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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Deontay?

Green Bay Packers v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Wide receiver Deontay Burnett presents an interesting conundrum for the Jets and perhaps an example of NFL roster building.

Burnett is a 6’ 0”, 186 pound wide receiver for the New York Jets. He went undrafted out of USC in 2018, where he teamed up with Jets quarterback Sam Darnold and did some great things together. Burnett played in five games for the Jets in 2018, picking up 10 catches good for 143 yards and zero touchdowns. He has good hands and a good feel for finding the soft spots in a zone defense. Burnett is not overly physically gifted, lacking prototypical NFL size or speed. At his size Burnett is probably relegated solely to a slot receiver role in the NFL. This last item may prove crucial when the Jets determine Burnett’s fate in a few days as roster cuts loom

As the 2019 training camp and pre-season action has progressed it has become more and more commonplace to project Burnett making the 53 man roster as the fourth wide receiver on the team behind Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder and Quincy Enunwa. There are some indications the Jets view Burnett as the fourth best wide receiver on the roster, though it is far from certain. At times Deonte Thompson, Josh Bellamy, Greg Dortch and even Tim White have been talked up as perhaps at least equal to Burnett. However, for the purposes of argument, let’s assume Burnett is indeed the fourth best wide receiver on the Jets’ roster. Does that assure him a spot on the 53 man roster?

This is where roster construction comes in. Assuming Burnett is the fourth best wide receiver, what is the role an NFL team is likely to ask the WR4 to play? There are, I think, multiple aspects to this.

The first role of a WR4 is in the event all three wide receivers ahead of him are healthy and otherwise available. In this case the WR4 gets on the field in situations largely limited to four and five wide receiver sets. In some situations, if the WR4 has some particularly outstanding physical skills that present a mismatch for NFL defense, like a scary fast guy or a monstrously big guy, an NFL team might design specific packages of plays for the WR4. Burnett doesn’t really fit this profile, so it’s likely his role, assuming all the other receivers are healthy, is limited to four and five wide receiver sets.

Now let’s think about what happens if the Jets want to go four wide. Presumably you’re not taking Le’Veon Bell off the field to get Burnett in. When Chris Herndon comes back it is also difficult to envision a lot of situations where you’d want Burnett in over Herndon. But suppose, for some reason, you prefer four wide receivers to three wide receivers plus Herndon. What then? Well, I think we have to consider the Jets also happen to have Ty Montgomery on the team. How likely is it, if the Jets want to go four wide, that the Jets prefer Burnett on the field rather than Montgomery? Montgomery began his NFL career as a wide receiver and, in my eyes, he is a better receiver than Burnett and fully capable of running any routes Burnett can run. So it would appear that Burnett has little if any value in four wide sets.

How about five wide receiver sets? This situation may have a role for Burnett, but if so it is probably an extremely minor role. For the Jets to go five wide and get Burnett in there, they’d have to prefer to put Burnett on the field over both Le’veon Bell and Chris Herndon. While it’s possible a package exists where the Jets like Burnett in there over both Herndon and Bell, it seems unlikely. Even if such a package does exist, how often would such a situation arise? One would assume it would be so rare as to carry virtually zero value in determining whether Burnett should have a roster spot.

Now let’s talk about the other situation the WR4 comes into play, namely, injuries, suspensions or other situations where one of the top three receivers is unavailable. Taking this player by player, what happens if Robby Anderson or Quincy Enunwa goes down? Would the Jets want to slide Burnett into the lineup? That seems questionable. Burnett is likely strictly a slot receiver. If Anderson or Enunwa goes down, in all likelihood the Jets would prefer that Ty Montgomery fill in on the outside. If for any reason Montgomery isn’t available, Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy, while hardly ideal, both seem more suited to an outside receiver role than Burnett.

What if Jamison Crowder goes down? Here would seem to be a scenario where Burnett adds value, but all is not what it might seem. If Crowder goes down, certainly Burnett could slide into the slot. But so could Greg Dortch, who seems all but certain to make the team as a punt returner. Dortch has, at times during training camp, slotted in ahead of Burnett as the backup slot receiver. So even if, as seems probable, Burnett is ahead of Dortch right now, it is probably safe to say the Jets view it as a fairly close call. And if Dortch is close behind Burnett as a slot receiver, how much marginal value does Burnett provide? How much would the Jets lose if Dortch were to fill in as the slot receiver rather than Burnett? It seems the marginal value here is pretty minimal. In addition, Quincy Enunwa might easily slide into the slot role, with Bellamy or Thompson filling in outside, if Crowder goes down. While far from ideal, it isn’t clear that is much of a downgrade from having Burnett in the slot and Enunwa outside, particularly in light of the fact that Enunwa has had his most success in the NFL operating out of the slot. Finally, Ty Montgomery is probably a flat out superior option to Burnett in the slot if Crowder were to go down. Given the multiple possibilities for replacing Crowder, it isn’t clear Burnett adds much, if any, marginal value as a slot receiver backup.

We’ve gone down the possibilities of Burnett’s role as a wide receiver, and it appears having him on the roster offers very little in the way of marginal value given the current roster’s construction. Burnett’s value is hurt by the fact that a similar young player in Dortch appears to offer something close to equal value as a receiver while being all but a lock to make the roster, as well as the fact that Quincy Enunwa thrives in the slot and Ty Montgomery is probably better at any receiver role Burnett is likely to fill. The rest comes down to special teams.

Unfortunately for Burnett, he has almost no value on special teams. He has not been used much on kick or punt return or coverage teams. He appears to provide little or no added value as a special teamer. This is in stark contrast to Deonte Thompson, Josh Bellamy, Greg Dortch, and even Tim White and Charone Peake, all of whom have carved out special teams roles. If it comes down to special teams, Burnett is likely the odd man out.

Thus it is possible Deontay Burnett is seen by the Jets as the fourth best pure wide receiver (i.e., not including multi-positional Ty Montgomery) on the roster and he still does not make the team, because roster construction matters. It could be that Burnett is seen as offering little marginal value, while his competitors for a role on the team all have something to offer, at least on special teams. I am not so confident in this that I would bet my next paycheck on it, but don’t be surprised if the way the Jets solve a problem like Deontay is by cutting him and trying to get him on the practice squad. That may be the spot where he provides the most value to this team.