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The Giants’ good problem of two talented tight ends

How will the Giants’ exploit Daniel Bellinger’s potential in 2023?

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New York Giants Offseason Workout Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

A year ago, Daniel Bellinger was a relatively unheralded fourth-round draft pick of the New York Giants in a deep tight end draft class, the sixth tight end selected. Once the season began, though, Bellinger grew into a significant part of the Giants’ offense. Despite a horrific eye injury suffered in Jacksonville that caused him to miss five games, Bellinger finished fifth in receptions among his rookie counterparts with an outstanding 90.9% completion rate. Big things were anticipated from him in 2023.

Then the Giants traded for Darren Waller, a top five tight end when healthy, not to mention beefing up their wide receiver corps with Parris Campbell, Jalin Hyatt, and others. Add them to Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Sterling Shepard, and that’s a lot of mouths for Daniel Jones to feed. With only one ball to spread around, it’s natural to wonder whether Bellinger’s role in 2023 will change to involve more blocking duties and fewer pass catching opportunities. He was a capable blocker as a rookie, and his physical appearance at OTAs did nothing to create a different impression:

Some tight end has to block for the Giants, and Waller is not that guy. Is Bellinger going to mostly be the blocking tight end now? Travis Kelce and George Kittle don’t seem to think he should be, based on his work at their off-season program “Tight End University” the past two years.

Here’s Kelce mentioning Bellinger:

And here’s Kittle:

Bellinger would seem to be a wasted talent as primarily a blocking tight end.

Injuries are inevitable in the NFL, as the Giants know all too well from 2022, and so opportunities arise where there had been none before. Given Waller’s recent injury history that can’t be ruled out. Let’s imagine, though, that for a change the Giants have good injury luck in 2023. Is it possible for a team with a premier tight end and a fairly deep group of wide receivers to also adequately exploit Bellinger’s value as a receiver? What precedents are there in recent NFL history for teams with two tight ends who are important parts of the passing game?

Darren Waller as a Raider

The obvious first question is how the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders’ offense operated with Darren Waller. Waller had two healthy seasons as a Raider that showcased him as an elite pass-catching tight end (2019, 2020). During those seasons, he was “the guy” for the Raiders. The other tight ends on the roster were purely an afterthought. Here are the 2019 and 2020 tight end stats for those teams:

Data from Pro Football Focus
Data from Pro Football Focus

With Waller being targeted 8-9 times a game, the other tight ends were lucky to see one ball come their way in any week. During those seasons the Raiders also had some good to very good wide receivers, perhaps not that much different from the 2023 Giants’ receiving corps: Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones, Tyrell Williams, Nelson Agholor, and Henry Ruggs III. Getting balls to them as well as Waller left little for the other tight ends.

How can Bellinger be more than an afterthought as a receiving option this year?

Examples of teams that shared the ball between two tight ends

Let’s set the bar at 50 targets over the regular season, about three per game, as the threshold for a tight end who is a significant contributor as a receiver. In 2022, there was only one NFL team with two tight ends that cleared that threshold, the Baltimore Ravens:

Data from Pro Football Focus

In one sense, the Ravens are a good analog for the Giants: They have one of the best tight ends in the league in Mark Andrews, and their TE2 was rookie Isaiah Likely, who managed to see 56 balls despite the 110 that targeted Andrews (a number similar to what Waller saw in his best seasons). The bad news, though, is that it only happened because the Ravens’ wide receiving corps last season was crippled by injuries, most notably to Rashod Bateman, probably their WR1, who only played in six games.

If we go back to 2021, we find another example in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, in his final season, had 86 targets, leaving 50 for TE2 Cameron Brate. Unfortunately Gronk’s number was that low and Brate’s that high only because he missed five games. The Giants hope this is not a good analogy for Waller and Bellinger.

Also in 2021, the Cleveland Browns targeted tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku 58 and 53 times, respectively. That’s because neither tight end was an elite receiving option - not what we want to see the Giants emulate. In 2020 we have several more examples of this sort, e.g., the Tennessee Titans with Jonnu Smith (63 receptions) and Anthony Firkser (50); and the Los Angeles Rams, with Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee each being targeted 59 times.

There was one 2020 team that shared the ball between two premier tight ends, however: The Philadelphia Eagles, with Zach Ertz getting 68 targets and Dallas Goedert getting 64. That team was in turmoil, and Ertz was on the back nine of his career by then (though he’s done pretty well since joining the Arizona Cardinals), but if you look at the previous season when Ertz was still in his prime and Goedert was a second-year player, we see numbers that would make Giants fans pretty happy in 2023 if Waller and Bellinger were the names next to them:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Unfortunately, the gaudy tight end numbers hide the fact that the Eagles’ prime options at wide receiver that year were Agholor and Alshon Jeffery. The Giants are expecting a lot more from their wide receivers this season.

You have to go back to 2016 Washington to find a team that had two good tight ends each getting a substantial amount of work in the passing game (Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis) while simultaneously having a good wide receiver group (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder):

Data from Pro Football Focus

That team was third in the NFL with 4,948 passing yards. Kirk Cousins was the starting quarterback on that team, which went 8-7-1. The Giants are hoping for better than that, and in any case, the wide receivers were the primary targets on that team, not the tight ends.

Going even further back, we find the 2011 New England Patriots, who had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at their peak productivity:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Tom Brady was the one delivering those passes (5,235 yards that season), but what a group. That team made the Super Bowl, of course, but thanks in part to Chase Blackburn intercepting a pass intended for Gronkowski, they didn’t quite get there.

And in case you were wondering: In 2022 Travis Kelce was targeted 150 times, while TE2 Noah Fant saw 34 balls. George Kittle had only 80 targets for the 49ers (he’s one of the best blocking TEs in the NFL as well), but no other tight end was thrown to even 10 times.

The bottom line: It’s uncommon to have two productive frequently targeted tight ends on a team that also has good wide receivers, but it’s possible.

Personnel groupings

Nick Falato, in his assessment of the 2023 Giants tight end room, referred to Waller and Bellinger as a “formidable 12 personnel package.” Here is the breakdown of how Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka used various personnel packages in 2022 and how successful they were, from the Team Formations app:

Data from @JosephJefe/Team Formations

In 2022, 12 personnel packages were the Giants’ second most frequent grouping (20% of the time, including looks with 2 wide receivers and 1 wide receiver). That was a distant second to the 11 personnel grouping that was used two-thirds of the time. The Giants passed out of 1-2-2 55% of the time. With Waller on the team, we might expect those 12 groupings to be much more common in 2023. (Note that even if a tight end lines up on the boundary and goes deep, as Waller probably will do a lot this season, it is still recorded as 12 personnel if Bellinger or another tight end is also on the field.).

The Giants were not all that effective in 12 last season, averaging only 0.054 expected points added per play (averaged between the 1-2-2 and 1-2-1 groupings). That should improve in 2023. Bellinger proved to be excellent at finding open spaces in zone defenses as a rookie (Tight End University must be a masterclass in doing that with Kelce and Kittle, two players who unfathomably always seem to be wide open, running things). Working in tandem with Waller going deep, opening up the middle for Bellinger to find seams in the zone, this may be a common sight at MetLife.

Do the Giants’ 2023 opponents look susceptible to receiving tight ends?

According to the Pro Football Focus pre-season rankings of linebacker groups, the Giants will play against many linebacker groups this season that are projected to be weak: The Rams (No. 32), the Eagles x2 (No. 31), the Raiders (No. 30), the Commanders x2 (No. 25), and the Cardinals (No. 23). That seems tailor-made for the Waller-Bellinger pairing. It’s surprising to see the Eagles near the bottom of any league-wide ranking, and second-year linebacker Nakobe Dean may become a good player this season. You’ve got to have some kind of game plan against that formidable defense, though, and you can do worse than attacking that second level with two good tight ends before the pass rush can get to Jones.

The Giants will also play against the best linebacker duo in the NFL, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, in Week 3 in San Francisco. Those two gave Daniel Jones fits in a 2020 thrashing at MetLife, and tight ends Evan Engram and Kaden Smith caught only four passes. The Giants will hope for better this time around, but the 49ers defense promises to be a tough matchup for the Giants’ offense. The Giants will also face the No. 4 New Orleans Saints, who have two very good linebackers in Demario Davis and Pete Werner.

The most interesting thing about the Giants’ offense in 2022 was how Brian Daboll and Mike Kafaka adapted their game plans to the opponent and the personnel available in any week. That was done largely by scheming receivers open in the absence of elite physical traits and talent in the receiving corps. In 2023, they have more innate talent to work with, and opponents will surely game plan to try to neutralize Waller. That may often leave Daniel Bellinger free to make opposing defenses pay.