You have been mesmerized by the one-handed catches, like the one New York Giants tight end Evan Engram had over the head of a defender last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or perhaps it’s the 4.4 speed he flashed in that same game on a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Engram, a 2017 first-round pick (No. 23 overall), has all the tools to be among the NFL’s best tight ends. He just hasn’t put it all together yet, in part because of circumstances and injury.
This season, already Year 4 of his pro career, he’s out of excuses.
The Giants view Engram as an integral piece in their offense. They’re going to run a ton of two-tight-end sets in coordinator Jason Garrett’s offense and would like to keep Engram around for the future (as evidenced by their use of the fifth-year option on his rookie contract this offseason), but need to see more before they can make that long-term commitment.
That is what makes this season so important. Time is running out for Engram to show he’s the type of player many believe he can become.
“Those who haven’t watched that dude need to,” one NFL offensive coordinator told ESPN recently in a poll where Engram surprisingly received a vote as the top tight end in football despite a lack of consistent production. “He’s a true receiver. Polished releases, whole route tree, run after catch. He just plays in a bad offense.”
Another executive for an NFC team noted Engram was such a dynamic receiving threat that defensive coordinators “need to have” a plan for him.
It’s this type of effusive praise that makes one wonder: What can Engram become if he stays healthy and plays all 16 games? He’s third in yards after catch at his position since entering the league (935), behind Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle, the two players widely considered the top tight ends in football.
Engram was on pace for 106 receptions for 1,194 yards and six touchdowns before he was slowed by a sprained MCL in Week 5 last season. After returning from that injury, a foot problem prompted season-ending surgery.
He finished with 44 catches for 467 yards and three touchdowns in eight games and spent most of this offseason rehabbing. It was his second straight injury-plagued campaign. He played 11 games in 2018 because of knee and hamstring problems.
The Giants are hopeful this is finally the season. Engram looks healthy so far at training camp, seemingly participating without limitations. He looks fast. He appears set to play a huge role in this new offense.
“I’ll tell you what, the way he works every day and the attention to detail he’s shown with everything he gets coached on, to me, it’s always a question of, ‘Can this guy reach his potential based on the way he’s working?’ I think this guy can,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “He has a high ceiling. He’s very, very talented.”
It’s why the Giants have kept him around despite overhauling their roster in recent years. It’s why there are moments in practice seemingly every day when Engram demands your attention.
Daniel Jones’ biggest pass play in Friday’s instrasquad scrimmage — when all his top skill-position players were on the field — was a pass to Engram over the middle. The way Engram caught it and turned upfield in an instant was a reminder of the damage he can do in pretty much the same offense that once saw Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten demand such a massive target share and top 1,000 yards receiving on multiple occasions when Garrett was in charge of Dallas’ offense.
To produce like that, Engram has to stay healthy, but the Giants aren’t going to hide him. They need their tight ends to block, even if the presence of Kaden Smith (or Levine Toilolo and Eric Tomlinson) allows Engram to play off the line of scrimmage more this season.
“Well, football is a physical game,” tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens said. “It’s a tough game played by tough people. Evan’s in the mindset of he’s a tough player, physical player. Evan wants to get better each and every day in all aspects of his game, and that’s what we’re going to continue to work on. We’re not going to live in fear.”
Engram, 25, has heard about his injuries over the past two years. And he’s heard about his in-line and blocking deficiencies since before he was drafted.
It has seemingly worn on him, but he’s intent on tuning it all out and thinking optimistically about what he can do as he works to master his third offensive system in four years.
“I’m not really too worried about [this being a make-or-break year] right now,” Engram said. “We have a lot on our plate with the offense and all the different things around training camp. … Right now, my focus is I am coming in each and every day finding ways to get better. Fixing mistakes and trying to get ready for the season.”
It’s a season that will ultimately determine just how rich he becomes. A tight end with his speed and playmaking ability is a valuable commodity. One who has significant production to back it up breaks the bank. One NFL source with knowledge of the tight end market said if Engram has a solid year, he should command in the range of $10 million per season.
The early returns after Engram put on what Judge called “good weight” this offseason are positive.
“I’m really, really pleased with him coming to work every day. He’s one of those guys … look, one of the comments I give him, he’s a guy that I kind of just tell him, ‘Man, I love watching you practice. Let’s not disappoint me out there today,'” Judge said. “I turn his tape on and see him flying around. He’s a fun guy to watch play because he has a lot of ability, but he loves the game, too.”
Now if only the Giants can see it over 16 games.