Today, I’m bringing back another installment of the New York Jets roster rundown series with another position group on offense: the tight ends.
A common theme between the two skill position groups previously covered here is youth.
The average age of the five pure halfbacks in Jets camp this summer is just 23.8 years old, and the average age of the eleven wide receivers in camp is 24.4 years old.
The average age of the tight ends in camp this year is exactly 25, with fifth-year pro Dustin Keller leading the way at age 27.
Keller has had a very up-and-down career since he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of Purdue. Luckily, he’ll never be considered the Jets’ worst first round pick that season. But that’s another story.
In his four seasons with the Jets, Keller has caught at least 45 passes each year, as he’s been the primary tight end since day 1.
In 2011, he set or tied career-highs in receptions (65), yards (815), yards per catch (12.5), and touchdowns (5). It’s no surprise that entering the final year of his rookie deal, he’s expressed interest in a contract extension.
However, as Kristine Reese of theJetsBlog and Flight 5 Live pointed out recently, Keller needs to earn a new deal with his play, something he simply hasn’t done yet in his career.
“For as valuable as has been to our quarterback,” she wrote, “and for as much potential as he has, he is still frustratingly, bang-your-head-against-the-wall, drive you to drink inconsistent.”
Reese pointed out that Dustin Keller led the team in targets with 116, which makes those 65 receptions look a little underwhelming when you look at it in context. That 56% catch rate was not in the top 100 in the league.
Even more frustrating about Keller is that for all his mental and physical miscues that have killed drives for the offense too many times to count, he rarely makes a big, game-changing play on the positive side.
Yet another side of it is the fact that Keller is one-dimensional. As a converted wide receiver who’s only been playing tight end since college, he’s never developed into a competent blocker, a crucial skill for a tight end.
I’ve been harsh on Keller in the past. I’ve said it right here on Rant Sports that I think this upcoming season will be Keller’s last in Green and White.
I’ve always been of the opinion that blocking is too important a skill for a tight end to not have in his arsenal. Especially when a team like the Jets is looking to run the ball down people’s throats again this season.
In the offseason, former Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett was on my wish list, before he signed with the New York Giants. Bennett is an elite run blocker and will be a big factor across town.
Instead, the Jets made an intriguing signing in free agency in Australian rugby player Hayden Smith, who will try to use his physical gifts to transition to tight end in the NFL.
Smith may start the season on the practice squad, where the Jets will allow him to develop into a solid blocking tight end who they hope can emerge as a dual-threat player in time.
So who will be the number two opposite Keller? The likely frontrunner right now is third-year pro Jeff Cumberland, who similarly to Keller has been trying to develop as a blocker after converting from wide receiver.
If he’s healthy, I expect to see Keller and Cumberland atop the Jets’ tight end depth chart, with a bunch of young players fighting for a roster spot as a third or fourth tight end and special teamer.
Two undrafted rookies who will be in camp are 6’5 Brian Linthicum from Michigan State, and 6’7 Tarren Lloyd from Utah State. Second-year men Dedrick Epps and H-back Josh Baker are also in the mix.
I think Baker will make the team, as a versatile weapon on offense and special teams. Keller and Cumberland are probably locks as well, and if Hayden Smith is on the practice squad, that may leave one spot available, perhaps.
The open competition of training camp will bring out the best in every player on this roster. Only so many of them can make the final 53-man roster once the season kicks off in September.
The tight end spot has not been a particularly productive position group for the Jets, really ever. That’s going to need to change if the Jets plan on making the leap forward on offense that they expect to.
For Dustin Keller, his NFL career is at a crossroads. Entering the final year of his contract, he needs to step his game up. It’s now or never. It’s a make or break year for many Jets players, and Keller is no exception.