All eyes will be on Saquon Barkley in Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. And rightfully so. The running back and keystone of the Giants offense has missed the last three-and-a- half games with a high ankle sprain, and he is sure to add some extra oomph — as well as some excitement — to the team.
“He brings a crazy element to the game,” tight end Evan Engram said of Barkley. “Getting him back out there in front of our fans, it’s going to be really good energy.”
Of course it will. He is their best player.
But Barkley may not be the most important piece that the Giants have returning to their lineup in this game.
That honor may, in fact, belong to Engram himself.
The third-year player was performing at a Pro Bowl level through the first five weeks of the season until a knee injury in the third quarter of the contest against the Vikings sidelined him. He’s the Giants’ leader in receptions (33), receiving yards (373) and receiving touchdowns (2) despite missing last week’s game against the Patriots. He’s also been one of rookie quarterback Daniel Jones’ favorite targets in his four starts as the two have connected for 16 receptions and 209 yards.
Regarding Barkley’s imminent return, Pat Shurmur said this week that a quarterback’s two best friends are a reliable offensive line and a dynamic running back. But a young quarterback’s security blanket is a pass-catching tight end who can draw defensive attention away from receivers and create mismatches in the secondary.
So while Barkley will certainly give the Giants a big lift, it might be Engram whose presence means the most to the offense… and to Jones.
“I was pretty down about missing last Thursday,” Engram said this week, after he was a full participant in practices and opened up to full speed in the workouts to virtually assure his return in this game. “I definitely am really hungry. Getting back out there is going to be fun. I’ll be a kid in a candy shop again, go out there and make plays.”
That his comeback is against the Cardinals should only add to that sweetness. They are ranked 30th against the pass this season and have had consistent trouble covering tight ends in particular. In six games the Cardinals have allowed an opposing tight end to catch at least six passes five times and they have allowed six touchdowns to the position. Detroit’s T.J. Hockenson, Baltimore’s Mark Andrews, and Atlanta’s Austin Hooper have grabbed more than 100 receiving yards against the Cardinals.
And now they get Engram.
“First and foremost, I think we have played really good tight ends and really good quarterbacks,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the skewed stats against tight ends. “We have to find an answer and we have to be better in that area. We know we are playing a great one in Engram, one of the most dynamic tight ends in the game, and we better come up with some answers quick.”
Besides continuing to post strong numbers, this game will also give Engram a chance to shed a perception that he is too injury-prone to be an effective and reliable part of an offense. There is no doubting that his size and speed create mismatches in the passing game, but he has yet to play a 16-game season for the Giants. Last year he played in only 11, missing extended time with a knee injury. When this knee injury popped up, it seemed as if Engram was back on that track.
“I got tackled and the guy kind of fell on it weird, and it kind of locked up on me after the game,” he said. “It was definitely tough, but some things are out of my control.”
Instead, he missed just one game, one he might have made it back for had it been played on a Sunday instead of a Thursday.
“It’s definitely not as severe as [last year],” Engram said. “That was kind of the thing. I could tell a good difference from experiencing what I went through last year. So, it was definitely kind of a common feeling, but the trainers have done a good job of getting me ready and getting the recovery going.”
Now Engram can help get the offense going.
“I just want to be out there for my team every week that I can,” he said. “There are times where you can’t and you’ve just got to deal with it. A bounce back from it.”