Jeremy Kerley enters 2013 as the best wide receiver the Jets have. There should not be much debate about that. If Santonio Holmes' foot was not giving him problems, we could have a discussion. There seems like a better than even chance, however, we will be watching a diminished Holmes this year if we see him at all.
Kerley's breakout year as a receiver in 2012 was one of the few bright spots on a stagnant Jets offense. That left the question open over how much better he could get. My feeling has been that he might have reached his ceiling with a 56 catch, 827 yard campaign. Why did I feel this way? There are a few reasons. First, Kerley was the only receiver the Jets had during long stretches of the season who had any business seeing regular NFL playing time. The receiving corps changed constantly during the season. It figured a struggling quarterback would funnel the ball to him. It seemed like Kerley would never be in such a favorable situation again. Kerley's 5'9" 188 pound frame also makes it seem unlikely he could hold up as an outside receiver and deal with physical play off the line. He seems typecast for a role in the slot, where he will have room to run. Finally, while Mark Sanchez's play was awful in 2012, Kerley was the one receiver who did not seem to suffer. His 64% catch rate on slot targets was comparable to the numbers Matt Ryan's and Andy Dalton's top slot targets produced.
Kerley profiled to me as a good number three receiver in a quality passing game or a great number four. You wouldn't want to run an offense through him, but he can make you pay dearly if you get too focused on the big guns and pay him too little attention. After looking at some stats, though, I wonder whether I am underselling Kerley.
The Sanchez factor does indeed exist. Perhaps Kerley's high rate of receptions in the slot with Sanchez indicates he would be even better with a good quarterback. This made me take a look at how Kerley compared with other Jets receivers. After crunching Pro Football Focus' numbers, I found that since 2011, Kerley has a reception rate of 65% on targets as a slot receiver. Other Jets receivers only had a 54% rate on slot targets. That is a very significant jump. This might just be a sign that Kerley has a chemistry with Sanchez that would not carry over to another quarterback. It might, however, also indicate that Kerley's numbers could skyrocket with better quarterback play. Even if he falls a bit short Wes Welker or Victor Cruz territory, perhaps the Jets could get a lot more production out of the slot than the average team. Perhaps Kerley could be enough of a weapon to make the slot a staple of the passing attack.
Also of interest is Kerley's play lining up outside last year. Most of his time was spent inside, but the injuries and overall thin receiving corps forced him to slide outside around 8 snaps per game. The results were surprisingly good. Kerley averaged 1.81 receiving yards per route. While that does not put him in Andre Johnson/Calvin Johnson territory, that productivity was roughly in line with what names like Eric Decker and Anquan Boldin did on the outside. I t would be around 30th best in the league for receivers who got at least 25% of their team's targets. Even more amazing, Kerley caught just under 62% of passes as an outside receiver if PFF's numbers are to be believed. Boldin and Decker were in the mid-60's, but they had Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco throwing to them, not Mark Sanchez. Again, could Kerley be more effective with better quarterback play? It is unclear. We are only talking around 120 snaps outside for Kerley so it could be an example of a small sample size. I remain skeptical he would be effective full-time on the outside due to his size, but perhaps he could be a legitimate weapon in two receiver sets if the Jets pick their spots properly and use him here and now.
My gut tells me my initial reaction that Kerley is a supporting player is probably the accurate one. The more I explore, however, the more I feel like I might have sold Kerley's ceiling a bit short. There are not many signs he could be the go to guy on a good passing attack, but certain evidence regarding his 2012 season suggests he might just turn into a good second option, a key weapon, not just an ancillary part.