EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – When the Giants released their first depth chart this week, Larry Donnell was listed as the first-team tight end. Because Donnell has waited years to make substantial headway in his career and the competitive crowd the team has at the position, the second-year pro might have considered the designation a significant milestone.
>> View Giants Depth Chart
“It really doesn’t matter,” Donnell said. “It’s not a point of my concern right now. My point of concern is these practices and getting prepared the best I can for these preseason games to show what I can do.”
Donnell showed enough throughout the spring and early in training camp to become first in what is a five-man clash to be the Giants’ top tight end. The other contestants are third-year pro Adrien Robinson, the only Giants draft choice among the five (fourth round, 2012); two seven-year veterans (Kellen Davis, who played for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last season and Daniel Fells, who most recently played in 2012, for New England) and rookie free agent Xavier Grimble.
So what must Donnell do to remain in the starting position?
“The biggest thing we need to do is get him to become a tight end,” said Kevin M. Gilbride, the Giants’ tight ends coach.
Gilbride was being sensible, not sarcastic. Donnell actually has relatively little experience at the position. He was a quarterback at Carroll High School in Ozark, Ala. Donnell expected to play quarterback at Grambling State (where his only career completion was a 51-yard touchdown), but the coaches moved him to tight end.
“I realized that quarterback at that level is different,” Donnell said. “In high school you can drop back and you’ve got that one read. But in college you have to start doing a whole bunch of stuff and I figured, ‘I get to do this tight end role,’ and kept it.”
But he played just 26 games and caught 38 passes for Grambling State. Donnell was undrafted and did not play football in 2011. He spent the following season on the Giants’ practice squad. Last year, he started the season opener at Dallas, played in all 16 games and caught three passes (all vs. Denver in Week 2). But most of his action was on special teams.
Donnell has had an impressive camp. Last week he dove for a pass down the middle and maintained possession of the ball after tumbling upon landing. This afternoon, he jumped high in the end zone to grab a Ryan Nassib pass.
“He’s done a nice job, he has improved,” coach Tom Coughlin said. “He has to keep doing (it). He has a long way to go, but I like what I see.”
Whether it’s enough for Donnell to be No. 1 on the depth chart on opening day remains to be seen. All of the tight ends have flashed at times in camp and while the five-man competition is friendly, it is also fierce.
“You have to keep your head down and keep going with it,” Fells said. “Mistakes are going to happen, because it’s a brand new offense. Everyone’s on the same playing field right now. You have to go out there and get in your playbook and we have a lot of meeting time to watch film. With the 2-3 hours that we’re out here, that’s the time to try to execute everything.”
Because the Giants installed a new offense in the spring, Donnell and Robinson lost whatever familiarity advantage they might have had. The five contenders have lined up as traditional tight ends, in the slot, two to one side and even at fullback.
“Some of the things we’re asking them to do within the new offense, most tight ends in other offenses aren’t asked to do,” Gilbride said.
The coaches are looking for versatile players who can block and catch.
“There have been guys that have made strides in different areas, so right now we’re looking for the complete tight end who can do it all,” Gilbride said. “But we also need guys who are role players, guys who can be specialists in certain areas, as far as if he’s best at executing a certain block, he’s going to the have the opportunity to make those plays in the game. If he’s best at a certain route, he’s going to have the opportunity to make those plays during the game. So I think you need both. You need to have the all-around tight end and then you also have to have specialists, guys who are great at that particular role.”
“We’ve got some good guys,” Donnell said. “We’ve got some big guys, we’ve got some fast guys. We’ve got a mixture of guys. I feel like we’ve got what it takes for the position.”
Does Donnell have what it takes?
“As a player,” he said, “you always feel like the time is your time.”
Very soon, we’ll learn if Donnell’s time is the 2014 season.