a tight end 4.42 40-yard dash speed, his elite overall athleticism for the position, the spectacular plays he can make and his occasional dominance have left frustrated fans thinking there should be more.

Currently, the Giants find themselves in 2017-like situation on offense. Superstar running back Saquon Barkley is gone for the season. Shepard is on IR, shelved for at least the next three games with turf toe.

Hopeful eyes are once again turning toward Engram as the potential answer to a question that has been asked over and over this week — where will the Giants turn for those explosive plays they were used to Barkley delivering?

Speaking with media this week, Engram didn’t sound like a player who felt he had to don a Superman cape and take over as the dominant offensive player.

“About Saquon and Shep, it’s very unfortunate. It sucks losing my brothers like that,” Engram said. “I think it’s on everybody. Everybody on the offense, everybody on the team to kind of dig deep and come in ready to work hard and perform.”

Engram is off to a slow start in Jason Garrett’s offense. He is averaging 4.0 receptions, 37.0 yards, 4.9 yards per target, 9.3 yards per reception and catching only 53.3 percent of passes thrown his way. All of those numbers are career lows. He has two drops already, after dropping only three passes in each of the last two seasons.

All six of Engram’s catches last week came in the second half, after Barkley and Shepard had gone to the sidelines.

“I definitely kind of got going. I got into a rhythm, kind of got settled in,” Engram said. “That was just me kind of getting opportunities and cashing in on them, doing my job.”

Maybe part of the adjustment is that Garrett, who worked with the great but plodding Jason Witten with the Dallas Cowboys, has to get used to Engram’s skill set.

“You just have to keep banging away, you really do. There were some plays in the first game and the early part of the second game that certainly Evan would like to have back. You keep playing, you keep banging and he’s done a really good job working hard in practice. He’s playing hard,” Garrett said. “He had some opportunities as that game wore on and he took advantage of them. He won some one on one matchups, he made some runs after the catch that were impressive for us. Big, explosive plays like we’re talking about.

“He’s certainly going to be a big part of our offense going forward. Just love his approach, love everything about it. He’ll get better and better and better the more he plays.”

Garrett has been moving Engram around. He has played 127 offensive snaps — 61 inline, 46 in the slot and 20 split wide. That means he has been split off the line of scrimmage on 51.9 percent of his snaps.

That is a change from last season when Engram played 284 snaps inline and 160 in the slot or out side, meaning he was inline 63.9 percent of the time.

Engram the wide receiver?

This topic comes up again and again and again. I probably get several “why don’t the Giants move Engram to wide receiver?” questions for the Big Blue View Mailbag every month. Since we have looked at his snap count so far this season and seen that Garrett is trying to get him standing up off the line more than Pat Shurmur did, let’s discuss that.

I brought this up with former All-Pro cornerback Eric Davis during Friday’s ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast, and Davis explained why that would not work with the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Engram.

Here is Davis’s somewhat lengthy, very informative, response:

“You put Engram out against the better corners in the league it’s a mismatch. Everyone thinks I’m talking about the tight end because of the size. No, it’s not. The corners are much better athletes. They are superior athletes. They are quicker, your change of direction is going to be there.

“Everyone’s assuming that I have to get in and wrestle with this guy and he can body me out like he’s blocking me on the low block, like he’s posting me up on the low block in basketball. Well, that’s not football.

“Remember, I can cover a guy and never touch him. I’m going to be quicker. If it was that simple Tony Gonzalez would have played wide receiver, Gronk would play wide receiver. You don’t do it because physically it looks like it would be this easy mismatch, but the guys are so much faster and quicker that they can outmaneuver these guys and the majority of the plays are going to be made by the corner.

“When you put that tight end against a safety or a linebacker where the speed is somewhat equal, the quickness is somewhat equal, now the advantage goes to that tight end who knows what he is doing, and athletically a lot of the times they are better. You lose that athleticism advantage when you go outside of the numbers and you go up against corners. That’s why you don’t move that guy. He wouldn’t be as effective.”

Can he still get better?

You would think a player in his fourth season in the league is already pretty much what he is going to be. Head coach Joe Judge, though, said that he believes Engram, 26 and in his fourth NFL season, is still an ascending player.

“You know what I look at him as? As a developing player. I think Evan’s young enough where we have not seen his best ball. But he’s a guy that works every day tirelessly. You guys saw him through training camp. This guy really empties the tank. You see him every day in practice. This guy, when you look at his GPS reports after practice in terms of yards and speed and all of that stuff, he’s a guy you have to monitor and kind of back off a little bit because this guy has no governor on himself. He goes full speed all the time. He works tirelessly,” Judge said. “The guys respond to him. He does a great job preparing himself. He’s very mentally tough. He’s improving all the time. A lot of guys got on him after that first game in terms of where the production was. I think we saw a glimpse of that last week. He really made some good plays for us at key times, and he’ll continue to do that throughout the season when the opportunity comes his way.

He doesn’t have to force it. He doesn’t have to do anything outside of his own responsibility or job. When the play comes his way, he has to be in position to go ahead and finish it. We have confidence he will.”