The Giants are set to have several position battles take place when training camp kicks off next month, and one of the most intriguing ones appears to be at tight end. Not one of the six tight ends currently on the roster finished last season with the team. This has opened the door for an open competition, with each player bringing something different to the table.
One player who helped himself this spring with a strong overall performance is rookie Daniel Bellinger, who comes from a run-heavy offense at San Diego State.
"Obviously, we wanted to control the game by running the football, and he was a big part of that," SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said on the "Giants Huddle" podcast. "A big part from a leverage standpoint, and just himself, putting himself in great body positions where he could control the line of scrimmage."
The Aztecs made a habit of running the ball early and often, averaging over 40 rush attempts a game in each of the last three seasons. In 2021, SDSU averaged 175.1 yards on 40.6 carries per game, slightly down from their 201.6 rushing yards per game from the previous season.
Throughout his collegiate career, Bellinger showed he was more than capable in the run game. In fact, he would sometimes line up at fullback for the Aztecs due to his success as a lead blocker. Hoke attributed the tight end's production to his strength and grit.
"I think No. 1, his toughness," the Aztecs coach told Lance Medow. "We pride ourselves about being tough and physical as a football team on both sides of the ball and the kicking game. … I tried recruiting him on the defensive side of the ball - part of that was the toughness that he has, his skillset as far as fundamentally and [the] techniques of blocking at the point of attack. We were a Big 12 personnel team, and he fit everything we needed from him, whether it be on the line or off the line."
The 6-foot-5, 253-pound tight end, who also improved as a receiver each year, considered forgoing his senior year and entering the draft after the 2020 season. But after conversations with Hoke and the SDSU coaching staff, Bellinger decided to stay for one more season, which appears to have paid off.
"I thought him coming back was huge," Hoke exclaimed. "We had talked about when he said he was going to come back and do all that, we talked about run after catch. I thought that was one place that he really, really improved himself from the '20 season to the '21 season. I thought he did a nice job, I thought his coach did a nice job, with the fundamentals of it. But I thought run after catch, there's some plays in there that he does an unbelievable job taking on the tacklers, but at the same time, using his athleticism to make a short gain to a big gain."
After snaring 21 passes for 203 yards as a junior, Bellinger saw his numbers jump to 31 receptions for 357 yards and two touchdowns last season. The yardage ranked third on the Aztecs, while his receptions and touchdowns tied for second-most on the team. Additionally, his 9.1 yards after the catch per reception was one of the highest marks at the tight end position in the nation. More notably, Bellinger had no drops in 12 games last year and finished his college career with just three.
"No. 1, it comes down to competitiveness and the competitor running correct routes, your release from the line of scrimmage," said Hoke. "I think all of those things are things that goes back to Dan and Dan's No. 1 leadership, his expectations and standards, that he has for himself. I've been coaching for a long time, and he's one of those guys that you wish you had more of them over the years…
"He's a competitor. He's going to be physical. He's going to have a mindset that those 50-50 balls, whatever you want to call them, he's going to fight like hell to come down with the football."
View photos from fourth round pick and former San Diego State tight end Daniel Bellinger.
With the nature of the NFL having become more of a passing league in recent years, tight ends who can block and catch at a high level have become more unique. Not surprisingly, Hoke believes Bellinger's skill set will fit in perfectly with the Giants' offensive system.
"There are few and far between when you look at offensively in the National Football League and what people are trying to obtain and what they're trying to do," Hoke stated about the tight end position. "Obviously, the Giants are a great organization. They want an on-the-line tight end to be part of what they're doing. I think that clearly fits into Dan's strengths, and I think obviously, they're going to be really, really happy about what they have."
On the day he was drafted, Bellinger was asked about modeling his game after any pro tight ends. The first player he mentioned should not come as a surprise to anyone.
"The guy I watched a lot, especially the last few years, is definitely George Kittle," he told reporters last month. "He's a guy that can do both. When I think of George Kittle, I think of a great run blocker and a pass catcher."
In addition to similar abilities on the field, it appears as if both tight ends share some similarities off the field, as well. Kittle has been a team captain for the 49ers in each of the last four seasons. Bellinger was voted a team captain for the Aztecs in 2021, something Hoke attributed to the young man's leadership skills, in addition to his mental and physical toughness.
Coincidentally, Bellinger and Kittle will both be attending Tight End University in Nashville later this week. Hoke has confidence that over time, Bellinger could grow and develop into a player like the three-time Pro Bowl selection.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," the SDSU coach stated. "I think that is probably a good comparison. With Dan, he'll just continue to improve. He'll get better, he'll pick up systems and what the offense is trying to accomplish. I think everyone will be real excited about how he will fit in."
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View photos of the the Giants' 2022 draft class on the practice field during spring workouts.