A Tale Of Two Cumbies

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Is Jeff Cumberland better than he's given credit for?

A Tale Of Two Cumbies

The New York Jets went into the offseason with needs at nearly every position. The defensive line was solid, but there were significant needs at linebacker, safety, running back, quarterback, offensive line and tight end. As a result, John Idzik went to work reconstructing the roster, addressing nearly all of those needs in one way or another. The Jets added Antwan Barnes at linebacker and converted Quinton Coples to outside linebacker, as well as re-signing Calvin Pace. One could have hoped for more, but it was at least an attempt to address the issues at linebacker. The Jets added Dawan Landry at safety and signed UDFA Jaiquawn Jarrett. Again, underwhelming, but at least an effort was made. The Jets drafted a quarterback, signed free agent Mike Goodson at running back, traded for Chris Ivory, and added 3 offensive linemen in the draft and more through free agency.

That leaves tight end as the only urgent position of need where the Jets did absolutely nothing to address what appeared to be a huge need. Going into the 2013 season the Jets have a tight end depth chart consisting of Jeff Cumberland, Hayden Smith and Konrad Reuland, none of whom were even drafted. Two of those guys never even played tight end prior to landing in the NFL. None have ever been a starting tight end in the NFL except as required by injury to the starter, and all of them combined have a total of less than 500 yards receiving for their combined careers. This of course begs the question, just what were the Jets thinking when they let starter Dustin Keller go without even bothering to engage him in any contract discussions? This is particularly puzzling with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. With almost $10 million in cap space still open, and the new rookie class costing a net of roughly $4 million, it is now clear that the Jets had the salary cap space to sign Keller to a new deal given how little it cost Miami to acquire his services (he signed a 1 year, $4.25 million deal with Miami). So, why did the Jets not only never engage in contract talks with Keller, but also seemingly made little effort to sign any other free agent tight end or draft one in the 2013 draft? It is a bit puzzling, unless… maybe they believe Cumberland is better than his numbers show?

Jeff Cumberland had what on the surface appeared to be a rather uninspiring year in 2012. In what was essentially his rookie year, he managed to haul in 29 passes for 359 yards and 3 touchdowns. I know, yawn, right? Among NFL tight ends in 2012 with 25 or more catches, Cumberland did manage to rank tied for 5th in yards per catch with 12.4. Only Rob Gronkowski, Tony Moeaki, Vernon Davis and Scott Chandler were better, so there was at least one small thing to get excited about. But overall, those numbers are pretty much what you'd expect from a tight end who is a second string talent forced into a starter role. It is because of those numbers many feel the Jets were seriously delinquent in failing to bring in a veteran TE to take over the starter role in 2013 in the absence of the recently departed Dustin Keller. But Cumberland's year may have been a bit more interesting than the numbers would appear to indicate.

Beginning with the somewhat obvious and moving on into some more obscure territory, let's try to drill down into Cumberland's stats to see if they tell us anything that might indicate he may be more than what he's being given credit for.

The first and most obvious thing to note is that Cumberland was hurt part of the year and either did not play or was given a nearly nonexistent role in several games. He began the year as the Jets starting tight end in the absence of an injured Dustin Keller. Cumberland started the first 5 games of the season and amassed 13 catches for 139 yards and 1 TD, with a 10.7 YPC in those starts. In none of those first 5 games was Cumberland the Jets’ leading receiver. In none did he have the longest catch of the game. In only 2 of those games did Cumberland have a catch of 18 yards or more, and in only 2 of those games did he average more than 12 yards per catch. He wasn’t making alot of plays, he wasn’t making big plays, and he wasn’t a big part of the offense, despite being the #1 tight end in Keller’s absence. He was, in short, an afterthought. Not very impressive.

Then Keller returned and Cumby got hurt and was forced to sit down as Keller took center stage. Over the next 5 games Cumberland was virtually invisible, racking up a grand total of 2 catches for 11 yards.

Beginning with the second New England game, however, Cumberland worked his way into a prominent role as Tight End 1B to Keller's Tight End 1A. Then Keller was injured again, and Cumberland became the starting tight end once again for the last 6 games of the season.

For purposes of this article, I'm going to pretend the San Diego abomination game never occurred. While I usually do not like to cherry pick stats, there are I think good reasons for ignoring the San Diego game. First, it was the only game of the year Sanchez did not play. McElroy was in, running a simplified offense. In addition, the Chargers had 11(!) sacks in the game, which early on forced the Jets to keep their tight ends in to help with pass protection. As a result, all the Jets tight ends combined for only 1 target and zero catches in that game. You can of course quibble with the choice, but I prefer to regard this as an anomaly, and therefore treat the season as the 15 games Sanchez started for the purposes of this article. Take the analysis that flows therefrom with that caveat in mind.

So how did Cumberland do in his "second season"; i.e., the last 5 games of the season, when he regained the starting position, ignoring the San Diego fiasco? On the surface, it doesn’t seem like he was that much better. In those 5 games, Cumberland had 14 catches for 209 yards, a 14.9 YPC and 2 TDs. Better, for sure, but still nothing to get real excited about, right? Well, maybe. But a few things are perhaps worth noting here. First, if we were to project Cumberland’s last 5 games over an entire season, we would come up with 45 catches for 669 yards and 6 TDs. If he had those stats for 2012, he would have ranked tied for 11th in receiving yards, tied for 8th in TDs, and alone in 1st in YPC among all NFL tight ends. Not bad for a player in his first season as a starter. Of course such projections are of limited value with such a small sample size, but still it is a tantalizing hint of what he may be capable of. And there is more.

Over those last 5 games Cumberland had a catch of 18 yards or more in every one of those games. He became the big play threat the Jets desperately needed. Cumberland hauled in the Jets' longest play from scrimmage in each of 4 consecutive weeks, from Week 12 through Week 15 down the stretch. He was the first Jets tight end to do that since Rich Caster more than 35 years ago. No other tight end in the NFL accomplished that feat in 2012. In addition, over the last six games of the season, the anemic Jets passing game threw only 3 touchdown passes. Cumberland caught 2 of them. A pretty good case can be made that Jeff Cumberland was the Jets’ offensive MVP over those last 5 games.

Perhaps the most fascinating stat Cumberland put up in 2012 was only for the short time corresponding with his "second season". It is much too small a sample size, but it hints at possibly great potential hidden by the depths of Sanchez's ineptitude. Over the last 5 games (again, not counting the San Diego game), Jeff Cumberland accounted for an astonishing 25.9% of the Jets' passing offense. That is an enormous number. To put it in perspective, no tight end in football achieved that number in 2012. In fact, there are only 6 tight ends currently playing in the NFL that have EVER put up a single season averaging 25% or more of their respective team's passing offense. Tony Gonzalez, in a testament to just how great a career he has had, has accomplished the feat 7 times. Antonio Gates has done it 5 times. Jason Witten and Vernon Davis have done it 3 times each. And Rob Gronkowski and Dustin Keller each have accomplished it once. That's it, the complete list.

A few things of note here. First and most obvious is that, aside from Keller, that list is pretty much the top 5 receiving tight ends in the game today. Switch out Keller and switch in Jimmy Graham and the correspondence would be perfect. So it would seem the number has some real significance when separating the wheat from the chaff of receiving tight ends.

Another thing to note -- the number seems to be somewhat independent of level of QB play. It has been achieved with HOF quarterbacks and with quarterbacks who don't even belong as NFL starters. The best thing about this stat is that it provides some means of QB- independent analysis of tight ends' receiving numbers. For example, Keller may actually have performed better than any of us really appreciated, as he made the list ahead of some much more heralded tight ends. He made it with only slightly more than 800 yards in 2011, but this was all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Jets' passing game. Surely we cannot compare a guy who achieves 800 yards in a 3000 yard passing game to a guy who gets 900 yards in a 5000 yard passing game and automatically decide the 900 yard guy is better. In fact, the percentage measurement is in many respects the great equalizer, providing a rough gauge of absolute performance across the great divide of vastly different offensive styles, passing attempts, and quarterback effectiveness.

The natural criticism of this approach is obvious: bad passing attacks are often bad because of the dearth of playmaking talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions, leading to a situation where the one good wide receiver or tight end receives an inordinate amount of targets. There is of course some truth to that. Certainly Vernon Davis and to a lesser extent Tony Gonzalez benefitted from that effect. However, Jason Witten and Rob Gronkowski both achieved the feat in prolific passing attacks, showing you need not be in a situation where there's nobody else to throw the ball to in order to reach the magic 25% number. In addition, the above criticism is, in my opinion, largely ameliorated by the fact that the list of those who have accomplished the feat is a near perfect match with the list of the NFL's best tight ends over the last decade. It is likely that is not mere coincidence.

Now, suppose a tight end were to achieve the 25% number in an average NFL passing offense from 2012 -- what would his numbers look like? Well, an average NFL passing offense these days passes for just shy of 4000 yards. That is an astonishing number, considering that until fairly recently a 4000 yard year put a quarterback squarely in the conversation for best quarterback in the NFL. It is indeed now a passing league.

Given that average NFL passing offense, a 25% level would mean roughly 1000 receiving yards. To put that number in perspective, only 20 receivers in the NFL had 1000 yards receiving in 2012, and only one of those, Jason Witten, was a tight end.

No tight end in the NFL in 2012 achieved 25% of their team's passing offense. Jason Witten came in at 20%. Jimmy Graham was at 19%. Gronkowski was at 24% for the 11 games he played. Tony Gonzalez was at 19%. Greg Olson was at 22%. Heath Miller was at 20%. Brandon Myers was at 19%. And Jeff Cumberland was at 25.9% for the last 5 games of the year in which Sanchez started. An intriguing performance, is it not?

A final note on Jeff Cumberland’s 2012 stats. Although 2012 was Cumberland's third year in the league, it was the first year he saw substantial playing time, due largely to injuries. In effect 2012 was Cumberland's rookie year. Somewhat surprisingly, in their respective first years of substantial playing time, the best tight ends in the NFL had seasons similar to Cumberland's 2012 season. The following chart shows the stats put up by most of the NFL’s best tight ends in their respective first years of substantial playing time.

Name

Receptions

Yards

YPC

TDs

J. Gresham

52

471

9.1

4

A. Hernandez

45

563

12.5

6

R. Gronkowski

42

546

13.0

10

D. Pitta

40

405

10.1

3

H.Miller

39

459

11.8

6

G. Olsen

39

391

10.0

2

J. Witten

35

347

9.9

1

O. Daniels

34

352

10.4

5

T. Gonzalez

33

368

11.2

2

J. Graham

31

356

11.5

5

J. Cumberland

29

359

12.4

3

A. Gates

24

389

16.2

2

V. Davis

20

265

13.3

3

All of this isn't to say Cumberland is destined to become a tight end on the level of the best in the league. That remains very much in doubt. It's more to say, based on his performance thus far, it shouldn't be ruled out. The next year or two will tell the tale, but it is still well within the realm of possibility that Cumberland blossoms into a stud tight end like many of the best tight ends have after posting inaugural results virtually indistinguishable from Cumberland's.

Maybe, just maybe, the Jets actually had a plan when they didn’t address the tight end position in the offseason. Maybe the reason they didn’t pursue Keller was because they felt they already had a tight end who was about to develop into something BETTER than Keller in 2013. In a year in which the Jets have had to cobble together a roster on a shoestring, a year in which the offense appears to offer fans little to get excited about, there is a small chance that Jeff Cumberland represents an exciting developing story. Maybe the last 5 games of 2012 were a mirage, a random statistical blip. But maybe they were only a small taste of things to come. Maybe Cumberland in 2013 finally makes use of those freakish height weight speed measurables he’s always had and becomes what he rightfully should be – too fast for any linebacker to cover and too big and strong for any defensive back – a true matchup nightmare. The sample size is much too small, and if we count on it we’re liable to be disappointed, but there is at least some hope buried in Cumby’s "second season" 2012 numbers. Hope that he steps up, demands acknowledgement as one of the game’s best tight ends, and proclaims to the entire league with the force of his play, "I AM CUMBY, _____!" (Well, you know how to fill in the blank).

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