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Tight end Larry Donnell making splash for Giants

Larry Donnell #84 of the Giants signals first

Larry Donnell #84 of the Giants signals first down after making a catch against the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 14, 2014 in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: Mike Stobe

LANDOVER, Md. -- Larry Donnell wasn't even sure he would make the team. He was competing against veterans and a prized draft pick for a spot on the Giants roster, had some ups and downs during training camp, and it wasn't exactly clear that he would be among the 53 players who stuck around. He was on the bubble.

That was 31/2 weeks ago. Now the only thing that pops is his statline.

"Crazy,'' Donnell said of his sudden change in job security.

Donnell spent the season's first two weeks as one of the only bright spots in a struggling offense. He entered Thursday night's Week 4 game against Washington as the team leader in receptions with 18, and his 182 yards were only nine behind Victor Cruz for the team lead. Donnell, who caught three short touchdown passes from Eli Manning in the first half Thursday night, is among the league leaders for tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns and has established himself as a clutch player.

After a summer in which the tight end position seemed to be a vacuum, the 6-5, 269-pound Donnell is filling the space nicely. General manager Jerry Reese said at the start of the summer that he hoped one of the players at the position would step from the shadows and emerge as a playmaker. Donnell has.

Reese made the comparison to Denver's Julius Thomas, a tight end who caught one pass in his first two seasons and then 65 last year. Most interpreted that as setting another fancifully high bar for Adrien Robinson, the fourth-round selection in 2012, but Reese never specified which young tight end would emerge. So far, it's been Donnell.

Surprise, surprise. Well, almost.

"I'm not surprised, I'm just happy,'' said Donnell, who had three catches for 31 yards for the Giants last season. "Happy to be able to help this team. That's what it's all about. It's been pretty good so far, but there's still a lot of improving to be done.''

Such as run-blocking and holding onto the ball. Donnell has great hands but appears to be just this side of out of control when he starts running with it. He was upended twice Sunday by the Texans, flipping cleats over helmet. He spends more time in a tumble cycle than laundry.

"I'm trying to figure out a way to run!'' he said, chuckling. "Every time I get the ball they're trying to knock these legs out from under me! It's kind of a tough role. I'm trying to get any yard I can, man. Jumping, any way I can.''

Donnell said the best part about losing the fumble at the Texans' 4-yard line was that Manning came right up to him with encouragement.

"He was like 'Keep your head up, we're going to come back to you,' '' Donnell said.

And they did.

"It's a confidence builder, giving faith to Eli knowing that if he throws it, he doesn't have to worry about anything. He has a reliable target to go to underneath if he has to get the ball out.''

That's meant more catches and more targets than any other Giant. It's unlikely to remain that way as the offense evolves through its "work in progress'' phase. But it could. There are teams around the league where the tight end is the leader or among the leaders in receptions. Dallas. Chicago. New Orleans.

Donnell laughed out loud at the last one. Just the thought of him, an undrafted player from Grambling State, and Jimmy Graham, the premier tight end in the game, being packed into the same mental snowball was enough to make him chortle. But every week, it becomes a little more realistic.

It's still early, but Donnell's 18 receptions project to 96 in a 16-game season. Only one Giant has had more catches than that (Steve Smith, 107 in 2009). Even if his pace slows a bit, Jeremy Shockey's record of 74 catches by a tight end in 2002 seems to be in sight at this early stage.

Still laughing, Larry? Or is this all starting to feel pretty real?

"It's coming to it,'' he said.

Notes & quotes: Linebacker Jon Beason (foot/toe) was inactive for the second straight game; Jameel McClain replaced him. The other Giants inactives were Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring), Devon Kennard (hamstring), Charles Brown (shoulder), James Brewer (back), Jat Bromley and Kerry Wynn.

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