TE Evan Engram's importance to Giants offense keeps growing

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley wasn’t the only key Giants offensive player kept under wraps in the preseason. Evan Engram was limited to 10 snaps and one reception. The Giants knew the third-year tight end would be vital to their prospects this season and were disinclined to expose Engram to either injury or how they planned to deploy him.

On Sunday in Dallas. Engram was let loose and performed just as the Giants hoped he would. His 11 receptions were the NFL’s second-highest total on kickoff weekend and his 116 yards enabled Engram to establish two career bests. They were the highest catch and yardage numbers by a Giants tight end since Jeremy Shockey’s 12 for 129 on Nov. 11, 2007, also against the Cowboys.

“I made the most out of the opportunities that came my way,” said Engram, who scored the Giants’ first touchdown on a one-yard pass from Eli Manning. “Each week, I’m just going to continue to be a big playmaker and understand that when I do my job well, whether it’s in the run game, pass game, it gives my team the best opportunity to win. So, just continue that mindset, try to build and try to find ways to improve, no matter what the numbers are, and understand that as long as I do my job and do it to my best ability, it’s good for the team.”

The team clearly expects big things from Engram. Coach Pat Shurmur and his staff believe he can team with Barkley and wide receivers Sterling Shepard (currently in the NFL concussion protocol) and Golden Tate (who is serving a four-game suspension) to give the Giants a formidable array of offensive weapons.

“I thought he did a good job,” Shurmur said of Engram. “We focused on making sure he got the ball. When he was targeted, he did a lot with it. He contributed in the run game as well. We were pleased with, at least game one out of the box here, what he did.”

Manning and Daniel Jones threw 14 passes to Engram, six more than their next most targeted player, Cody Latimer.

“Evan’s done a good job, he’s always been a playmaker for us,” Manning said. “He’s worked really hard on his game, on understanding the offense and being accountable for everything. I think he has done a good job this whole offseason and into training camp, he played well the other night. We need him to continue to do that.”

The Giants selected Engram in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft primarily because of his skill as a receiver. In his debut season, he caught 64 passes, then the fourth-highest total by a rookie in franchise history. Engram’s 722 yards placed him fifth on that list. He also scored six touchdowns. Last year, injuries limited him to 11 games and his numbers dropped to 45 catches, 577 yards and three scores. But Engram’s blocking continued to improve and he should be one of the team’s most important offensive players this year.

“He can run, he catches, he did a great job in the blocking game,” Manning said. “I think he’s so much more comfortable in the offense and it’s his second year in the offense and he is doing a great job.”

Engram and the rest of the offense face a formidable challenge this week when the Buffalo Bills visit MetLife Stadium for the Giants’ home opener. The Bills returned 10 starters on a defense that was No. 1 in the NFL against the pass in 2018, allowing only 179.2 yards a game. Last Sunday, the Bills rallied to defeat the Jets, 17-16, in MetLife and yielded only 155 through the air.

“They have a lot of different looks,” Engram said. “They send their safeties really heavy and they rely on their safeties to come in and make plays in the run game. They play a little bit more man (coverage) than we saw last week. They’re a really disciplined team and really physical. Dallas was really physical as well, but I think they move a little bit more, and their defense and their blitzes rely on the guys in the secondary to be physical in the run game and also be well in man-on-man.”

Engram’s importance to the Giants’ offense could increase this week. The Bills’ defense presents a big challenge under any circumstances, but the Giants’ task becomes more onerous if Shepard can’t play. Barkley could see his number of touches rise and Engram would likely become Manning’s top target.

“That’s just trusting the game plan,” Engram said. “The coaches will draw up a really good game plan for us to learn and attack all week. We’re going to get a lot of different looks; the Bills are a real physical, downhill defense, they send a lot of blitzes, and they were one of the best defenses in the league last year, and they had a pretty good game this past Sunday. So, it’s going to have to be an all-around effort for everybody, and guys are going to have to step up and make plays when the opportunities come.”

Put Engram at the top of that list.

*Shurmur said linebacker Kareem Martin, who sprained his knee in Dallas, will “probably” be sidelined for an extended time period. “Weeks more than days,” Shurmur said. Martin played all 16 games last season, starting seven.

Because of Martin’s absence, the Giants signed rookie linebacker Tuzar Skipper, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers with 5.0 sacks in the preseason before he was waived.

“We’re going to get him out there,” Shurmur said. “He’s a pass rusher, edge pressure guy. Edge player, so to speak. We signed him with the idea that Kareem might be out for a while. Kareem was playing, so he’ll play.”

Skipper said he was released because the Steelers were “short a gunner and low on wide receivers” for their opening game in New England. He expected to re-sign with them, but the Giants swooped in and claimed him off waivers.

“It was an up-and-down, emotional rollercoaster really,” Skipper said. “You thought you were going to be with one team and then something unexpected happens, and now you’re with another team. It’s just been up-and-down really. I just try to take it day by day, learn the new playbook and that’s all I can really do right now.”

*In addition to Shepard and Martin, wide receiver Darius Slayton (hamstring) and tight end Garrett Dickerson (quad) did not practice.

Three players were limited; guard Kevin Zeitler (shoulder), linebacker Markus Golden (hip) and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (shoulder).

*Shurmur opened his news conference with a reflection about 9/11 terrorist attack. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was the tight ends coach and assistant offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“(Eighteen) years ago today was the 9/11 tragedy,” Shurmur said. “It was one of the most horrific things. A lot of innocent people died. A lot of heroic people died, and probably are still dying from trying to be a first responder. The fire, police, port authority, anybody that helped. I think that affected those of us that were close to it. I was 94 miles away getting ready to play Tampa. I actually saw the second plane hit live. It’s had an effect on everybody, especially the people that were directly involved. I think we need to keep perspective on some things. We remember in a humble, solemn way because it was horrible.”

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