EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- I have no idea whether Larry Donnell will be the starting tight end for the New York Giants this season, because no one has any idea, and if anyone did know for sure on July 25 it wouldn't be me. What I do know is that the Giants' coaches really, really like Donnell and don't have any clearly superior options. So the fact that Donnell was listed first at the position when the team handed out its first unofficial depth chart of training camp Thursday wasn't the most shocking thing we've ever seen.
As far as Donnell's concerned, it neither means nor changes anything.
"I'm just trying to do everything I can do to show the coaches I can do all of the right things as a player, so if that role comes my way, I can handle it," Donnell said before Giants practice Friday. "I just want to do the best I can to show I'm worthy of being here."
Those are common-sounding words, but Donnell lives them, and that is how he has caught the friendly attention of Giants coaches over the past two years. He was a willing and eager special-teams player in 2013, and Giants coaches say his dedication and work ethic were such that they looked for opportunities to involve him more in the offense. He is 25 years old. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds he is the second-largest of the five tight ends on the Giants' roster after the 6-7, 265-pound Kellen Davis. Donnell was an undrafted free agent in 2012, one full year out of Grambling State, where he began his career as a quarterback and caught only 38 passes in four years once he moved to tight end during his freshman year.
This is an unlikely path for an NFL starting tight end, and Donnell remains far from a sure thing. He still needs to refine his run-blocking, which is likely to be the most important quality the Giants look for when they decide on a tight end, and he's obviously also still evolving as a pass-catcher. He believes his progress in the offense last year could have been more significant if not for a foot injury he suffered in the spring, and he believes he's coming along quickly this camp as he competes with Davis, Daniel Fells, Adrien Robinson and Xavier Grimble for the starting role.
Donnell is also cognizant of the importance of continuing to be an animal on special teams. While the Giants will surely pick the best tight end as the winner of the competition, if it's close, they're likely to select the guy who has made the most favorable impression on them in the dirty work.
"No change on that," Donnell said. "Still on special teams, still flying around, doing all those things. The more you can do, the better."
Giants GM Jerry Reese tends to downplay the need for an experienced, reliable tight end, pointing out that the tight end hasn't been a big pass-catcher for much of recent Giants history. But Donnell thinks that's changing this year under new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
"The tight end plays a big tole in this offense," Donnell said. "We're a big part of it. We're main reads, No. 1 reads, so it's important to know where you need to be and how you need to get there. We're a big part of the offense."