With Larry Donnell limited as a precautionary measure to ease his way back from an Achilles injury the other tight ends on the New York Giants have had a chance to impress in an intriguing battle for roster spots.
Right out of the gate, we've seen a heavy rotation with the first team. The reports from camp are that, in Donnell's absence, three players have been seeing a decent amount of snaps with the starters. Adrien Robinson, Daniel Fells and even Jerome Cunningham have been strutting their stuff in Donnell's figurative shoes. What this means for the Giants is that they do not have their mind made up about who they want to keep going forward. Each player presents his own set of skills and assets, as well as posing a unique set of problems.
The big surprise may be that Cunningham is seeing any snaps at all. Last year, he was on the practice squad and didn't even see special teams snaps on the active roster. During Kevin M. Gilbride's press conference during the week he addressed the position, and Cunningham in specifically. "He shows that he can be an explosive pass catcher and route running receiver from the tight end position", said the second-year coach, "What's been not necessarily surprising, but exciting, is watching him run block and watch how intense he is about it, and how he likes to finish blocks and move defenders off the ball."
Gilbride mentions Cunningham's ability to block, and his chances of making this roster will likely come down to that aspect of his game. His pass-catching skills have been well-documented throughout camp, but positive mentions of his blocking have been few and far between. Having a coach specifically target a player with definitive comments bodes well for Cunningham's chances heading into the preseason.
If he is going to make this roster, he may have to beat out one of the other two more experienced players. Donnell looks like a lock to make the team, but it's probable that the team only keep two backups, especially with a designated fullback as one of the 53 precious few. So, it comes down to Cunningham outplaying either Adrien Robinson or Daniel Fells.
Robinson is an interesting case study because, by now, he should be a well-developed player, yet he just hasn't matured into what the team envisioned. The fourth-year pro has had some injuries, but even outside of that, he should be competing against Donnell for starter reps rather than dancing around the roster bubble. During Gilbride's allocated media time, nobody asked about Robinson once, nor did the coach bring him up of his own volition. These are worrying signs and signal that Robinson needs to show dramatic improvement quickly, or face the chopping block.
The one player who has been steady as a rock is Daniel Fells. He's heading into his 10th season and is on the wrong side of 30 years old, but he's still going. Fells doesn't offer much in terms of explosive play-making and that's okay because he's not that type of player.
"... you know what you're getting with Daniel. You know he's going to be a consistent player, a consistent person, and a great leader in that room—being a veteran and having those guys to help them come along. Daniel makes the plays that are there to be made and then he impressed you every now and then by making one that you don't necessarily think he can make," said Gilbride.
Where does this leave the tight end group ahead of their trip to Cincinnati next week? It leaves the position wide open. Each player has the possibility to play themselves into more playing time, whether that's Fells as a reliable option with the starters, or Robinson and Cunningham battling to just make the team. Right now, it's any man's game, and they're playing for keeps.