Candidates: Kellen Winslow II, Jeff Cumberland, Hayden Smith
Background: There was a pretty consistent theme among the free agents John Idzik signed during his first offseason as general manager of the Jets. In many cases, the players signed have quality resumes but came cheaply because they are major injury risks. That is the case with Kellen Winslow II. The former 1,100 yard receiving tight end had a single reception in 2012 due in part to a knee condition. Winslow has the best track record by far of any tight end in Jets camp. Jeff Cumberland, had 29 catches 359 yards, and 3 touchdowns last year is also in the mix. Cumberland got extensive playing time in 2012 due to Dustin Keller's injury but did not impress the team enough to prevent the Winslow signing. Second year player Hayden Smith, an Australian converted rugby star, was this year's obligatory project player who lit up OTA's. Given the lack of depth at the position, he could earn himself some significant playing time with a strong training camp and preseason.
Handicapping the battle: Winslow is a capable receiver. Even though the knee condition seems to have robbed him of some of his explosiveness, he is an excellent route runner and has good hands. The state of the receiving corps is such that Winslow might be asked to play a leading role. It says more about the Jets than about Winslow that he could be a go to guy in this offense. However, a tight end can be a good safety blanket for a rookie quarterback.
Cumberland had a golden opportunity to assert himself last year given the state of the receiving options. He failed to do so, and one cannot simply say nobody could have succeeded with the quarterback play the Jets had. Jeremy Kerley made the most of his chance. Cumberland is speedy and athletic. He can give slower linebackers and safeties problems, but he also runs sloppy routes, has trouble with physical play, and is poor as a run blocker. Give Jeff credit. He has made much more of a career for himself than most undrafted free agents do, but he still needs to get a lot better to make a real difference. Maybe he will be better off as a number two option at the position.
Smith is a total unknown.
JB's optimal use: I hate having to play amateur doctor, especially without knowing the specifics of a player's condition. With that said, the reports about Winslow's knee indicates there is still probably an issue. While he is the best tight end on the roster if healthy, the Jets will probably need to limit his use. He and Cumberland are similar players. They are receiving threats who do not block particularly well. Cumberland could be something of a caddy for Winslow. Winslow should probably be kept on a pitch count because of his knee. Given his track record, I would like to see the Jets play Kellen as much as possible and have Cumberland come in when a rest is in order. Hopefully Winslow can take Cumberland under his wing also and teach the younger player how to refine his game. Unfortunately, Jeff is not a strong blocker, which could help him get on the field in two tight end sets.
Even so, I think the Jets should utilize a formation maybe one drive a week with Kerley at receiver, Mike Goodson at running back, Tommy Bohanon at fullback, and Winslow and Cumberland at tight end. The Jets do not have much talent at wide receiver so only having one will not be a major issue. The two backs and two tight ends on this roster are all adept pass catchers. Let the defensive personnel dictate what happens. If the defense plays a base set with four defensive backs, split everybody wide. Create a matchup between an athletic back or tight end with a slow linebacker. If they go small and put extra defensive backs on the field, go small and pound it. The tight ends might not be great blockers, but they can surely handle defensive backs. A Kerley/Goodson/Bohanon/Cumberland/Winslow set will not strike fear into anybody's heart, but the Jets are going to have to get creative and try to create some favorable matchups to move the ball.
As far as Smith goes, it is best to keep expectations low. If he is genuinely becoming a quality NFL player, that would be great. It would sure help the Jets. He is still a project, though. Most do not pan out, even if they get great reviews at OTA's. Do not expect much from the Aussie, and view anything he contributes as a bonus.