Many Americans live their entire lives without the chance to live in a major United States city. That statement does not apply to Daniel Bellinger. After spending his first 17 years in Las Vegas, Bellinger attended San Diego State and lived in America’s Finest City for the past four.
In April, Bellinger was drafted by the New York Giants in the 4th Round of the NFL Draft and made his first trek to the east coast and into the New York lifestyle. For a 21 year old playing professional football, one would surmise that the glitz and glamour of Manhattan would be difficult to pass up when time came to select the neighborhood to reside in.
Anyone who knows him or has followed his rise to the NFL ranks, would know better.
“Right now I’m living in East Rutherford, in New Jersey,” he told EVT in an exclusive interview. “Just by the stadium and facility…real close so I can just get up and head over.”
Bellinger has always prided himself on having an exceptional work ethic that he attributes to his upbringing. “My father implemented it in me, it’s how my family grew through generation after generation,” Bellinger recalled. “Throughout the (draft) process, they asked us our why – why do you get up in the morning for the 6am workouts…the biggest thing for me is I had friends that unfortunately passed away so I think about them when I have to get up and work hard because they never had the opportunity to.”
Bellinger told EVT that he woke up at the start of Day 3 of the NFL Draft not knowing if he was going to get drafted at the top of the 4th Round or by whom. He had met with the Giants throughout the process and felt good about their pick as a viable option.
“I was just blessed when I got that call,” Bellinger noted as the Giants selected him with the seventh pick of the 4th Round (112th overall). Unlike other draftees who feel slighted when they are selected behind other players at their position (Bellinger was the sixth tight end picked) and may hold grudges against teams that elected to draft the other five, Bellinger does not plan to use that for any additional motivation for himself.
“I just want to focus on myself,” he reiterated. “Different teams thought different things about different guys so I don’t think of it like that. I knew coming into the draft that wherever I go I was going to focus on myself and not who gets picked where. Focus on what I have to do to get better.”
San Diego State comparisons
Bellinger is in the midst of his first NFL training camp but has experienced a lot of familiar tendencies from his time on the Mesa.
“Definitely the physicality,” Bellinger replied when asked if the Giants training camp reminded him of camps at SDSU. “Coach (Brian) Daboll points out a lot of stuff that we did at San Diego State…the physicality and the toughness…he will get on us when he needs to get on us.”
Another familiar coaching motto that Bellinger recalled was coach Daboll’s desire for the players to lead the team and not the coaches. Countless Aztec players have described this same philosophy that coach Brady Hoke instilled when he retook over the program in early 2020.
The final remembrance to SDSU is matching up in practice against defensive end and fellow rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, taken by the Giants in the 1st Round with the fifth overall pick.
“Being able to go against a first rounder who had all the accolades in the world, it brings it out of me, brings it out of him, and we make each other better,” Bellinger said. “It reminds me of going against Cam Thomas every day for the last four years.” Both Thomas and Thibodeaux were All-Americans in 2021 at the DE position.
Learning an NFL offense
With an entirely new coaching staff for the Giants this season, Bellinger is not the only player learning a new offensive system. Everyone is. Coach Daboll was the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills most recently, helping tight end Dawson Knox flourish last season with 49 receptions for 587 yards.
Offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, previously the quarterbacks coach for head coach Andy Reid in Kansas City, helped design favorable matchups and routes for Travis Kelce. Over his nine year career, Kelce has amassed impressive statistics, including a record for most consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards receiving by a tight end (six) and was named to the 2010s All-Decade Team.
“(I have been) watching clips of Knox and Kelce, things that Kafka is trying to implement and coach Dabes is trying to implement and trying to learn the technique that they used,” Bellinger explained.
In 2021, four tight ends led the position with nine receiving touchdowns. Two of them were Kelce and Knox (along with Hunter Henry and Mark Andrews).
Daboll announced early in his tenure as head coach that Kafka would call the offensive plays despite Daboll being one of the best play callers during his time with Buffalo the last few years. With the tight end featured by both in their previous stops, expect the tight end to be a prominent part of the game plan each week.
Starting as a rookie
Bellinger made waves when he was listed first on the depth chart at tight end for the Giants after the start of training camp. That is likely a combination of Bellinger’s performance and the revamping of the tight end room that saw none of the players at the position from last year’s team return.
His stiffest competition for a starting spot this season likely comes from journeyman Ricky Seals-Jones who has bounced around over his six years in the league. Jordan Akins (who wears 88, the number Bellinger wore in college) is also another veteran presence who provides depth at the position, but likely not as the primary starter.
In the first preseason game against the Patriots last Thursday, Bellinger started, played most of the first half, and caught his only target for a five-yard reception. He was also called for a holding penalty on a rushing play.
Many athletes describe the event of being drafted as what they worked their whole life for and what they dreamt about. For Bellinger, just getting to the league is simply not good enough.
“I’m living my dream but the dream is not accomplished yet,” he said. “I want to play the game for a long time and reach those higher levels. This is my first step in the journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint so I need to keep taking steps.”
Bellinger has all of Aztec Nation behind him as he continues on his journey, one step at a time.