Last season, Evan Engram was the calm in the storm, an earnest, talented rookie thrust into a position he was not ready to inhabit. As the more experienced and refined targets around him — Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Brandon Marshall — went down, Engram was the last man standing, the only gifted weapon for Eli Manning to seek out. In the locker room, Engram became a go-to player for insight as the losses mounted. It all wore on him.
This season, his second in the NFL, has not gone as expected. He is a matchup-nightmare tight end in terms of his pass-catching ability but has not found his footing within an offense that includes Beckham, Shepard and now Saquon Barkley. Engram caught 10 passes in the first three games before a knee injury put him out for three games. Since his return, he has a total of 13 receptions and one touchdown.
“It’s an easy position to get frustrated, it’s an easy position to kind of let doubt come in and question when your mind should be on other things,” Engram said after most of his teammates had departed the locker room following the Giants’ 38-35 win over the Buccaneers. “Just put that all to the side and stayed positive. I knew something was gonna come, I knew my time was gonna come. Just staying positive all game. Supporting my guys, Rhett [Ellison] and Scott [Simonson] did a heckuva job blocking.’’
Here is another adjustment for Engram: decreased playing time. He was on the field against the Bucs for only 17 of the 53 offensive snaps, fewer than Ellison (40) and Simonson (18). The plan since the bye week is more of a focus on running the ball, and Ellison and Simonson are more powerful blockers than Engram.
For the first three quarters and most of the fourth quarter, Engram’s contribution was one catch for 12 yards. He stayed patient and alert. A 31-14 Giants lead had been trimmed to 31-28 with 5:11 remaining and suddenly, the Giants needed to control the ball and get more points. Engram and Eli Manning knew the threat of Barkley in the ground game wore heavily on the minds of the Bucs, and after a pitchout to Barkley picked up 2 yards, Engram was unleashed. He ran past linebacker Devante Bond, Manning hit him in stride and 54 yards later, the Giants were on the Tampa 11-yard line and about to score another touchdown.
“It does feel good when those times come, especially in big moments,” Engram said.
This is the new normal for Engram, who is only 24 but gets it. Coach Pat Shurmur explained less is more with Engram: “Making him a little bit fresher so he can take advantage of some of the things he’s good at. The last long pass on that last scoring drive, that’s something that of those three guys, only Evan can do, catch the ball in the open field and run for a very long way. Those two other guys would have got hawked, they would have got run down, but that’s OK. They did other things well. That’s the challenge each week, to try to use them in a way that makes the most sense.”
This would not make sense to many young players but, again, Engram gets it.
“I mean, if that’s the plan, if that looks like it’s been best for the team these past two weeks, that’s just how I am, I’m not gonna let it get to me,” Engram said. “I’ve been in situations before where I was pissed and frustrated and then I get my chances and I can’t deliver. Just a mindset of being ready, supporting my guys and making the play.”
More musings as the Giants, for the first time this season, put together a winning streak:
— Once again, this game showed charging up and down the field on offense is great for fantasy football but less great in reality football. The Giants were outgained 510-359 in total yards and the Buccaneers’ 31 first downs were the most against the Giants in more than three years. It is what you do when you get close to the end zone that counts. Do you punch it in, do you settle for a field goal or do you turn it over?
— Wondering why Manning’s passer rating of 155.8 is not unequivocally listed as the best of his career? Well, he compiled a perfect rating of 158.3 against the Raiders on Oct. 11, 2009. In that game, the perfect rating came after he completed 8-of-10 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. He played the first five series in that game and took a seat with the Giants leading 28-0 in an eventual 44-7 victory. The Giants do not get many of those nowadays, and thus Eli must finish what he starts.
— As the season evolves, so, too, does the role on defense Michael Thomas occupies. Signed as a veteran special team ace, Thomas is getting on the field more often at safety. He played 23 of the 71 defensive snaps against the Buccaneers and just before halftime gave his team a huge dose of momentum. The Bucs were driving (they were always driving) but were stopped dead when Ryan Fitzpatrick looked into the end zone for tight end O.J. Howard. Thomas anticipated the throw, stepped in front of Howard and came up with the first of what would be a four-interception day for the defense.
“I’m just glad that [defensive coordinator James Bettcher] and coach Lou [Anarumo] keep finding ways to get me on the field,” Thomas said. “We knew the tight end is one of his top targets period but especially in the red zone so it’s a big matchup for me. I love that I was able to go out there and prove I could make a play and seal it right before halftime so they don’t get points, that’s huge, man.”
It comes as no great surprise Thomas, 28, is seeing his role expand. He was voted a team captain in his first year with the Giants and is a steady presence in the locker room, upbeat and honest.
“I didn’t know much about him but very quickly gained a huge appreciation,” Shurmur said. “He’s one of the adults in the room. He gets it and he leads. He does the right thing at the right time for the right reasons and doesn’t care about the consequences. That’s Mike. He’s the kind of guy you want on the field.”
— Scoring touchdowns on runs and receptions is not very common around the Giants. Barkley is not very common, either. He had two rushing touchdowns and one receiving against the Bucs. The last time a Giants player scored on a run and a reception was nearly five years ago. The player? Why, none other than Jerrel Jernigan, a nice guy who goes down as a draft mistake (third round in 2011). Jernigan, a wide receiver, had a 24-yard catch and 49-yard run for touchdowns Dec. 29, 2013, in a season-ending 20-6 victory over the Redskins. The last Giants rookie to accomplish the touchdown daily double? Butch Woolfolk in 1982.
— Odell Beckham Jr.’s touchdown catch gives him 43 in his career, tying him with Frank Gifford for fourth on the Giants franchise list. If Beckham has not done any research on Gifford, he should. Would suspect Odell would appreciate the grit, style and grace of Gifford.