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Giants, Bucs rookie tight ends begin to bloom

Evan Engram of the New York Giants hauls

Evan Engram of the New York Giants hauls in a touchdown reception during the first half against the Detroit Lions at MetLife Stadium. Sept. 18, 2017. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s typically quarterbacks who are forever linked by their draft class. The 1983 crop of passers was one of the most dynamic and productive ever to enter the NFL at the same time. The members of the 2004 class, which featured Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers, are still jostling to determine which franchise got the better player.

Even when success is clearly evident, there always seem to be connections. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck.

This year, though, may be the start of a new bond at a new position. It is the first time in 15 years that three tight ends went in the first round. From 2011-16, only two other tight ends even went that high in the draft. And on Sunday, the top two tight ends will be on the field at the same time for the first time in their young NFL careers.

O.J. Howard of the Bucs (selected 19th overall) and Evan Engram of the Giants (23rd overall) will go head-to-head.

The two won’t need much of an introduction, however. They both played in the same college conference and they even trained together in Phoenix before the Combine last winter.

“I always knew of him, kept up with him throughout the SEC,” said Engram, who went to Ole Miss while Howard was at Alabama. “He’s a cool dude. I got to know him pretty well. We hung out together, worked together, killed everything together.”

So far — and it is less than a month into their careers — it’s Engram who is emerging as the more productive player. In fact, Engram’s quick start to this season is fairly historic. He has 13 catches for 138 yards and six first downs, all of them tops among rookie tight ends. Since 2003 there have been 17 tight ends selected in the first round, and only four of them had more than five receptions in their first two games, a list that now includes Engram (he had eight). Howard has just two catches in two games.

That, however, will certainly change.

“Their offense at ’Bama, he was definitely more involved blocking,” Engram said of Howard. “They definitely had more of a pro-style offense, so he was attached more. I was flexed more, stretched out. But he did some stuff flexed out at the Senior Bowl and I was shocked at how athletic he was. I always knew he was a good player, but the dude is a freak . . . He’s going to be really good.”

The Giants think that of Engram, too.

“Obviously, Evan is someone that we like what he can do, both from a run game standpoint and from a pass game standpoint,” offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.

This is not the first time the Giants and Bucs will likely spend several years comparing each others’ first-round picks at the same position. In 2012, the Bucs selected running back Doug Martin with the 31st overall selection and the Giants took David Wilson at 32. Wilson had to retire prematurely because of a neck condition, and Martin has had an up-and-down career but will not be available for Sunday’s game. He is still serving a four-game suspension that he began last season.

“You definitely keep up with those guys,” Engram said of Howard and David Njoku, the other first-round tight end who went to the Browns with the 29th overall selection. “You wish them well but you are also kind of competing a little bit.”

These tight ends, so far, seem to both be beneficial to their teams.

Only time will tell who picked the better one in 2017.

How O.J. Howard and Evan Engram, the top two tight ends taken in the draft this year, compare:

Category Engram Howard

Games 3 2

Starts 1 2

Targets 19 4

Receptions 13 2

Yards 138 29

TDs 1 0

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