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Position preview: Giants’ tight ends hope to have positive impact

Giants have Engram, Rudolph, Smith ... and a plethora of practice squad players at tight end

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett featured multiple tight end sets throughout the 2020 season. The 31st ranked offense was in 12 personnel (two tight ends) 27 percent and 13 personnel (three tight ends) 10 percent of the time, according to Sharpfootballstatistics. That ranked eighth and second in the NFL, respectively. The Giants’ wide receivers were bereft of depth, so one would surmise that bigger personnel packages were logical, which would be a fair point.

When Jason Garrett was the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, they also used heavier personnel packages, albeit 2019 offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was predominantly in 11 personnel. Nevertheless, the position group figures to still be a big part of the Giants’ identity during the 2021 season.

The Giants upgraded their position by adding veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who fits the mold as a traditional “Y” inline tight end better than Evan Engram. Rudolph had to have foot surgery shortly after committing to the Giants, but he didn’t have trouble finding a suitor. Kyle Rudolph was quoted saying this about his free-agent experience:

”But for me going through the free agency process, each and every day there were new updates, new teams, new opportunities. I remember telling my wife (Jordan) - we were sitting at lunch in Minnesota with our two-year-old son - and I just got off the phone with coach (Joe) Judge and coach (Jason) Garrett (the Giants’ offensive coordinator,) and at that point there were 12 or 13 different options and I knew New York was the place that I needed to be. This was the team, this was the organization that we needed to go to next. As soon as I hung up the phone, I knew that this was the perfect fit.”

Rudolph joins Engram and Kaden Smith to form a formidable tight end room, but is that enough in an offense that features the position? Especially with Rudolph getting up to speed and Evan Engram dealing with an injury? Time will tell. Let’s look at how the position evolved through the offseason.

Where they started

When training camp began, Rudolph was rehabbing his foot injury, and the tight end room looked like this:

Evan Engram, Kaden Smith, Levine Toilolo, Cole Hikutini, Rysen John, Nakia Griffin-Stewart, Kelvin Benjamin

A certain member of the tight end room started camp with a bang by showing up 17 pounds overweight. Benjamin was asked to cut his 265-pound frame to 251 pounds from the end of minicamp to training camp. He reported to training camp at 268 pounds. After a heated discussion with head coach Joe Judge, Benjamin was released from the team.

Shortly after Benjamin’s departure, veteran tight end Levine Toilolo tore his Achilles tendon. Toilolo played 428 total snaps for the Giants, 257 of them on offense. Toilolo restructured his deal to accept less money to return to the Giants.

The injuries prompted the Giants to look at available tight ends as training camp continued into the hot days of August. New York signed rookie tight end Jake Hausmann. The former Buckeyes’ tight end was more known for his blocking in college.

A slew of injuries removed some of the more interesting depth pieces at the position. Cole Hikutini sustained an injury to his hip in the first preseason game against the Jets. He was waived due to the injury.

Rysen John, a second-year converted WR out of Division II Simon Fraser, showed intriguing receiving ability in the Browns loss. He caught two long passes up the seam and looked natural tracking the football and hanging onto through contact. Unfortunately, John was injured with less than a minute in the game. He is now on the Injured Reserve.

Training camp and the preseason wasn’t kind to the Giants’ tight ends, especially with Evan Engram coming up gimpy in the Patriots preseason game. That injury doesn’t appear to be serious, but time will tell how long it lingers.

Where they are now

Current roster

Starters: Evan Engram or Kyle Rudolph
Backups: Kaden Smith
Practice Squad: Jake Hausmann, Ryan Izzo, Chris Myarick

The apparent “starter” will probably be Engram, but Rudolph will play a pivotal role in this offense if his foot isn’t an issue.

Jason Garrett has long loved the “Y-Stick” option play where the tight end reads the leverage of the defense and either runs a quick “stick” route, similar to a short hitch, or he turns outside and continues the route laterally away from coverage. As Giants’ fans, we saw this play several times ran by Jason Witten.

Rudolph is a much better option for this play and for many horizontal spacing concepts that Garrett runs so often. Rudolph has very strong hands, excellent concentration ability, and he’s better at adjusting his body in the air than Engram - he’s not as athletic as Engram.

Engram will still have a role in the offense and play many snaps, hopefully finally being unlocked as the mismatch weapon he’s billed as. Last year, Kaden Smith was hardly used as a receiver but was a pivotal part of the Giants rushing attack. He was the H-Back on GH/GF counter runs who pulled behind the backside guard to locate the most dangerous man in the designed gap.

Smith has grown as a blocker over the last two seasons. His role will still be important as the third tight end. If the Giants are in a pinch, both Elijhaa Penny and Cullen Gillaspia have the profile to execute Smith’s pulling assignment. Penny did so last year in a limited manner. The play below is a different alignment than the play Smith so frequently ran, but it’s a similar concept - follow the backside guard, enter the hole, and annihilate.

Germaine Pratt (57) was put on ice skates, which is one reason why Penny is so loved and valued. Penny will have his role and isn’t a tight end, but he has aligned there in the past. However, if Engram isn’t 100 percent, I expect the Giants to promote one of the practice squad tight ends for Week 1.

Hausmann should have the leg up on Izzo and Myarick because he spent the entire summer within Garrett’s playbook with this team. The one that interests me most, though, is Ryan Izzo.

The Pope John High School graduate, and Florida State alum, won a Super Bowl with Joe Judge in New England, and he was known as an adequate blocker on those Patriot teams. He’s not known for his athletic ability or receiving skills, but he can be a player to help with blocking if something were to happen to Engram, Rudolph, or Smith. Will Izzo be comfortable enough with the playbook? I don’t know.

Myarick wasn’t used extensively as a receiver at Temple. Kenny Yeboah and Myarick were a solid tight end duo at Temple, where Myarick performed well as a blocker. Yeboah ended up transferring to Ole Miss after Myarick went undrafted. His size and length are enticing at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, but he’s a developmental piece.

Final thoughts

The Giants are in a better position than they were last year. Engram saw more than 100 targets last year - that’s not going to happen again, but Rudolph and Engram collectively should easily eclipse that mark. There are more mouths to feed in this offense with the additions of Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney and the return of Saquon Barkley. This could lead to more 11 personnel or even some creative two-back looks with Toney and Barkley.

The tight ends will still have their pivotal role, and hopefully, we can see more chip-release type plays from Engram, Smith, and Rudolph to help either tackle. Kaden Smith is an excellent third tight end to have on the roster. If Engram’s mistakes can be mitigated, then hopefully, his value can be unlocked and possibly maximized. Rudolph provides nuance to his route running and a more physical presence than Engram. The three healthy together make a solid trio of tight ends.