EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As a tight end in high school and college, Daniel Bellinger admired many players who excelled at the position, but George Kittle stood above them all.
"I love watching him play because he would just do both – the blocking and the receiving end of it," Bellinger said. "And it was just exciting to see a tight end do that because a lot of times, you see the older tight ends just straight blocking. And you see some tight ends like (Kansas City's Travis) Kelce getting a lot of receiving yards. But just watching them growing up, Kittle was a big idol of mine."
No one is ready to compare Bellinger to Kittle, the San Francisco 49ers' six-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler who was a 2019 first-team All-Pro. But on a 5-1 Giants team that has received substantial contributions from several rookies, Bellinger is arguably the first-year player who has made the biggest impact.
"I think he's improved since he's been here," coach Brian Daboll said. "He's been available, he's worked hard. He's done a good job inside and outside the building."
Bellinger is third on the Giants with 15 catches and fourth with 139 receiving yards. His three touchdowns place him second on the team, behind only Saquon Barkley (four). When he scored on a two-yard run against Green Bay in London, Bellinger became the first rookie tight end in Giants history to rush for a touchdown. Last week, his eight-yard scoring reception from Daniel Jones with 6:01 left against Baltimore lifted the Giants to within three points in a game they went on to win, 24-20.
"He's got a knack for getting open, finding space, and making key plays for us," Jones said. "He deserves a lot of credit. We'll continue to try to get him the ball and let him make those plays."
Bellinger started five of the Giants' six games and has at least one catch in every game but the season opener in Tennessee. His first career reception was a 16-yard touchdown against Carolina. Bellinger's blocking has contributed to the Giants ranking fourth in the NFL with 163.0 rushing yards a game.
"When you come out of college as a tight end, there's a lot – there is for every position – but there's a lot to learn: how we run block, how we pass block, said Daboll. "We've asked him to do a lot of different things. We've put a lot on his plate. I think he's picked it up well. And each game, he gains more experience. He's far from a finished product; he'll be the first to say that.
"Not just to single out Daniel, there's a lot of our rookies who are doing a good job right now of continuing to grow, improve, learning from their mistakes. And that's all you can ask for."
Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka continues to create situations for Bellinger to produce.
"I think Belly is doing a great job with his role," Kafka said. "Every single day he comes to work, he gets better. I think you're seeing that week in and week out as his role continues to expand and he continues to do different things within the offense just like we ask everyone to do. He's done a great job with that. (Tight ends) coach (Andy) Bishoff has done a great job with him, meeting with him early and making sure he's detailed. Daniel is putting in all the work. I'm really happy for him."
Bellinger grew up Las Vegas with two siblings, including a twin sister (Betsy) born four minutes after him. At Palo Verde High School, he played tight end and was a first-team all-state linebacker.
"I grew up ever since I was six playing linebacker," Bellinger said. "It was always a fun spot to play. But I feel like it helped me kind of with aggressiveness of being a tight end and the blocking side of being tight end." Bellinger said he "sometimes" misses playing linebacker. "It's fun because you just fly around and hit somebody and call it a day."
Bellinger was also a second-team all-conference forward on his high school basketball team, and lettered in track, where he ran the 100, 200 and 400 meters and was part of the 4x100 relay team that finished third at the 2018 Nevada state championships.
"I was so skinny in high school; I was like 200 pounds," Bellinger said. "I did the hurdles; I did all that. But I feel like track helped me a ton with my speed and quickness. The biggest thing I learned in track was getting out of the blocks and the starts. Stuff like that helped me a lot getting off the ball."
Bellinger played four seasons in a run-based offense at San Diego State where his receptions total rose each year, beginning with one as a freshman in 2018 and finishing with 31 in 2021. Bellinger averaged 11.3 yards on 68 career catches and scored five touchdowns – three in 2019 and two as a senior.
Those numbers and his superior blocking skill earned Bellinger an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which he said helped "a lot" in showing teams he was athletic.
"I feel like there was some question about my athleticism just because in college, I ran a lot of simple D-route and flat routes instead of opening up a little bit," he said. "I feel like the combine just showed that I can run a little bit."
The Giants selected him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, No. 112 overall. His impressive start has resulted in Bellinger hearing from a lot of his former high school and college teammates.
Off the field, the young man who grew up in Vegas and went to college in San Diego is getting used to living in the metropolitan area – initially an unsettling prospect when the Giants drafted him.
"It was definitely a scary thing like, 'Oh, what's it like in the northeast, I hear people are mean out here,' and stuff like that," he said. "It's definitely a different vibe, but I'm liking it. I feel like it's a really cool place."
Except when it comes to driving.
"It's like being on the Strip 24/7 here," he said. "People are crazy. A lot more honking, and I feel like the driving's definitely more hectic."
Bellinger's impressive start has prompted several of his former high school and college teammates to reach out to him.
"I have friends that have supported me since day one," he said. "It's been cool, especially for some high school teammates I used to play with, just inspiring them to keep playing football – guys that are playing at the D-II level that keep trying to grow. It's fun just talking to them about how I grew in my journey, and they grew in their journey."
The Giants are excited to watch Bellinger, a fourth-round draft pick, and his continued growth. But as he well knows, Kittle was a fifth-round selection who is now one of the NFL's very best tight ends.
"I just tried to take it step by step," Bellinger said. "I knew what to do. I knew that if I grew the trust with the quarterback and with the coaches that I could make an impact. I'm still in that mindset of taking it one practice at a time and keep getting better."
Which is exactly how the Giants like it.
View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Giants prepare for their Week 7 matchup against the Jaguars.
*Five Giants did not practice today: wide receivers Kenny Golladay (knee) and Kadarius Toney (hamstring); linebacker Oshane Ximines (quad); and defensive backs Cor'Dale Flott (calf) and Jason Pinnock (ankle).
Daboll said he is not considering putting Toney on injured reserve. The second-year pro has not played since Sept. 18 against Carolina.
"He's getting better, doing a good job rehabbing," Daboll said. "Hopefully, we'll see him out here soon."
Four players were limited: running back Saquon Barkley (shoulder), tackle Andrew Thomas (elbow), center Jon Feliciano (groin) and defensive end Azeez Ojulari (calf).