Each week, SNY will put a current player, a position, or perhaps a draft or free agent target of the Giants in the spotlight as part of our regular offseason coverage. Last week we looked at DE Jason Pierre-Paul. This week we move on to a position of need for the Giants:
The tight ends.
It's been a long time since the Giants traded up a spot in the 2002 draft to take Jeremy Shockey, a player then-general manager Ernie Accorsi hailed as more of a "weapon" than just a tight end. He was a controversial person to be sure and probably hindered the early development of Eli Manning. But he was a dynamic player for the Giants - maybe the last truly dynamic tight end the Giants had.
That's strange given how the NFL has become more of a passing league over the last decade, and given how the importance of tight ends in modern offenses has only grown. Tight ends have essentially become weapons equal, in many cases, to No. 2 receivers. Every team seems to have a big, strong, fast one who can be a hot-read target with an ability to create mismatches and take off down the seam.
So how did the Giants get into their current mess, where they've got a limited player in Will Tye and two completely unproven young players in Matt LaCosse and Jerell Adams and nothing else?
Well, some of that had to do with the talent they've had at receiver, which they often felt negated the need for a really elite tight end. Some of that had to do with the luck of the draft (there have been a few they considered picking over the years). And some of that had to do with their own moderate success at developing players at that position, thanks in large part to their long-time (and former) tight ends coach Mike Pope.
Pope, now the tight ends coach in Dallas, was with the Giants from 2000-2013 (his second tour of duty with the team). In that span, especially after Shockey, he helped turn a lot of unheralded tight ends into serviceable players. Kevin Boss was a fifth-round pick out of Western Oregon, but in three post-Shockey seasons with the Giants he averaged 36 catches for 494 yards and five touchdowns. When he left, Jake Ballard, an undrafted kid out of Ohio State, took over and caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.
In 2012 they brought in Martellus Bennett, who had been languishing on the bench in Dallas behind Jason Witten, and he exploded for 55-626-5. In 2013 they let Bennett go and brought in another overlooked free agent, Brandon Myers (who was coming off a career year) and got 47-522-4 out of him.
That was good-enough, though hardly great production out of players that nobody expected to do even that much. That's why the Giants believed they were on the right track in 2014 with another unheralded (and undrafted) kid, Larry Donnell. In the first post-Pope year, Donnell caught 63 passes for 623 yards and six touchdowns. He wasn't perfect - he had blocking issues and lost too many balls - but one year later he was on track for somewhat similar numbers with 29-223-2 through eight games before he got hurt.
When he returned, he wasn't the same. And while Tye has put up decent numbers for an off-the-scrap-heap second-year player out of Stony Brook (48-395-1 last year), he has his flaws, too.
As offensive schemes continue to become more pass-heavy and defenses get more and more sophisticated when it comes to matchups, tight ends have become even more important. And the Giants have seen that even the moderate success they had under Pope just isn't good enough anymore. That's why the Giants will likely either dip into the free agent pool for a tight end in March (for a guy like Bennett or maybe Green Bay's Jared Cook) or - perhaps more likely - they'll look to the draft. They already are smitten with Alabama's O.J. Howard, as is just about everyone else in the NFL. They have their eyes on Miami's David Njoku, too.
The Giants, of course, haven't drafted a tight end in the first round since they traded up to take Shockey 14th overall in 2002. And their drafting of tight ends overall has been spotty since then, too (see: 4th-rounder Adrien Robinson in 2012, 3rd-rounder Travis Beckham in 2009).
But the position has become too important and the hole they have there has become too glaring. They can't just count on developing unheralded players, nor can they ignore the position anymore.