After a 2019 season lost to suspension and injuries, expectations were high for Jets tight end Chris Herndon entering 2020. Everything seemed to be in place for a breakout season. His head coach Adam Gase even referred to him as a “unicorn.”
Instead for most of 2020 Herndon has performed at a level below replacement level. Through 10 games he has only 16 catches for 133 yards and a single touchdown. On 2 of those 16 catches he has fumbled the ball. He also has 4 drops on 27 total targets, a ridiculous 14.8% drop rate.
What has happened to Herndon?
It would be easy to say expectations were too high. Herndon earned high marks for a rookie season where he registered 39 catches for 502 yards and 4 touchdows. Were fans and analysts overrating numbers that look somewhat pedestrian?
To put it simply, I don’t think so. Tight end is a position where transitions tend to be slow. You might not think 502 yards is spectacular, but that 2018 season made Herndon one of only thirteen rookie tight ends since 2000 to post at least 500 receiving yards. (Hat tip to Stathead’s search tool.) High expectations seem reasonable in this context.
I understand it has become fashionable to blame Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains for all of the woes on the Jets offense. There are some areas where they have probably received too much blame for problems that are more complex.
That said, I don’t think we can look at Herndon’s lack of production without acknowledging his different usage from his rookie season.
During his rookie season Herndon was used as a deep threat. He was targeted a little more than once a game (18 times) at least 15 yards down the field. In fact almost one-third (32.1%) of his targets were deep. Herndon’s speed and athletic ability were used to stretch the field.
Flash forward to 2020. The Jets have targeted Herndon deep less than once every two games. He has a total of 4 deep targets this season, and only 14.8% of his targets have been deep. (All numbers from Stathead.)
According to Rotoworld, Herndon’s average target in 2018 was 10 yards down the field. In 2020 it has been 6.3 yards.
In addition to being more of a safety valve in the passing game, Herndon has simply been taken out of the passing game on a more regular basis. He has been left in to pass protect on almost a quarter of passing snaps, 24.1%. That compares to 16.1% in 2018.
Meanwhile he has aligned the slot or out wide only 22.9% of the time in 2020 vs. 35.8% two years ago as a rookie. (PFF)
It is also noteworthy how little the Jets have involved him in the gameplan in weeks where he could present matchup problems for the opponent.
The Dolphins are 29th against tight ends. Herndon wasn’t targeted once when the Jets played Miami.
Going back to Week 1 the Jets played a Bills team that had four linebackers injured. Herndon did have a season high 7 targets in that game, but the Jets made no effort to test the depleted linebacking corps down the field. Herndon caught 6 of the 7 passes, but they only netted 37 yards.
Herndon’s struggles cannot be solely explained away by his deployment. The drops and the fumbles are also problems. Maybe he is disengaged because of the way the Jets are using him. That still isn’t much of an excuse. There are no guarantees in this league. Many of those thirteen tight ends I mentioned with 500 yards as rookies peaked in their first year and never again matched that production.
But talking about Herndon seems timely because Sunday’s game against the Chargers offered a glimpse of what he can provide when the Jets actually make an effort to utilize his skills.
I think it is also important to note a similar pattern exists for a similar player involving this same coaching staff.
Prior to the 2018 season then Dolphins head coach Adam Gase spoke about how tight end Mike Gesicki needed to work on his blocking. He then declared that he had a plan for Gesicki.
Gesicki caught only 22 passes for 202 yards under Gase in 2018. He was targeted deep only 6 times all season. In total 18.8 percent of his targets were deep.
In 2020 Gesicki has 17 deep targets in 10 games. 37% of his targets as deep. The Dolphins have essentially disregarded his blocking, lining him up in the slot over 70% of the time. He now ranks eighth in the league in yards at the tight end position. His offensive coordinator is Chan Gailey, a former Jets coordinator who was frequently derided by fans for not understanding how to utilize tight ends during his time with the team.
Herndon has to own a lot of the disappointment for this season, but the numbers tell a story. It certainly seems like part of the reason he has failed to make an impact is the Jets have not put him in a position to make an impact. The history of this coaching staff shows a similar pattern with another player. Few things prevent a player from producing more than a coaching staff with rigid roles that fails to adapt its system to the talent it has.