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A Look Back at Chris Herndon

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Episode 3 in a series

Green Bay Packers v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Chris Herndon a Look Back

Chris Herndon came to the Jets as a 4th round pick (#107) in the 2018 NFL Draft after a knee injury ended his final season at Miami early. Herndon has good size 6’ 4” 255 lbs and long arms. He has plus athletic ability with good speed for his size and a long stride that has the ability to challenge defenders down the seam. He is a better than average in-line run and pass blocker with the ability to be a threat in all three levels of the defense as a pass catcher. He is also very dangerous on tight end screens or wide in bubble screens with both speed and power to turn a short gain into a big play.

As a rookie with the Jets Herndon started slow, catching only 5 balls on 7 targets in the team’s first 5 games. He then started getting more involved in Week 6, catching two passes for 56 yards and a TD. That started a string of 3 where that Herndon caught a TD, which in turn got him more targets. He then produced at a high level for a rookie TE. Herndon ended the year with 39 receptions and 4 TDs while catching 69.6% of his targets. The receptions and TDs were the league high for all rookie tight ends in 2018. In fact, Herndon developed so much in 2018 that Bill Belichick focused on taking him out of the game in the season finale (through tough coverages) which resulted in Chris only getting 3 targets in that Week 17 game.

Rookie tight ends are notoriously poor producers in the NFL. Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez in his first year only had 33 receptions on 54 targets (61.1% catch rate) and 2 TDs, and Herndon topped him.

Herndon is smart with a deep passion for the game. His work ethic and dedication were noticed by both Sam Darnold and Josh McCown. In his first 6 games he averaged only 1.5 targets a game, but in his last 10 games he averaged 4.7 targets a game. In fact it was McCown who showed Darnold how to use Herndon. In McCown’s 3 starts while Sam was recovering from injury Herndon was targeted 18 times.

Herndon usually runs a designed route or is in a position for a dump off pass should Sam not find an open receiver. On this play Herndon is running just a short 6 yard out when Sam has to escape the pocket because of pressure and race towards the sideline.

You see Herndon at the first down line as the play progresses. As Sam races towards the sideline two defenders in the secondary come screaming up to stop him from running for a first down. Your natural instinct as a receiver is when your QB is scrambling you break off your route and come back to the QB. Yet with defenders rushing toward Sam, Herndon realized the best way to find an open space in the defense is to go further from the QB; which he did. He finds an open area, Sam hits him, and the result is a broken play turning into a 26 yard gain for the Jets. This is two young players improvising and making a play.

This is basically the same play run to the opposite side of the field. Herndon runs a simple 6 yard out. Sam scrambles this time to his left. Herndon finds an open spot between 3 players. Sam makes an off balanced throw that is right on the money. Herndon hauls in the pass and gets a helmet in his ear hole for his trouble.

This is nice work from two young players who are developing chemistry. These were two plays that could have resulted in a throw away or a sack. When you make 26 and 15 yards on two unscripted plays it develops a growing trust factor between QB and TE that will just keep growing over time.

The life of a rookie TE in the NFL is surprisingly difficult for players to handle. Even Hall of Fame players over the years have all had very slow learning curves. Learning a new offense, different formations, blocking assignments, a diverse route tree (both inline and in the slot). Additionally, positions on either end of the line have completely different assignments. So when the offense flips the strong side of the formation they are counting on that TE to do his job.

Here is a late game situation. The Jets need big plays against a zone defense which is trying to prevent big plays.

Herndon is able to find and sit down in a hole in the zone. He makes the catch between 3 defenders. He knows he is going to be crushed once he catches the ball. He is able to power forward for an additional 5 yards while the defenders try and rip the ball from his hands. The result was a 21 yard gain which is a great start to the two minute drive.

Chris has a well-defined skill set with a great understanding of how to use it. He has very good long speed that the Jets did not try to utilize much in 2018. I believe you will see many more routes down the seam, intermediate areas and deep patterns in 2019.

Herndon moves so well that you don’t realize he is 6’4 255 lbs with a big physical body that can box out defenders much like a basketball player. But he can also run like a big WR. Here he is working as an inline receiver covered by All Pro Harrison Smith. Smith is playing off the outside shoulder of Herndon allowing him an inside release. Herndon takes full advantage of that, and once he crosses Smith’s face there is nothing Smith can do to prevent the completion except interfere. The other safety, George Iloka, tries to pop the ball out with a flying tackle, but it does little to the big tight end.

In the second replay you can see just how much bigger Herndon is against Smith. Harrison Smith a a huge safety at 6’ 2” and 215 lbs. and Herndon makes him look small. Smith was the #14 ranked safety (per PFF) in 2018 . Here he either played too soft or was looking for a slightly deeper drop by the ILBs to take away the passing lane. When the defense is pushed up against the end zone, assignments change quite a bit depending on the call.

In the same game Herndon is playing in the slot covered by strong safety Jayron Kearse this time. Herndon gives the safety a little lean like he is going to the post, and it gives him a wide open area in the flat. He is very aware of where he is on the field and has the dexterity to try and keep his feet in bounds as he reaches the ball to the pylon.

Herndon was impressive even as a rookie with his ability to get open and his solid hands. Coming out of Miami it was reported (erroneously) that he had poor catching ability even though tape showed something different. Chris is a very hard worker, and the coaches were happily surprised to see his maturity and work ethic.

The Jets former coaching staff (and in particular TE coach Jimmy Johnson) truly loved what Herndon brought to the table and thought he was a playmaker who would be a offensive strength for the Jets for the next decade. Johnson was quoted as saying “He’s a ball, he’s always focused on football. He’s more of a focused or serious dude. He doesn’t have a whole lot of nonsense... doesn’t want to play (around) too much. I try to lighten the mood with him every now and then, but he just loves to compete. He loves playing football. That’s good to have that type of person in the room.”

In the upset of the Colts Herndon shows some of that big play ability playing as a wide receiver on the outside. In this play the Colts are sure that this is going to be a bubble screen to Robby Anderson, and Herndon is on the outside only to block, which leaves him uncovered. That was a mistake.

Herndon was a high school wide receiver so he is used to playing on the boundary. He also is at home running in the open field. He is not some lumbering behemoth looking to run into someone. He has speed and skills with the ability to drop his pads and run someone over if he needs to. He is the type of athlete at the TE position who can be a factor in intermediate areas and even the deep levels of the defense.

This next clip is of a 16 yard out that is being run standing up like a wide receiver against the best defense in the NFL in 2018. Because he is a TE he is picked up by a LB in coverage which is a mismatch and Sam knows it.In fact Sam actually stares him down the whole way. He doesn’t even give a cursory look to another receiver.

With a few more routes like this, defenses will be forced to put at least a safety on Herndon or risk getting chunk plays 4 or 5 times a game. Herndon himself expects that and wants to be a bigger part of the offense. He said recently, “I want to improve from last year. I want to continue to do what they [the coaches] ask of me and even more. Just try to be that player that takes that next step and be more dependable in games and try to put more on my shoulders and more on myself to hold myself more accountable.” The kid is 23 years old and sounds more like a 10 year veteran.

This next route is interesting because it has the appearance of a seam route and aspects of a back shoulder throw just not on the sideline. This play Herndon was covered by a strong safety Will Redmond who is small for a SS. This was a difficult cover for him against a man the size of Herndon. The throw to the back of Herndon was perfect, with Redmond in front of him there was no way the SS could make a play on the ball.

You can see Herndon just muscles Redmond out of the way. Redmond (5’ 11” 186 lbs) shows you the difficulties Herndon causes in coverage. A man too big like a SAM LB does not have the speed and agility to cover Herndon while most safeties don’t have enough size to prevail in coverage. Herndon is a matchup nightmare that will only be more obvious once the Jets start using him in all three levels of the defense.

I mentioned earlier the notion that Herndon had suspect hands. NFL.com scout Lance Zierlein called his hands “Inconsistent.” I really didn’t see that in the games I watched. In the same game against the Packers Sam Darnold over shoots his pass leading Herndon into a freight train named safety Josh Jones.

Herndon athletically pulls the ball into his body quickly then is able to avoid a crushing hit by moving slightly inside of Jones. This was Sam’s fault all the way. You see Herndon doing the right thing by slowing down and settling into a soft spot in the zone. You can tell it is a zone as all the coverage men drop way back just before the snap. Sam has to learn to read the coverages and know that receivers will sit in zones (in open spaces) They will continue to run only against man coverage. Never lead a man into a safety or linebacker. As Sam matures he will read this much easier to avoid any possible catastrophes.

This last clip is of another nice catch Herndon made on a Darnold pass that is thrown directly into coverage. This is a throw off Darnold’s back foot to a spot occupied by safety Malik Hooker who is a quality athlete and excellent in coverage when he isn’t hurt.

Hooker ends up turning himself around. In the process he wrong foots himself so he is not in position to jump high enough to deflect the pass. Herndon shows good hands and great concentration to haul in the ill advised throw.

After a very slow start to the year Herndon finished the #5 overall graded TE in PFF behind only Kittle, Kelce, Cook, and Ertz. Herndon was the top rookie. He was also the top rookie in receptions, yards and TDs in a offense that wasn’t considered explosive and also with a rookie QB.

If Sam can continue to improve like he did in the last four games the offense can be more dynamic and Chris Herndon should be a big part of that.

We will have to be patient somewhat and remember that Sam and Chris and all of last years offensive rookies are going to be using their third offensive system in the last three years so it will take time for all parties to get a feel for the offense. Anytime you change coaching staffs there is going to be a learning curve, and everyone doesn’t learn at the same rate.

Also there is the specter of a suspension hanging over Chris which was handed down recently; it stands at 4 games right now pending appeal.

If Sam and Chris can both stay healthy this relationship could be the start of something that will last for more than a decade; the new version of Rivers and Gates.

I certainly hope so.

Now Looking forward, this is a compilation of short interviews with Chris Herndon during and shortly after OTAs.

When asked about what was different this year coming into camp this year as compared to his rookie year?

“Just knowing what to expect and going into this offseason. I had a strict diet, a strict training regiment that I like and just taking the classroom more seriously, taking notes, studying more and asking more questions I thought has definitely helped me right now.”

What are his impressions of the Adam Gase offense?

“Just from the jump we are taking shot down the field and using everybody with everybody getting a chance to touch the ball and you know you just feel a different energy out there. We are just trying to keep this momentum we have right now going into the next day, let this translate to the next camp and go into the season.”

On how he and Sam Darnold on field relationship developed so far?

“I just feel like we are both working really hard, really detailed in our work, extra studying and just going onto the field more prepared.”

What did you want to focus on to get better this year for the 2019 saeson?

“Just being detailed in my work, working on my flexibility to help me with my running and strength to help me with my inline blocking because I’m in there as well so just a few details that hopefully I feel are going to work for me that I feel I did pretty good at.”

Among those details have you noticed improvements on the field so far when you have been out here?

Yea you know even my conditioning this year I took it upon myself to do extra running after workout and even after workout here. Even after I go home I am always trying to find a way to get work in, I feel like it’s really helping me.”

On what the Additions of LeVeon Bell and Jamison Crowder add to this offense?

“Just the ability to make plays, you know you watch their film and both of them seem to be reliable people, always around the ball making plays and being there when their team needs them the most and that’s what matters. We just can’t wait till the season starts just to get everything rolling.”

On how he achieved his rookie success

“Staying focused and not being complacent. Not trying to focus on what I did the previous week or the previous play and having the next-up mentality for the next play. Trying to bring my all to each practice, each workout, each meeting, and hoping it translated to the game. I feel like it worked pretty well for me.”

What challenges does the new playbook bring?

“Really just staying on top of it; you never know what’s going to be thrown in the next day, so before you move on you have to make sure you have what you learned today down because it’s not going to slow down any more than it already is. So staying on top of things and constantly studying and constantly asking questions and making sure that you’re not making the same mistakes from the previous practice will help.”

On how he can improve his preparation in 2019?

“You could have all the skill in the world, but if you don’t know what to do, you’re not really going to get much playing time. Before you can get out there and make plays, you have to know where to be and that’s probably the most important part.”

You can’t help but be impressed by Herndon when you see him in interviews. He is only 23 years old but he has the persona of a 10 year veteran who is trying to become an All-Pro. Chris Herndon brings a lot of athleticism with a workman like mentality to the tight end position. His coach Adam Gase called him a “Unicorn type of player” because of his abilities in all phases of the offense. He appears to be a dedicated young man who wants to be the best player he can be; and he can be pretty darn good.

What do you think?