The temptation for Evan Engram to declare early for last year’s NFL Draft was strong.
"It was tough," the star Ole Miss tight end told ESPN of the decision. "It was really tough. I had people in my ear saying 'He should go. He could be playing with Tom Brady or Peyton [Manning].' Even watching the NFL during the season, I could see myself out there. And it was right there. It was in my grasp."
Engram’s proximity to his dream was no doubt intensified by the fact that three of his recruiting classmate—Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche—had already made their decisions to leave early. But an uninspiring junior season and concerns about his size had NFL scouts questioning his pro potential, so Engram chose to stay behind in Oxford for one more year.
That patience paid off on Thursday night when the New York Giants made Engram the 23rd overall pick of the 2017 draft, hoisting him up alongside Tunsil, Treadwell and Nkemdiche as the fourth Rebel first-rounder in the last two years.
Engram will be playing with a Manning after all.
“I came back for my senior year and that was one of my goals to solidify a first-round pick,” Engram told SB Nation’s Big Blue Big Blue View after his selection. “God has led me through all of this and to hear that tonight with the New York Giants, I knew that it was going to happen, I knew it should happen and I’m blessed that it did.”
Despite a season in which Chad Kelly threw for more yards than Eli Manning or any quarterback in SEC history save Tim Couch and Johnny Football, Engram’s junior campaign in 2015 didn’t live up to lofty expectations. With Treadwell eating up over a quarter of available targets, Engram was thrown at just 55 times, resulting in a middling 464 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
More significant in the eyes of pro scouts, however, were questions about Engram’s size and blocking ability.
"[NFL teams] know I can catch and be explosive down the field,” Engram told The Clarion-Ledger after his junior season, “they just want to see me put a little weight on. I think this offseason, [I'll] just really work on getting stronger, getting bigger and being able to still keep my speed."
So Engram hit the weight room to add about eight pounds of muscle and put more emphasis on blocking technique.
With Treadwell wearing Vikings purple last season, Engram also found an expanded role in Ole Miss’ offense as a senior. He took the reigns as Chad Kelly’s featured receiver, leading the Rebels with 93 targets (over 20 percent of the total). It was the breakout season he’d dreamed of: Engram led all college football tight ends in receiving yards and receptions per game while finishing second in receiving touchdowns.
And it’s that receiving production, not his ability to push around linebackers, that impressed the Giants, who see an opportunity to stress defenses with a vertical threat in the seam.
“The fastest way to the end zone is down the middle of the field,” head coach Ben McAdoo said when asked how he plans to use his new weapon. “Anytime you can add someone to your offense that can run down the middle of the field with that type of speed and length, it stresses the defense.”
Engram made a habit of burning linebackers and safeties downfield last season, leading the country’s tight ends with seven receptions of 20-yards or longer. His speed was on display again at the NFL Combine, where he blazed a 4.42 40-yard dash—a number that not only led tight ends in Indy, but tied for fifth among wide receivers. Engram’s eye-opening combine performance, which also included top-five positional finishes in the vertical jump, 20-yard shuffle and three-cone drill, made him that much more enticing to the Giants.