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Making the case: Lawrence Cager, Tommy Sweeney, or Ryan Jones at TE?

Which tight end will back up Darren Waller and Daniel Bellinger?

NFL: Houston Texans at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants 2023 training camp is fast approaching, and there are questions all over the roster. But in a change from years past, those questions are shifting from “are these guys any good” to “will the Giants have to cut good players to get down to their final 53-man roster?”

The tight end position is one of the most intriguing on the Giants’ roster. There’s plenty of mystery surrounding how the Giants plan to use Darren Waller. We also have to see how they’ll keep Daniel Bellinger engaged in the offense after he proved that he can be a good starting tight end with a great rookie campaign.

There are also plenty of questions regarding the depth at tight end. The Giants face numbers questions at a just about every position, and they might only be able to keep three tight ends on the final roster.

Let’s take a look at three of the players vying for that open roster spot in Lawrence Cager, Tommy Sweeney, and Ryan Jones.

We could learn a lot about their plans for the offense as a whole in the regular season based on which tight end wins the battle to back up Waller and Bellinger.

Lawrence Cager

Lawrence Cager came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, and was signed by the New York Jets out of Georgia following the 2020 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Cager looks more like a (very) big receiver than he does an NFL tight end.

And, well, that’s what he is.

Cager started out as a wide receiver at the University of Miami before transferring to UGA. He spent 2020 and 2021 with the Jets and Cleveland Browns (respectively) before returning to the Jets and transitioning to tight end for the start of 2022. Cager was waived by the Jets on October 15th, and was signed to the Giants’ practice squad on the 18th. He was elevated to the active roster in weeks 8, 10, and 11, before finally being promoted to the active roster full-time on November 22nd.

Why should he make the roster?

Cager had a relatively limited role with the Giants in 2022, playing in six games (starting three) and making just 13 catches in 18 targets (118 yards, 1 touchdown). However, his impact went beyond the stat sheet, and the coaching staff clearly had a plan for the converted receiver. The Giants had a package of plays drawn up specifically for Cager, and they proved very effective.

The Giants’ coaching staff showed an impressive ability to make use of the skill sets available to them and maximize the talent on the roster a year ago. They mixed and matched personnel packages to attack tendencies vulnerable areas in opposing defenses. Likewise, they excelled at getting the best players on the field and put them in position to contribute. There is real possibility in having a pair of hybrid tight ends like Waller and Cager, and could allow for interesting plays to exploit their shared athleticism.

Not only did Cager flash some real upside of his own a year ago, his similarity to Waller could be enough to secure a roster spot.

What could hold him back?

If the Giants only carry three tight ends, which is what they carried a year ago, the team will need to decide whether Waller or Bellinger’s skill set is more valuable. As mentioned above, Cager’s skill set closely mirror’s that of Waller, while Tommy Sweeney (and Chris Myarick) much more closely resemble Bellinger.

While Cager and Waller have much higher upside as receiving weapons due to their athleticism and background as wide receivers, the more classic tight ends on the roster might have greater versatility. Much of the Giants’ passing offense last year was predicated on the old Bill Walsh mantra that you don’t go broke making a profit. The Giants lacked an explosive passing attack, but they also consistently advanced the ball and avoided putting it in jeopardy.

If there’s an injury at the top of the depth chart, they might want a more well-rounded tight end to be available. They could opt to make their depth a more versatile player who can do “enough” as a receiver while also offering more as a blocker, as opposed to a mismatch receiving weapon.

Tommy Sweeney

The Giants signed Sweeney, a four-year veteran, as a free agent on March 23. Sweeney was originally selected out of Boston College in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, and spent the last four years as a reserve tight end for the Bills.

He was active for 24 games, with 18 receptions for 165 yards and 1 touchdown for the Bills. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Sweeney has a prototypical build for a modern NFL tight end, and has the body type to be a natural backup for Bellinger at the “Y” tight end position.

Why should he make the roster?

The biggest thing working in Sweeney’s favor is his experience on special teams. He played 42 percent of the special teams snaps in the games in which he was active a year ago. If fringe roster players need to contribute on special teams, that will undoubtedly be a factor.

It’s also possible that he has untapped upside that could make him a camp hero. Sweeney was drafted in 2019, but his development was stalled by a rocky 2020 season. That year he suffered a foot injury early in the summer of 2020 which landed him on the PUP list to start the season. Shortly after being activated off the PUP list, Sweeney was diagnosed with COVID-19, and eventually lost his season entirely after developing myocarditis as a result of his infection. And while healthy in 2021, Sweeney rarely saw the field as tight end wasn’t a featured part of the Bills’ offense.

But Sweeney was scouted by Joe Schoen and coached by Brian Daboll. That they made an effort to sign him just one week into free agency suggests that there might be more there than he was able to show in Buffalo. Sweeney was a consistent producer at Boston College, and is reportedly well-regarded in the Bills’ locker room. If Sweeney can prove his worth on special teams, be a reliable receiving option, and a good-enough blocker, he could make a strong push for a roster spot.

Note: Even if Sweeney isn’t able to crack the final 53-man roster, many of these same arguments hold true for Chris Myarick as well. If the Giants choose to carry another “Y” tight end and it isn’t Sweeney, it could well be Myarick.

What could hold him back?

As with Cager, if the Giants choose to only carry three tight ends due to numbers concerns elsewhere on the roster, this decision will likely come down to which skill set their offensive plans value more: Waller’s or Bellinger’s.

Sweeney (and Myarick) have body types and skill sets that make them more natural back-ups for Bellinger. However, the Giants went out of their way to trade for Waller and reportedly view him as a “chess piece” on offense.

Waller has struggled with injuries lately, and if they’re making his skill set as a moveable piece a tentpole for the passing offense it would make sense to ensure that skill set is available even if the player isn’t.

That could leave the “Y” tight ends down the depth chart on the outside looking in.

Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a wildcard here. His body type and skill set is markedly different from any other tight end on the roster. He’s also an undrafted free agent rookie who is relatively new to the tight end position. The Giants signed Jones as a UDFA out of East Carolina after the 2023 NFL Draft. He spent the last two years at ECU playing tight end, but began his collegiate career as a linebacker for Okalhoma.

Could a player with an atypical skill set (at least this team), and just two years of experience at the position make a real push for a roster spot?

Why should he make the roster?

At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, Jones isn’t built like a svelte (read: undersized), athletic offensive tackle in the mold of a classic “Y” tight end, nor is he built like an industrial-sized receiver like the modern “hybrid” tight ends. As mentioned above, Jones is a linebacker turned fullback, and his build reflects those positions. The Giants did use a fullback on occasion last year, either motioning a tight end into the backfield or use a sixth offensive lineman as a lead blocker. Jones’ body type and the last two years of his development lend to him playing as a H-Back/fullback out of the backfield.

The Giants roster currently lacks a natural fullback to serve as a lead blocker or a power runner in short-yardage situations.

Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll made excellent use of 21 personnel packages in the second half of the 2022 season. Their “Pony Package” with Saquon Barkley and Matt Brieda was particularly effective, presenting opposing defenses with a “heavy” personnel grouping that was populated by athletic players. Jones could give Kafka an option to lean into the “heavy” look, but as a passing formation.

And that is where Jones could be a surprise contender for a roster spot. He may only have two years’ experience as a full-time offensive player, but Jones was a big part of the ECU passing offense. In 2021 he caught 37 passes for 442 yards and 5 touchdowns, and caught 41 passes for 413 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2022. In context, he was the third on the team in receptions each year, lead the team in touchdowns in 2021, and was third in touchdowns in 2022. Jones is clearly a natural receiver, and showed good ball skills as well as route running on tape.

The Giants clearly want to improve their passing offense from what it was in 2022 and they’ve added multiple receiving options in free agency and the draft. Jones’ ability as a pass catcher could make him something of a “secret weapon” which Kafka and Daboll. Having an H-back who is a capable receiver could allow them to manipulate defenses with personnel grouping and formation while maintaining five legitimate receiving threats on the field.

If Jones is able to show enough in camp and pre-season, his skill set could allow him to be depth in both the RB and TE rooms.

What could hold him back?

The obvious answer here is that he simply might not be ready. Jones is an undrafted free agent and a very recent convert to the tight end position. He started his collegiate career as a linebacker for Oklahoma, before transferring to East Carolina in 2021 and switching to the offensive side of the ball. Jones showed toughness and upside as a pass catcher on tape, but he still only has two years worth of experience at the position. That alone could make him a prime candidate for the practice squad.

The less obvious answer is that the Giants might not want to emphasize his skillset.

The top of the depth chart features a hybrid tight end in Waller and a classic “Y” tight end in Bellinger. As mentioned above Cager and Sweeney (or Myarick), have body types and skill sets that make them similar to the above archetypes (hybrid and Y, respectively).

Jones being a Fullback/H-back could be an asset in his quest for a roster spot, given that no other player has a particularly similar skill set. However, if that skill set doesn’t prove to be as important to their overall offensive scheme as one of the other TE types, the Giants would likely opt to use one of the other reserve tight ends.