A new hole has opened up for the New York Jets in recent days. There is no longer a traditional tight-end on the roster.
Chris Baker was released after having his worst season since 2004. Bubba Franks had a one-year deal and will hit free agency, and James Dearth is listed as a tight-end, but his role is reserved for long-snapping duties alone.
As far as roster positioning goes, Dustin Keller is heading into his second season in the NFL as the Jets’ only tight-end. Except he’s not exactly a prototype of what’s expected at the position.
Some would call him an h-back, but—to keep it simple—he’s really just a big wide receiver who lines up along the offensive line and runs underneath routes.
More Important Than He May Realize
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind. Dustin Keller is an integral piece of the New York Jets’ offensive future. His rookie campaign was one of the most impressive bits of football to come out of the 2008 season.
Keller played the role of Brett Favre’s safety-net when Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery failed to gain separation. Everytime a play took too long to unfold, or Favre needed to get rid of the ball quickly, Keller was there.
His performance in overtime against the New England Patriots was the reason the Jets were able to win that game.
But as the team broke down in December, so did Keller. His discomfort with his role and responsibility became evident. At times Keller appeared to be unfamiliar with the playbook, and didn’t know how to react to defensive adjustments.
When it became clear that he needed to be neutralized, Keller’s hands became unreliable.
The Jets offense was based around the run and taking shots down field. But when those plays failed and New York needed a short first-down, Keller was the go-to guy.
Once the opposing defense realized that, the whole team suffered.
Taking the Next Step
Dustin Keller proved that he was absolutely worth trading up for in 2008. He’s an impressive athlete with incredible hands, and even greater potential.
But it’d be naïve to assume that there isn’t room for improvement.
If he’s going to be the primary tight-end on a run-first team, then his blocking has to improve substantially. He has to be as dependent in run support as he is in the passing game.
Whenever the Jets were in a running situation that required more blockers, the offense would have to check in OL Wayne Hunter as an eligible receiver. This isn’t abnormal in goal-line situations, but it’s the equivalent of letting your opponent see the cards in your hand.
An offense needs to be as multi-faceted as possible in base packages. If that’s not possible, then an offense is forced to become predictable.
Dustin Keller is the definition of a mismatch every time he’s on the field. The best way to exploit that mismatch is to make sure no one is ever absolutely sure of what he’s going to do.
Finding Help in Free Agency?
Keller won’t be the only TE on the roster this summer. But where the depth comes from remains to be seen.
New York could look to add depth through the draft, but where would they prioritize it? Cornerback, wide receiver, linebacker, running back, and defensive line are other critical areas the Jets will be looking to address.
With enough money to play around with, there are some notable free agents available this offseason who can complement Keller nicely. And in absolute worst-case scenarios, they may be able to supplement him in the event of an injury.
There’s no need for an absolute star. A solid player with good hands, and strong blocking skills will be sufficient.
L.J. Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles will hit the open market, as will Leonard Pope of the Arizona Cardinals. Tony Curtis of the Dallas Cowboys is also expected to be available.
Other notable names like Marcus Pollard and Jerramy Stevens could have new homes in 2009. They shouldn’t be expensive, and they all have enough experience to be reasonable additions.
Then again, the Jets could always re-sign Chris Baker if he doesn’t find any suitors. But that’s only if he promises not to slip in overtime when he’s wide-open again.