This is a series covering the position battles in training camp and projecting the roster and depth chart for the New York Jets this season. Today’s installment will cover the tight ends.
The tight end position has evolved in recent years to be filled with big, athletic pass-catchers who are matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. The New York Jets appeared to have a long-term solution at this suddenly premier position in Dustin Keller, whom they drafted in the first round in 2008.
However, following an injury-plagued season and given their tight salary cap situation, the team chose to allow Keller to leave via free agency. This leaves them with the unproven Jeff Cumberland and veteran Kellen Winslow battling for the starting position. The Jets are searching for a viable starter at tight end, and these are the players in contention.
Players in Camp: Jeff Cumberland, Dedrick Epps, Chris Pantale, Konrad Reuland, Mike Shanahan, Hayden Smith, Kellen Winslow
Projected Opening Day Depth Chart: Kellen Winslow, Jeff Cumberland, Konrad Reuland
Winslow and Cumberland will be fighting for the starting position, but both are locks to make the team. That leaves only one additional spot at tight end, where the main contenders are Epps, Reuland and Smith.
Epps played in three games with the Jets in his rookie season and is the best receiver of the three. However, the fact that both Cumberland and Winslow are primarily pass catchers hurts Epps, as the team will likely look for a blocker.
Smith may be the single most interesting player in camp. He is a Australian rugby star who was in training camp with the Jets last year and then spent the season on the practice squad. He is an exceptional athlete, and he could be very effective as both a receiver and blocker. Of course, he is extremely raw and has very little football experience. He will likely start the season on the practice squad again.
The likely third-string tight end is Konrad Reuland, who filled the role last season. Reuland is the best blocker of the bunch, which will be very appealing to the coaching staff. He also showed an ability to play fullback and H-back, and that versatility is always useful.
The battle for the starting position is a very interesting one, as it matches youth versus experience. On name value alone, Winslow is the clear favorite, but that separation is not so clear on the field.
Cumberland filled in for the injured Keller last season and he was reasonably effective, catching 29 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns. Cumberland is a top-notch athlete, but he is raw as a route runner and leaves something to be desired as a blocker. The team is continuing to develop him, and even if he doesn’t start, Cumberland should see significant playing time.
Winslow is trying to revive his career in New York after only managing to appear in one game with the New England Patriots last season. Winslow has had multiple knee problems in the past, and his health will always be questionable. However, a healthy Winslow has proven to be one of the better receiving tight ends in the game. He stated that his goal was to catch 100 passes this season, which is extremely unlikely.
However, if he can develop a good relationship with the quarterbacks, Winslow could become a key figure in the passing attack. He is the most accomplished pass catcher on the Jets’ roster, and that should earn the starting nod at the beginning of the season.
This will be an interesting position to watch in preseason games, and whichever tight end can prove his ability to consistently be a receiving threat will win the job.