Last summer, questions surrounded the Giants tight end position as no clear starter was on the roster when training camp opened in July. As the season progressed, Larry Donnell emerged as a receiving threat, but his development as a blocker did not meet the coaching staff’s expectations, and his playing time diminished as the season wore on. This year, Donnell enters camp as the presumed started, backed up by returning players Daniel Fells and Adrien Robinson. The Giants also brought a trio of high talented young players into the mix, and half of these men will make up what will be a much improved position in 2015.
Donnell impressed the coaching staff with his preseason performance and found himself the surprise starter early in the season, first splitting snaps with Fells, and then the primary tight end. His high water mark came in a week 4 Thursday night game against the Washington Redskins when he caught three touchdown passes, half of his full season production, as Donnell started 12 games, and caught 63 passes in 92 targets for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns. He vowed to improve his blocking during the off season, but his progress is an unknown as Achilles Tendinitis kept him out of the Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and mini camp. At 6’6″ and 265 pounds, Donnell is the biggest of the tight ends on the roster.
Fells missed the entire 2013 season by not catching on with a team after spending the 2012 season with the New England Patriots. The 31 year old, eight season NFL journeyman also spent time with the Denver Broncos and St. Louis Rams. Fells, 6’4″, 260 pounds, started 9 games in 2014, and caught 16 of 20 passes for 188 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was the best blocker among the Giants tight ends, and the most well rounded. Tom Coughlin commented that he provided veteran guidance in the meeting room, a role desperately needed with experience lacking among Donnell and Robinson.
Jerry Reese did Adrien Robinson a grave disservice when he referred to him as the “Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends” after he was drafted in the fourth round out of Cincinnati in 2012. What Reese meant is that Robinson possessed raw tools, and 6’4″, 264 pound size, that needed to be developed, much like the Giants defensive end, but media and fans interpreted it to mean he would soon reach the heights that Pierre-Paul saw in 2011, and the often injured Robinson could not live up to the hype. After losing both the 2012 and 2013 seasons to a variety of injuries, Robinson saw the field in limited action last season, started one game, and caught 5 of 7 passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. They are the only NFL statistics on his resume. His talent is evident to the coaching staff, who have opted to keep him on the roster, but 25 year old is running out of time to make his NFL mark.
Jerome Cunningham was a camp body signed last August out of Southern Connecticut State University. His collegiate statistics were limited, 61 receptions, 690 yards, and 7 touchdowns, but his work ethic was top notch and his game well rounded. A raw Division II athlete, Cunningham impressed the Giants coaches in camp and made the practice squad. He continued to work hard, and was promoted to the active roster on December 17th. Although inactive for the final two games of the season, the promotion motivated Cunningham, who came into the off season program determined to continue his rapid progression. With Donnell out injured, Cunningham took some snaps with the first team and was one of the most improved, and impressive players in both OTAs and mini camp, catching everything thrown his way and showing blocking prowess. At 6’4″, 240 pounds, the 24 year old Cunningham is a strong contender to unseat Robinson for the third tight end spot in 2015.
Illinois values the run and blocking from the tight end position more than many modern day college programs, and Matt LaCosse spent a lot of time developing his blocking skills in his four season with the Illini. But it was his receiving ability that caught Tom Coughlin’s eye at the Giants post draft rookie mini camp and earned LaCosse a spot on the Giants 90 man roster. He also impressed with his ability to catch the ball in traffic during OTA and mini camp practices, and is the best blocker in the group, potentially earning LaCosse an edge in the third tight end competition. At 6’5″, and 261 pounds, the 22 year old undrafted free agent runs the 40 in 4.71 seconds. While not field stretching speed, LaCosse does have the ability to run effectively down the seam, which is all that is expected from a predominantly blocking tight end.
The fastest of the tight ends on the roster is Will Tye, a former Stony Brook team captain, who runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds. At 6’2″, 262 pounds, Tye is the smallest in stature, but comes with the best collegiate receiving statistics among the younger players, with 79 receptions, 1,015 yards, and 9 touchdowns for the Seawolves. His college coaches caution that those stats would be even more impressive if opponents has not keyed on Tye after early career success. Tye’s blocking ability needs to be further developed, something that will likely come on the Giants practice squad in 2015.
Watching these athletes compete in training camp and in the preseason games will be one of the joys of the summer as the battle for the three Giants tight end roster spots will likely remain open until the fourth and final preseason game. Barring an injury, Donnell will open the season as the starter, LaCosse will unseat Fells as the blocking tight end, and Cunningham will edge out Robinson as the third tight end on the roster. That’s the official Giants360 prediction, feel free to share your thoughts below.