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Giants’ Evan Engram conundrum is biggest tight end issue

Engram’s inconsistency leaves the Giants with a decision to make

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The production from New York Giants tight ends wasn’t nearly what it needed to be in 2020. There’s really no way around that conclusion.

Evan Engram was named to the Pro Bowl, but in truth had an awful year. Kaden Smith was a huge part of the success of the Giants’ run game, often used as a lead blocker on inside plays and an edge setter on outside runs. Smith, though, was an afterthought in the passing game with just 18 receptions. As for veteran Levine Toilolo, I still haven’t seen a good reason why the Giants gave him a two-year, $6.2 million contract with $3.225 million guaranteed.

Let’s go through the Giants tight ends individually.

2020 Roster

Starter: Evan Engram
Backups: Kaden Smith, Levine Toilolo
Practice squad: Rysen John

Evan Engram

When is a Pro Bowler not a true Pro Bowler? When he plays the way Engram did in 2020, that’s when. Engram was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time after what was, statistically, the worst season of his NFL career.

  • Engram tied his rookie season mark with 11 dropped passes. In 2017, he dropped 11 passes in 115 targets. This season, he did so in 109 targets. That’s a drop 10.09 percent of the time in 2020. In 2018 and 2019, Engram dropped only six passes combined.
  • A career-worst six passes intended for Engram were intercepted. No passes intended for Engram were picked off in either 2018 or 2019.
  • Engram’s catch percentage was 57.8. It was 70.3 percent in 2018 and 64.7 percent in 2019.
  • Engram’s passer rating when targeted was a career-low 55.4. In 2019 it was 99.3, and in 2018 113.9, per Pro Football Reference.
  • Engram had career lows in receptions per game (3.9) and receiving yards per game (40.9) in 2020.

While some of that blame has to fall to offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the overall data doesn’t support the idea that Engram was under-used or used poorly.

Engram was fourth in the league among tight ends in number or targets, per Pro Football Reference. He led Giants’ receivers in targets. Among tight ends targeted at least 70 times, Engram was seventh in yards per route run (1.28). He was targeted nine times on routes of 20+ yards, with five receptions. Over the previous two seasons, he had been targeted on such throws just nine times combined. Engram was lined up out wide or in the slot 46 percent of the time.

We can quibble with some of the routes Engram was asked to run. Overall, though, Engram just didn’t maximize the opportunities he was given.

“There was a lot of times I didn’t perform as well as I wanted to,” Engram said in a season-ending Zoom call. “There’s never any excuses. There’s a lot of plays I wish I could have back.”

The question for the Giants is how to approach Engram. He is a talented player who made it through a 16-game season for the first time. The drop issues he had as a rookie resurfaced, however, in 2020. The Giants have picked up his fifth-year option at a cost of $6.013 million. Do they try to trade him and replace him with someone like Florida’s Kyle Pitts if he is available in the draft or a free agent? Do they continue to work with him and build at the wide receiver position?

Kaden Smith

Smith is one of the better finds of the Dave Gettleman era as GM, picked up on waivers from the San Francisco 49ers last season. He’s a classic tight end, an inline guy who is a reliable receiver in short areas and a good blocker in the run game.

Personally, I was disappointed that the Giants didn’t utilize Smith more in the passing game. He’s not the dynamic downfield threat Engram is, but he is reliable receiver. He was only targeted 21 times this season, making 18 receptions (85.7 percent completion rate). Smith averaged only 7.5 yards receiving per game.

Smith caught the majority of his 31 receptions in 2019 after Engram went down to injury. His production as a receiver figured to go down, but it was disappointing to see it drop that much.

In short, I think the Giants can get more production from Smith in 2021.

Levine Toilolo

If Toilolo had been the dominant blocker on offense and special teams standout the giants signed him to be, I wouldn’t have an issue with the money the Giants gave a guy who caught two passes for the San Francisco 49ers last season and had only five receptions for the Giants this season.

He wasn’t.

Toilolo’s blocking was average, at best (58.6 Pro Football Focus score as a pass blocker, 57.2 as a run run blocker. On special teams, he missed four tackles. That equaled how many Toilolo had missed in the previous seven seasons combined, and tied with C.J. Board for most special teams missed tackles on the Giants.

The Giants just can’t spend $2.95 million on Toilolo in 2021.