JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tight end Evan Engram grabbed his seat on the team charter and quickly reached for his phone.
After catching 11 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ 36-22 victory over the Tennessee Titans on a Sunday afternoon in Nashville last December, he needed to FaceTime his personal coach, Drew Lieberman.
Everything Engram had worked on for more than a year with Lieberman — the mechanics, the routes, the mindset, the mental toughness — had finally come together that day. Any doubt they had was gone.
“We weren’t f—ing crazy,” Lieberman said. “That was the first thing he said: ‘We weren’t f—ing crazy.'”
That game was the turning point in Engram’s NFL journey. He went from struggling with confidence in his final seasons with the New York Giants and losing his love for football to being one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
Engram ranks second to the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Travis Kelce among all tight ends in catches (67) and yards (681), and is first in yards after the catch (448) in the past eleven regular-season games, dating back to that Week 14 win over the Titans.
Engram, 29, signed a new three-year contract in July that pays him $13.75 million annually and is playing the best football of his career in a place that feels like home, and on a team that’s a playoff contender.
“[Jacksonville] is definitely where I want to end my career,” he said. “… This is somewhere where, when I do retire, and when I’m 50 and my kids are getting recruited, or about to go into the draft, I can come back to Jacksonville and they’re like, ‘Hey dad, you did something here. You left something here.’ I think this is the perfect place for me to do that.”
Heading into Thursday night’s game at the New Orleans Saints (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), Engram has caught 36 passes for 301 yards, which puts him on pace to shatter the franchise’s single-season record for tight ends, which he set last season with 73 catches for 766 yards. Engram is tied with Kelce and T.J. Hockenson for most catches by a tight end this season (36) and leads all tight ends with 168 yards after the catch.
“Evan is in a good place,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said. “There was a lot of outside criticism on him about the drops and different things, but he’s a hard worker. He works on that and he works on his craft. He wants to be a pro.
“His confidence level right now is extremely high and I think it’s easy or safe to say [those struggles are] well behind him now.”
Soaring would be a better term for his confidence.
“After that game [against the Titans] it was game on,” Engram said. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever looked back. Every time I’m on the field, every time the ball’s thrown my way, I feel like I can catch it and make somebody miss or go make a big play and be the dynamic player that I’m starting to show.”
But Engram didn’t always feel this way, and it took him seven seasons and a move to play in Jacksonville to fully find his way in the NFL.
ENGRAM WAS A first-team All-American and three-time All-SEC selection during his four-year career at Ole Miss (2013-16). He led all FBS tight ends with 926 receiving yards and was second with 65 receptions in his final season with the Rebels.
The Giants drafted him with the 23rd overall pick in 2017 with plans to use him the same way Ole Miss did: moving him around the formation to find matchups to exploit. As a rookie he caught 64 passes for 722 yards and six touchdowns but had six drops and missed one game with a rib injury. Engram caught 89 passes over the 2018-19 seasons, though he missed 13 more games due to injuries and saw his yardage totals drop each year.
He knew he wasn’t playing his best or at the level that Giants fans expected. Neither was the team: The Giants won 12 games from 2017-19.
The excitement of reaching his dream of playing in the NFL, being a first-round pick and making plays faded. It was replaced with an erosion of confidence.
“In the midst of being on a bad team I was playing bad as well,” Engram said. “That’s when it kind of came all crashing down. Especially in that market [if] the team’s not doing well and you’re not making plays, they’re going to let you know about it.”
Things got worse in the following season.
Engram played 16 games in 2020, caught 63 passes for 654 yards and one touchdown and was voted into the Pro Bowl. But he dropped eight passes and averaged what at the time was a career-worst 40.9 receiving yards per game.
Fans lit into him after a crucial fourth-quarter drop against the Eagles which could have been a game-winner, ravaging his social media accounts with curses and insults. And while he said at the time he could handle the negativity from the outside, he struggled with negativity from the inside.
“It was that year that really set my confidence in myself back,” Engram said. “There was a little hole I had to dig myself out of based off of the little things I was doing wrong. How could I improve? It was hard for me to watch those [bad] plays.
“I was playing slow, was overthinking things. … I just wasn’t playing to my full potential because there was fear of having another bad play.”
Football wasn’t fun anymore.
“It was just a real stressful time going to work,” Engram said. “… The Giants, the organization, they supported me through all of that. No bad words about any coach, any person in the organization. That team drafted me and they had my back 100%. So it was never me versus them. It was all just kind of all in my own head.”
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones said Engram never let the way he was feeling impact the way he prepared or how he dealt with his teammates.
“He was extremely consistent in his approach, his demeanor,” Jones said. “He’s a true pro, a tough-minded guy. Obviously the team, we weren’t playing great and we were struggling, so it was tough on everybody, but the way Evan handled his situation … he went about his work the right way.
“We weren’t playing well as an offense and he caught some of that heat. But I have a lot of respect for Evan.”
ENGRAM DIDN’T WANT to get out of bed. Not on this particular morning in March 2021, anyway. He was supposed to head to a local park in Atlanta to work out with a trainer and some other NFL receivers and quarterbacks, including Mohamed Sanu Sr. and Olamide Zaccheaus.
“I really don’t feel like going,” Engram remembers thinking, “but I need to put the work in and show up.”
When he arrived at the park there was someone he didn’t know working with the receivers. After spending some time with the group, running drills, Engram’s attitude changed from grumpy to intrigued.
“He pulled up and saw me and was like, ‘What the f— is this going to teach me?'” Lieberman said. “‘Why am I even here?’ He just had a bad attitude about it. But then about 30, 40 minutes into the session he was looking at me like, ‘Yo, I’ve never been coached like this in my life. No one’s ever talked to me about my game in this much detail.'”
Lieberman played quarterback at Wesleyan University and coached quarterbacks and receivers in high school and college for a decade before branching out on his own and forming The Sideline Hustle in 2017. He and his team work with NFL, college, high school and overseas players. NFL receivers Chris Conley, Darius Slayton, Zaccheaus and Sanu are listed on The Sideline Hustle’s website as clients.
Engram continued working with Lieberman after that day in March.
“I was really looking for a personal trainer, a kind of one-on-one hands-on guy that I could work with every single day on my craft,” Engram said. “And so really meeting him, it changed the trajectory of my career.”
The two worked on every aspect of Engram’s game: stance, release off the line of scrimmage, routes, setting up defensive backs and footwork. They wanted to fix the drops — 18 in his first four seasons — so they worked on mechanics, too. His hands never came together at the catch point. They were too far apart and the ball would get into his body, and they didn’t always work in tandem.
So day after day, they worked on it, using tennis balls. The smaller ball forced Engram to bring his hands together to catch it. Now his hands work together, no longer letting balls get into his body and instead catching them with his hands out front.
But his hands weren’t the only reason he was dropping passes, Lieberman said.
“He was clapping at the ball instead of shooting his hands together at the ball,” Lieberman said. “So we certainly fixed that, but it was just more of a confidence thing. He was playing with so much anxiety, so much outside noise.”
Engram continued working but the results didn’t immediately show up on the field.
It was a Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium and Engram’s 2021 season debut because a strained calf in the preseason forced him to miss the first two games. He caught two passes for 21 yards, lost a fumble, dropped one pass and was unable to come up with another tough catch.
The boos were numerous and loud, and Engram was worried. His girlfriend — now fiancée — was in the stands.
“This is her first game,” he said. “She’s in the stands with my family. I’ve been telling her all offseason, ‘Your man is a beast on the field.’ Like, I’m hyping myself up.
“… Honestly, I didn’t care about the damn boos. I was more embarrassed that Emily [Caro] was there for the boos. I was like, ‘Oh, this girl’s about to leave my ass. This is embarrassing.'”
It was probably a little over-dramatic on his part, which he realized when he saw Caro and his family after the game.
“My mom, my dad, my sister, they’re all worried about me,” Engram said. “Me and Emily lock eyes. She hops this fence, the most athletic hop of a fence I’ve ever seen … and she just runs up to me and jumps on me and just hugs me. …
“And that meant a lot to me in that moment. … She can care less about what I do on the football field.”
He finished the 2021 season with five dropped passes on a Giants’ offense ranked 31st in scoring, yards per game and passing yards per game.
“I was playing a little bit better,” Engram said. “The team was still bad. … So there wasn’t a lot to show for it, but my confidence started to rise. But at the same time, there was still some things I was dealing with mentally. …
“There was still some fear, there was still some doubt in my game that was restricting me to be the full player that I am.”
THE GIANTS DIDN’T offer Engram a contract after that 2021 season, so he became a free agent. He thought he’d have 10-12 teams calling his agent and he’d have his pick of lucrative contract offers. The Jaguars were one of four that contacted him.
Engram made his decision to join the Jaguars on March 14, 2022, largely because of Pederson’s work with tight ends in Philadelphia, which Engram had seen up close playing the division-rival Eagles twice a season.
They settled on a one-year, fully-guaranteed $9 million contract — a prove-it deal that would give Engram a chance for a bigger payday in 2023 if he produced.
“There was a moment where I didn’t know if it was right. I didn’t know if it was where I was supposed to go,” he said. “I love New York as a city. I wanted to be great there so bad. I didn’t want to leave. But at the same time, it was time for a fresh start.”
Adjusting to a new team took time. He didn’t find the end zone in the first six weeks of the season.
“He started meeting with Trevor Lawrence behind the scenes,” Lieberman said, “watching film with him twice a week every week no matter what. He started meeting with his coaches and he started to see these small improvements. He starts to feel better about it, but still nothing breaks through.”
Until his former team came to town. The Jaguars played host to the Giants in Week 7.
Engram wanted to dominate that game. He wanted to pay back the fans for all the boos. Maybe that motivation — revenge? — was what he needed to flip a switch, but Engram said he just felt different during pregame warmups.
“I was just so hungry,” he said. “I didn’t care about anything negative that could happen.” Engram caught four passes for 67 yards, averaging a season-best 16.8 yards per catch, in the Jaguars’ 23-17 loss that ended with receiver Christian Kirk getting tackled on the 1-yard line. The loss was disappointing but Engram walked off the field feeling he had hit a turning point in his career.
“It was a win for me, just because I felt like everything that happened in New York with my bad plays, all my struggles, it just came off my shoulders,” he said. “I hate that we lost that game but I remember getting in my car and my fiancé, her parents and I think my dad was in there, too, and I just remember them: ‘I feel like all that weight is off my shoulders now. I’m just a new player.'”
ENGRAM STOOD BY his locker in January after the Jaguars’ 27-20 divisional playoff loss in Kansas City, eyes wet and voice scratchy, and said he didn’t want the season to be over. He didn’t want to be away from the facility and his teammates. He was finally at a point where he couldn’t wait to go to work every day.
He felt like he had found a home.
“I’ve had the best year of my life. Most fun I’ve had in a while.”
“God has showed up big time in my life this year. I don’t think it happens anywhere else.”
After the 2022 season, the Jaguars wanted Engram back and used the franchise tag on him. The sides negotiated throughout the offseason and, shortly before training camp began in late July, he signed a three-year, $41.25 million contract that included a $12.5 million signing bonus and $25.5 million guaranteed.
Engram’s teammates were happy to see him back because he was a key part of an offense that ranked 10th in the NFL in scoring and yards per game in 2022. The only player Lawrence has targeted more than Engram (44 times) this season is receiver Kirk (50).
“I’ve always thought very highly of him and his ability and he has such a unique skill set and whenever you’re able to start kind of separating yourself and having that level of production, the confidence kind of goes through the roof,” Kirk said. “I know he’s been working his butt off. … And so it doesn’t surprise me when he has the production and the type of games that he has.”
One of the first things Lawrence said he noticed about Engram when OTAs began in 2022 is that he’s one of the first ones on the practice field and last ones off it. Every single day. By midseason he was staying after most of the other players went home and spending time with the quarterbacks watching tape, which has continued this season.
“We talk through a bunch of stuff when we’re watching tape together, whether it’s a coverage or a play that we have on third downs, if they play this coverage, how we’re going to attack it, all those things,” Lawrence said. “I think that’s where you build the chemistry, especially with tight ends and receivers. He’s done a good job of that and really just works super hard. I’ve seen his confidence just keep growing and growing”
THIS SEASON ENGRAM no longer has to worry about getting that next contract or not having enough confidence in his game.
“I haven’t been this confident and at peace in a while, and the more confidence and peace I have I’m way more hungrier than I’ve ever been,” Engram said. “I haven’t had that in a long time, but the sense of urgency has never been higher. I feel more pressure than I did last year on a one-year deal now. Just because of how good of a team we have and how good of opportunity we have.”
Confident, at peace and happy. The importance of the last part for a player’s success can’t be overstated, said Jaguars tight end coach Richard Angulo. He knows first-hand.
“I struggled my entire career. I know how it is,” said Angulo, who played in 27 games over four years with four NFL teams, including two with the Jaguars. “I know what it’s like to constantly be fighting an uphill battle.
“So to see someone do that, but then also kind of see the other side is really cool to watch. … I’ve lived those dog days, but to be able to live those glory days, too, is awesome.”
Engram knows he’s incredibly blessed. He’s got his confidence back. He’s playing at a high level. And he’s getting married to Caro in April.
And now, instead of talking about his confidence, he’s talking about becoming one of the best players in Jaguars franchise history.
“I just feel like there’s a legacy to be left here,” Engram said. “When people 10, 20 years from now bring up my name there’s something that they can remember about me. Probably my biggest fear is being average. I don’t ever want to be looked at as just another guy.”
ESPN’s Jordan Raanan contributed to this story.