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NY Jets: Will The Tight Ends Step Up?

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets tight ends as a group had by far the least production of any tight end group in the NFL during the Chan Gailey years. New offensive coordinator John Morton seems likely to try to get the tight ends more involved. However, the lack of production in recent years went beyond scheme. The Jets tight ends simply weren't very good. General Manager Mike Maccagnan went about the task of attempting to fix the position over the past year. Every tight end on the current roster was not with Jets on opening day of 2016. It's been a total overhaul of the position. Let's take a look at the current group of tight ends on the roster and see if there is much hope for an upgrade.

The Incumbent

The incumbent starting tight end for the Jets is Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ASJ). ASJ will open the season with a two game suspension. When he gets back he will be under some pressure to produce, as his career thus far has been a disappointment.

Seferian-Jenkins is a 6' 5", 260 pound tight end out of the University of Washington. ASJ had a very productive junior year at Washington, catching 69 passes for 850 yards and seven touchdowns. He regressed his senior year, catching only 36 passes for 450 yards and eight touchdowns. In his senior campaign ASJ was suspended for a game for a DUI conviction, suffered a broken pinkie which required surgery, and played through a stress fracture in his right foot which ultimately required surgery and prevented him from working out at the NFL combine. The senior year issues were foreshadowing for Seferian-Jenkins' NFL career to date.

ASJ was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 38th overall pick in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. Like most tight ends ASJ struggled early and ended his rookie season with just 21 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the modest production ASJ finished his rookie year with virtually the same production as fellow rookies Richard Rodgers and Eric Ebron, who trailed only the Jets' Jace Amaro among rookie tight ends.  ASJ did so despite missing seven games due to injuries.  ASJ missed two games early with complications involving his surgically repaired foot, and he missed the last five games of the 2014 season with a back injury.  Despite all this ASJ led all Tampa Bay tight ends in receiving yards.

2015 saw improvement on the field, and more injuries keeping ASJ off the field.  ASJ started the 2015 season with a bang, going for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener before injuring his shoulder in the second game of the season. ASJ missed the next nine games before coming back in game 12.  He finished leading all Tampa Bay tight ends in receiving yards and touchdowns in the 2015 season despite playing only seven games. His final 2015 numbers of 21 catches for 338 yards and four touchdowns are modest. However, prorated for a full 16 game season those numbers look like a tight end on the verge of stardom. Had ASJ managed to stay healthy all 16 games and maintain the same production he would have finished ninth among NFL tight ends in yards, tied for fourth in touchdowns, and second only to Rob Gronkowski in yards per catch.  ASJ's prorated numbers would have led all sophomore tight ends in all three categories.

By 2016 Tampa Bay became disenchanted with ASJ's inability to stay on the field, his indifferent blocking efforts and his struggles with alcohol. After two games in 2016 with the Buccaneers ASJ was arrested on a DUI charge. It was the last straw in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers cut ASJ and the Jets signed him.  ASJ made his Jets debut in the fifth game of the 2016 season, and promptly injured his ankle, missing four of the next five games.  ASJ also ended the season early with a hamstring injury in the 15th game of the year.  ASJ finished the 2016 season playing in only nine games, which was nonetheless a career high. In three NFL seasons ASJ has missed time with injuries to his foot, back, shoulder, ankle and hamstring. When he comes back from his two game suspension to start the 2017 season ASJ will have missed exactly half of his 50 NFL games to that point with injuries and suspensions. On the field he has shown signs of becoming a top pass catching tight end. ASJ's blocking has been a disappointment for a man his size, but his work as a receiver has been promising, if he can just manage to stay on the field. However, missing half of your first 50 games does not tend to endear you to coaches. 2017 may be ASJ's last chance to prove he can stay healthy and productive on the field. If he manages to do so ASJ has the talent and in limited games an emerging track record that suggests he can become a good, maybe even excellent NFL receiving tight end. However if ASJ again proves unable to stay on the field in 2017 this may be his last chance as an NFL starter. Sooner or later teams move on from players who spend too much time on the exercise bike. ASJ's time may soon run out.

Current reports out of Jets camp are that ASJ is a new man.  He has shed 30+ pounds, has quit drinking, and looks like the best receiver on the field for the Jets. Time will tell if the changes stick and if ASJ can finally shake the injury bug, but if things go right there is reason to believe ASJ could develop into a top tight end and the best target on the Jets in 2017.

The Rookie

IF ASJ doesn't work out as a receiving tight end the next man up is likely to be 2017 fifth round draft choice Jordan Leggett. Leggett is a 6' 5", 258 pound rookie out of Clemson. As a junior at Clemson Leggett had 40 catches for 525 yards and eight touchdowns. He topped that with his senior numbers of 46 catches for 736 yards and seven touchdowns for Clemson's 2016 National Champion team. Leggett has all the physical attributes of an outstanding NFL tight end. He has prototypical size for the position, enormous hands, and runs a 4.7 forty, a nice time for a man his size. Legget has outstanding lateral quickness for a man his size, having run the third fastest tight end short shuttle at the NFL Combine, despite being one of the biggest tight ends in the draft. Leggett has tremendous body control and the ability to make in air adjustments on the ball. Leggett also developed a reputation for shining brightest in the biggest games. There is a lot to like about Leggett as a prospect. There are also some troubling things. Leggett developed a reputation in college for being lazy and for disappearing in games he wasn't excited about. He also has been a poor, disinterested blocker throughout his college career. Leggett has all the raw tools to develop into a special, dual threat traditional tight end, but it remains to be seen if the Jets can manage to get Leggett to realize his full potential. With ASJ on the sidelines serving a suspension the first two games of the season it will likely fall to Leggett to fill his shoes as the Jets number one tight end. That's a lot to ask of the rookie; we'll see if he can rise to the challenge.

The Veteran Pickup

The Jets picked up veteran tight end Chris Gragg less than two weeks ago. Gragg is a 6' 3", 250 pound athletic freak out of the University of Arkansas. Gragg was originally drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. At the 2013 NFL Combine Gragg wowed people with a 4.5 forty yard dash, a 37.5" vertical leap, and a 125 inch long jump. It was a tour de force.  As a point of reference, if Gragg had competed against the uber talented 2017 tight end draft class those numbers would have been the second fastest forty time, the third highest vertical, and the fourth longest long jump at the combine. Gragg is a superb athlete. As a football player, however, he has yet to put it all together. Over three years in Buffalo Gragg played in 32 games and caught 24 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. His best year was in 2015 when he had 12 catches for 150 yards and did a good job blocking. Suffice it to say Gragg has not to date lived up to his athletic potential.

Chris Gragg missed the entire 2016 season after he tore his ACL last August. He became an unrestricted free agent when the Bills failed to re-sign him and the Jets picked him up when his knee returned to full health. Prior to the injury Gragg was drawing rave reviews in Bills camp in 2016, and there were hopes he was finally finding his way in the NFL. While his body of work to date is underwhelming, the tight end position is a notoriously difficult position to develop in the NFL, and some guys just take a few years to come into their own. Perhaps Gragg will prove to be a late bloomer. With his off the charts athleticism and his blocking abilities he was at least worth a flier. If the Jets get lucky they might even find themselves with a legitimate dual threat traditional tight end with special athleticism on their hands.

The Project

The Jets signed Jason Vander Laan as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Vander Laan failed to make the team and spent much of the year out of the NFL before being brought back to the Jets practice squad late in December. The Jets reportedly like Vander Laan quite a bit, but he is a raw, long term project.

Jason Vander Laan is a 6' 3", 245 pound former quarterback out of football powerhouse Ferris State. Vander Laan never played tight end at any level of football, but the Jets thought so much of his abilities they signed him anyway and went about trying to convert the quarterback into a tight end. Watching his college tape visions of Tim Tebow come to mind, without the groupies and without the reluctance to change positions. Vander Laan's best athletic attribute is his running ability. He ran sparkling short shuttle and three cone drill times of 4.16 and 6.76 at his pro day, numbers that would have put him among the elite had he been at the NFL Combine as a tight end. It is difficult to imagine somebody who was never asked to block, run a route or catch a football his entire football career until he reached the NFL contributing much after spending nearly his entire rookie season out of the NFL. Realistically Vander Laan is probably at best a year away from competing at the NFL level. Nonetheless, the Jets seem to like him, he is a tough, relentless competitor with some running ability, and there may be an extra opening with ASJ sidelined for the first two weeks of the season. Maybe Vander Laan surprises and makes the team out of the gate.

The Blocker

Of the five tight ends on the Jets roster Eric Tomlinson is the only one it is difficult to conjure up any scenario where he excels in the NFL. Tomlinson is a lumbering 6' 6", 265 pound blocking tight end out of UTEP. Tomlinson ran an offensive line-esque 4.98 forty yard time coming out of college. Suffice it to say Tomlinson is not viewed as an elite athlete or major receiving threat at the tight end position. Tomlinson, if he makes the team, would have the role of a traditional blocking tight end.  He has the prototypical size and strength for such a role, but Tomlinson simply isn't a good blocker. His technique is poor, he fails to engage much too frequently, he does not use good leverage, he whiffs at an alarming rate, he lunges when he should be squaring up; he just struggles mightily to do the one job asked of him.  The Jets thought enough of Tomlinson to bring him back after he had a minor role in 2016. Perhaps he will prove me wrong and develop into a plus NFL blocker. However, the best scenario for the Jets would be for Tomlinson not to make the team because one of the other guys, all of whom have far more promise in the passing game, proves a better blocker and makes Tomlinson superfluous.

The Outlook

Because the Jets are so painfully thin at wide receiver there is an opportunity here for a couple of the tight ends to step up and become major weapons in this offense. That would be especially helpful if one of the young quarterbacks becomes the starter, as a good tight end catching outlet passes can be a young quarterback's security blanket. The obvious candidate to step up and become a major threat in the passing game is a seemingly rejuvenated and re-dedicated ASJ. If he can permanently tame his alcohol demons and manage to beat the injury bug ASJ has the ability to emerge and develop into one of the finest tight ends the Jets have ever had. It's a lot to ask of the oft injured ASJ, but there is promise there, especially considering the glowing reports coming out of training camp. ASJ just might be the surprise of the season and the savior of the passing attack.

Jordan Leggett and Chris Gragg represent two more tight ends with special athletic talents. Leggett will battle rookie growing pains and a poor reputation, and Gragg will fight to show he is fully healthy and finally ready to deliver on his enormous athletic gifts. These two might be long shots to deliver the goods in 2017, but combined with ASJ it is difficult to remember a time when the Jets had such an athletic trio of tight ends in camp. Maybe Leggett proves precocious, or Gragg finally puts it all together. There is potential here to surprise on the upside in a big way, more so than perhaps at any other position on the team.

The 2017 Jets have all sorts of questions in the passing game. With a little good fortune the tight ends have the potential to provide some unexpectedly positive answers.