Part II In a five-part series — a Giants trio of note.
Ability is great. Availability is greater.
You want to get a player to bristle? Call him injury-prone.
Nothing takes up more conversation and consternation during the week leading into an NFL game than the ebb and flow of who is in, who is out and who might be hobbled and who might be healed. Coaches get grilled on it on a daily basis by the media, get briefed every morning by the medical staff and meet with their assistants repeatedly in the lead-up to all games, juggling the depth chart based on the latest information as to the severity of hamstring pulls, knee strains and shoulder impingements.
Players ruled out for the next game might as well not even exist when it comes to on-field contributions to winning and losing. Every player fights through physical ailments and challenges to ready himself for the battle ahead. Some do it better and more successfully than others.
Here are the three Giants who really need to prove they can stay healthy for the entirety of the season:
Evan Engram, tight end
He can get it done. The Giants have seen him do it. As a rookie in 2017, Engram had 11 receptions of 20 or more yards. In 2018, he averaged 8.7 yards after the catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus. That was second among all tight ends, behind only George Kittle. In 2019, Engram turned Daniel Jones’ first NFL touchdown pass into something special, racing up the left sideline on a 75-yard display of his explosiveness.
What Engram cannot do, at least thus far, is stay healthy. He played in 11 games in 2018 and only eight last season, forced out with ligament damage in his foot that required surgery. A recent workout video posted on Instagram showed Engram running and cutting and offered the requisite encouragement. The former first-round pick is a great guy with the right attitude. He can run like a deer and should be a bona fide threat at his position. The Giants picked up his fifth-year option for 2021, but if he cannot show the new coaching staff he is reliable on a week-to-week basis, this could be the end of the line for Engram.
Sterling Shepard, wide receiver
Everyone around the Giants is into Sterling Shepard. He is what the front office wants inside the locker room. It is more than happenstance that a month after trading Odell Beckham Jr. away, the Giants signed Shepard to a four-year contract extension worth $41 million. He is a former second-round pick who has almost, but not quite, lived up to the high draft status. He thus far is not a star and not a No. 1 wide receiver but a valuable member of the offense. A perfect complement on the field and a popular presence off it.
No one wants to talk much about what happens next with Shepard. He sustained two concussions last season that forced him out of six games. He dealt with a migraine issue earlier in his career. These are cumulative health concerns, and if Shepard continues to encounter head and concussion issues he will not make it through the length of his contract. He can try to protect himself, but the game is too fast and fierce and there is only so much he can do. It is a tough situation and Shepard does not enjoy talking about it, understandably. He was able to play in the final six games last season and everyone is hoping for the best.
Ryan Connelly, linebacker
One of the few encouraging signs in 2019 was Connelly’s emergence.
He moved into the starting lineup remarkable early — Week 2 — and had interceptions in each of his first two starts. But he lasted only two games before a torn ACL ended his rookie year. The only fortunate part of this is he got hurt so early in the season that he should be ready or close to ready for training camp this summer. Players get hurt early in their careers — Michael Strahan and Amani Toomer come to mind — and then prove to be incredibly durable the rest of the way. Connelly is not Strahan or Toomer, but he is a part of the plan on defense, a plan that can be enacted only if he is healed and at full strength, sooner rather than later, and able to stay on the field once he gets on the field.