Welcome to the Spotlight. Here we spotlight one key player for each game of the season, hopefully putting a different player in the spotlight each week. Today's player in the spotlight is tight end Neal Sterling.
Neal Sterling is a 26 year old, 6' 4", 260 pound tight end out of Monmouth University. Sterling is a local guy, having grown up down the shore (why is it that only New Jersey residents refer to the beach as “down the shore”?) in Belmar, New Jersey. He played his high school ball at Manasquan High School and went on to star at Monmouth University.
At Monmouth Sterling was a jumbo wide receiver, following in the footsteps of fellow Monmouth grad and Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin. Neal Sterling amassed 202 receptions for 2,615 yards and 22 touchdowns as a four year starter at Monmouth, an FCS school. Then weighing 235 pounds and running his forty yard dash in the 4.6 range Sterling lacked the physical traits of a typical NFL wide receiver, but had the body to grow into a role as a tight end. The Jacksonville Jaguars saw the potential and drafted Sterling with the 220th overall pick in the 7th round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Coming from an FCS school, making a position switch, and learning the ropes at tight end, a position notorious for a steep development curve at the NFL level, Neal Sterling struggled to make an impact with the Jaguars. He registered no catches in nine games in his rookie year, and did only a bit better his second year, putting up 12 receptions for 110 yards as he adjusted to life as an NFL tight end. Jacksonville gave up on the project after the 2016 season and the Jets signed Sterling for the 2017 season. He once again took a back seat as Austin Seferian-Jenkins held down the starting move tight end position. On New Year’s Eve, 2017, in the last game of the 2017 season, Sterling finally got his shot with the Jets, drawing the start in the absence of an injured Seferian-Jenkins. Sterling made the most of his opportunity, putting up a career high 74 yards on five receptions against the New England Patriots and leading all Jets receivers on the day.
Sterling rode the momentum of his breakout performance to the strongest offseason of any Jets tight end and earned the starting job in training camp. Now four years into his career the 2018 season is likely a make or break opportunity for Neal Sterling. If Sterling fails to break out this season he probably never will. On the other hand, Sterling now has a starting job for the first time in his career, and a strong performance this season could set him up for continuing success in the NFL.
On Sunday Neal Sterling and the Jets face the Miami Dolphins, a team that struggles to cover tight ends. Last year tight ends lit up the Dolphins defense to the tune of 1,004 yards and 10 touchdowns. This year in their first game of the season against the Tennessee Titans tight ends put up another 101 yards. If ever there was a matchup custom fit for Sterling to exploit, the Miami Dolphins fit the bill.
If Neal Sterling and the other Jets tight ends can exploit the soft underbelly of the Dolphins defense the Jets should be able to find success moving the football all afternoon. On the other hand if the Dolphins shut down Sterling and the other Jets tight ends the Jets may find it difficult to move the ball through the air on a good Dolphins secondary.
The Jets home opener presents the Jets with the opportunity to stay in first place in the AFC East. If the Patriots lose to a tough Jacksonville squad, the Jets could even find themselves in sole possession of first place for the first time in what feels like forever. Neal Sterling should be in a favorable position to help the Jets secure a win. If Sterling aces this test the Jets should be able to put enough points up to come out with a victory, and Sterling might have found himself a new home as a starting tight end in the NFL. If Sterling is unable to rise to the occasion the Jets might have some trouble moving the ball, and the Dolphins might find themselves escaping MetLife in first place.
Neal Sterling, this has been a long time coming. This is what you’ve dreamed of. At home with a favorable matchup in your home state, it’s time to step into the spotlight and stake your claim as a starting tight end in the NFL. Show ‘em what you’ve got kid.