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Elijhaa Penny is more to the Giants than just Saquon Barkley’s lead blocker

Fullbacks are a rare breed now, but Penny has found his place and should expect more carries — and passes — coming his way this year.

NFL: NOV 12 Giants at 49ers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I know that fullbacks tend to be something like unicorns in today’s NFL where teams are throwing the ball more than ever, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be a key contributor in some offenses. Take the case of Elijhaa Penny on the Giants, for example.

Penny came out of college in 2016 as a tailback, but he went undrafted and eventually signed with the Arizona Cardinals, where he spent his whole first season on the practice squad. Somewhere along the way he was moved to fullback and had a moderate amount of success in his second year with the Cardinals in 2017. But the Cardinals wanted to put him back on the practice squad last season after training camp cutdown. The Giants had other ideas as they plucked Penny off of the Cardinals’ practice squad in the middle of September.

While he didn’t have as big of a year statistically, Penny embraced his fullback role with his new.

The Giants ended up making Saquon Barkley the No. 2 pick overall in last year’s draft, and his performance as a rookie certainly seemed to justify his high selection. Barkley rushed for over 1,300 yards and quite a bit of that yardage came with Penny in the game as a lead blocker. I’m not sure how much the now 6’2 and 234-pound blocking Penny did in college as a tailback, but while he still seems to be learning that phase of his game, he did a really good job taking defenders on last season.

The more he gets comfortable with that, the better of a blocker I think he will ultimately be as well.

I think Penny has a lot of room to grow overall, which makes me anxious to see what he can do in his second year in the offense.

I really don’t think the Giants were sure what they had in him when they picked him up, so over the course of the season they slowly expanded his role. Now that they have seen what he can do, and after he has had a whole offseason with the team, I expect that Penny will be a lot more involved in the gameplan than he was last year.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting more opportunities to run the ball in short yardage and goal-line situations. He showed while he was in Arizona that he is decent with the rock in his hands. At the very least, Penny knows how to get downhill fast with his body low to the ground. He still probably won’t get a ton of carries, but I think it’s safe to say that he will end up with more than the seven he had last season.

And I believe he will make the most of those opportunities in the running game.

Where I really expect Penny’s production to shoot up this year is in the passing game.

Penny can catch the ball well, and he obviously can do a good job with blitz pickup. I know Barkley is going to get a lot of targets, but it just makes sense for the Giants to get Penny out on some routes as well. They don’t want to overwork Barkley and have him break down late in the season.

Besides that, Penny could be a very reliable outlet, especially on early downs when defenses are worried about Barkley running the ball.

Penny had four catches with Arizona, and eight catches last season with the Giants. As long as he stays healthy, there is no reason why he shouldn’t have at least 20 catches this year. That isn’t exactly a lot, but it should be enough to keep opposing defenses on their toes, and give Penny more chances to shine.

Everything in the NFL is about creating favorable matchups these days. A fullback who is a threat running the ball and receiving out of the backfield can be a useful weapon, especially when teams stay in base defense. In the first preseason game the Giants actually lined him out wide and through a quick screen to him, so maybe they are thinking like I’m thinking.

I don’t expect Penny’s numbers to look like a backup tailback’s numbers after the season is over, but he has enough ability that he should get at least a few touches every week. Call it throwing him a bone or whatever you want to call it, but I see it as utilizing the skills of one of your better skill players.

And if a couple of carries a game and a catch or two makes Penny a little happier and thus more eager to blow up the middle linebacker on an ISO, then hey, that’s just the cherry on top.

It remains to be seen what role Penny will actually play this season, but it does appear he has finally found a home in New York after his performance last season. If he can build on that and the Giants expand his role, I believe Penny will have his best season by far in 2019.

Confidence level: Low