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Giants position reviews, tight end: Darren Waller was good, but not as good as hoped

What is the veteran tight end’s future with the Giants?

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants
Darren Waller
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The New York Giants took a big swing at tight end last offseason, acquiring two-time 1,100-yard receiving tight end Darren Waller for a third-round compensatory pick the Giants received from the Kansas City Chiefs for Kadarius Toney.

Turning Toney into just about anything living, willing to practice and play, and at least somewhat productive is a net positive. Still, the deal for Waller did not turn out to be as impactful for the offense as the Giants hoped.

Let’s examine the tight end position as we begin our offseason position reviews with an eye toward how the Giants might shape the position next season.

2023 in review

The roster

Starters: Darren Waller, Daniel Bellinger
Backups: Lawrence Cager, Tyree Jackson

During training camp, Waller looked like the virtually unstoppable tight end he had been in 2019 and 2020, when he caught 90 passes for 1,145 yards and 107 passes for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns, respectively.

Unfortunately, that training camp dominance did not translate in the regular season. Waller was productive, but nowhere near dominant when he was on the field. He finished with 52 catches (4.3 per game) and 552 yards (46.0 per game) to go with a 70.3 catch percentage and a career-low 85.0 passer rating when targeted. He had three drops in 74 targets, 4.1%.

What Waller did bring from Las Vegas were the injury issues that plagued him in his final two seasons with the Raiders. He missed five games with hamstring issues, making 19 of 51 potential regular-season games for Waller over the past three seasons.

GM Joe Schoen said he would make the Waller trade again “every day of the week.” I can’t blame him, because it was worth the gamble. It did not, though, work out as well as Schoen and the Giants hoped.

After a promising rookie season in which he caught 55 passes, Daniel Bellinger was an afterthought in the Giants’ passing attack most of the season. He caught four passes over the first eight games, but saw more opportunities after Waller’s injury and finished with 25 receptions.

Bellinger played 437 of 689 snaps (63.4%) inline. His blocking grades (56.9 run blocking and 45.4 pass blocking) were down from 63.3 and 53.0 as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus.

Lawrence Cager and Tyree Jackson rounded out the depth chart, with both players spending time on the practice squad. Cager played in 11 games with four receptions and Jackson in two games without a catch.

2024 outlook

This starts with whether or not Waller will be part of the equation. Schoen said his “expectation” is that Waller will be part of the 2024 roster. Then again, we know that Brian Daboll at least said he expected that Wink Martindale would be back. Oh, and Dave Gettleman didn’t sign Odell Beckham Jr. to trade him.

The point is, Waller’s future was something Schoen had to be asked about at his season-ending press conference. His answer, though, is not one I would take to the bank.

The Giants could wait until after the main portion of free agency and the 2024 NFL Draft to decide on Waller. He carries a $14.458 million cap hit in 2024. The Giants could save $12 million of that, carrying only a $2 million dead cap hit, if they make him a post-June 1 cut.

I am not advocating that strategy, just saying it is a possibility if the Giants can add to the position during the offseason.

One thing the Giants should look into, whether they keep Waller or not, is adding a true blocking tight end and having the ability to carry three tight ends on game days. There were times during the 2023 season when only two tight ends were active on game days, and that really should not be the case.