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The Evan Engram conundrum: How can the Giants make better use of their tight end?

Engram had a difficult 2020 season, and fixing that might require using him differently

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

2020 was a fascinating season for New York Giants tight end Evan Engram.

The tight end caught 63 passes for 654 yards, his highest numbers since his rookie season back in 2017. He was named to his first Pro Bowl, which might also speak to the depth — or lack thereof — at the position in today’s NFC.

But Engram also caught a single touchdown pass, the lowest output of his four-year career, and his 10.4 yards per reception was also the lowest mark since entering the league.

So how can Jason Garrett and the Giants get more out of their tight end?

We can start by looking at his route tree. After spending the better part of a week watching Engram and charting his usage, a few patterns emerge. First off, on passing plays it is very likely that you will find Engram in a tight alignment to the formation. Out of the Giants 566 passing plays last year, Engram was aligned in what I graded as a “tight” alignment on 260 of those plays. Here is just one example from early in New York’s Week 17 game against the Dallas Cowboys:

Here you see Engram aligned in what I graded as a tight alignment running a Stick route. Yes, more on that in a moment.

On another 219 passing plays Engram aligned in the slot. For example, I charted this play as a slot alignment, as he was detached from the right tackle and aligned outside the right hashmark with the football on the opposite side of the field:

Oh, hey, what would you know another Stick route.

Finally, on 83 passing plays, Engram was aligned as the widest receiver on his side of the field, but even on those snaps he might still be tight to the formation. For example, on this play against the Baltimore Ravens Engram aligns wide to the left, on the “top of the numbers:”

But contrast this with Engram’s alignment on this catch and run against the Los Angeles Rams:

Engram is aligned as the single receiver on the right side of the formation, but the alignment is still pretty close to the right tackle. One might even consider this a slot alignment, but given his presence as the widest receiver on the right it fell into the “wide” alignment bucket in my charting.

Now let’s talk about route usage. Of those 566 passing plays, an overwhelming majority of routes run by Engram were some kind of out route. I charted 60 out routes that were deeper than five yards downfield, and another 85 out routes that are better considered “flat” routes, with Engram breaking to the outside either near the line of scrimmage or within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

On those plays Engram was targeted 29 times, with 19 receptions. He averaged six yards per reception and did not get into the end zone.

Speaking of targets, when you look at the 109 times Engram was targeted last season another pattern emerges. The bulk of those came on three different routes: Shallow crossers, Flat routes and yes, Stick routes.

That remained true when looking at his receptions. Of his 63 catches the majority came on those three pass patterns. I charted Engram with 10 receptions on Shallows, 11 receptions on Flat routes and six more on Stick routes.

As always, there could be minor discrepancies between my charting and that done by others, but with that caveat let’s dive into one other interesting note.

Explosive plays.

Defined as plays that gain 20 or more yards, Engram had six such receptions last season. Yes, one did come on a Stick route, this play against the Chicago Bears:

This was a nice catch-and-run to move the chains on third down. But now look at this cut-up of the other five explosive plays and see if you can put together the pattern:

These are all routes in the vertical family.

Of course, it seems self-explanatory right? Explosive plays in the passing game might come when the receiver is going downfield rather than lurking near the line of scrimmage. But if the Giants truly want to get the most out of Engram, using him in this fashion might lead to more explosive plays in the future from him.

Now, the rest of the route tree — such as those Stick routes from him everyone loves to hate on — are still a necessary part of the playbook. After all, the beauty of the Stick route is that technically it is, or should be, always open. Man coverage? Just run away from the nearest defender’s leverage. Zone? Find grass and sit down. Of course, just because it is always open does not mean you’ll always complete it...

But in terms of using Engram on more vertical routes, another reason it makes sense, beyond the explosive opportunities it offers him against safeties in man coverage situations, is what it might open up underneath. After all, the Giants have two intriguing weapons in Sterling Shepard and Kadarius Toney, who would love to find space to operate underneath on some of those shallow crossing routes. Getting Engram working downfield not only puts him in position to make a big play in the passing game himself, it might create both traffic (initially in the down) and space (later in the down) for those two receivers working underneath his release.

As Giants fans wait and hope for a big third-year leap from Daniel Jones, perhaps a way to make that more of a potential result is to tweak how they use their tight end. Getting Engram working downfield in the passing game might just create more opportunities for the New York offense, both by targeting Engram directly, as well as creating room for other receivers to find space and operate underneath.