Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with wide receiver Keelan Cole.
The 27-year old is listed at 6’1” and 194 pounds and was an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017. In four NFL seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he’s caught 159 passes for over 2,200 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Cole caught a career-high 55 passes in 2020.
Cole wasn’t a heavily recruited high school prospect because he was undersized and didn’t play much. He eventually ended up attending Division 2 Kentucky Wesleyan where he redshirted his freshman season in 2012.
In 2013, he started every game and caught 53 passes for 549 yards and six touchdowns, then broke out in his redshirt sophomore season with career best numbers for receptions (75), receiving yardage (1,577) and touchdown receptions (21).
While he wasn’t able to match those numbers in his last two seasons, he came close in all three categories in 2015. As a redshirt senior in 2016, he only caught 57 passes. However, he averaged a career best 24.6 yards per catch to end the season with over 1,400 receiving yards and had 15 touchdown catches for the third year in a row.
Despite his productive college career, Cole was a long-shot to be drafted and eventually was signed as an undrafted free agent for the Jaguars. However, he made a good initial impression in camp and then flashed with a 97-yard touchdown catch in preseason to eventually make the team.
Cole didn’t play much over the first half of the season, but he broke out in the second half. In a late season win over Seattle, he broke out with a career-high 99 receiving yards and a touchdown, then followed that up with a league-high 186 yards and another touchdown in a win over the Texans that basically clinched a playoff spot. He then had another 100-yard game the following week, ending the season with 748 yards on 42 catches.
In 2018, Cole entered the season as a potential breakout star and he got off to a good start with an early season 100-yard game against New England. However, he started having issues with his consistency in the middle of the season and saw his playing time dwindle over the second half. He ended up with 38 catches and just one touchdown.
His 2019 season went similarly, as he struggled to earn regular playing time and lacked consistency, registering a career-low in receptions (24) and yards (361).
In 2020, he was signed to a second-round restricted free agent tender and rediscovered his form. Playing in more of a possession role, Cole ended the year with a career high 55 catches and also had a career-best five touchdown catches.
The Jets signed Cole to an incentive-laden one year deal during the first week of free agency.
Now let’s take a look at what Cole brings to the table, divided into categories.
Despite his excellent production at a lower level, Cole was considered to lack the athleticism required to be worthy of a draft pick. He attended Western Kentucky’s pro day but only ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash.
He also ran a poor short shuttle (4.4) but his three cone drill (6.69) was excellent.
On the field, he shows some good speed so he perhaps plays faster than his workout numbers would suggest. He did run track in high school.
Cole played mostly out wide during his first three seasons, but did also get some time in the slot, from where he produced well. Seven of his 12 NFL touchdown catches have come as he’s been lined up inside, although his average from the outside has been close to 20 yards per catch whereas from the slot it has been closer to 10.
In 2020, Cole lined up inside more and generated most of his production from the inside for the first time. However, he did still catch over 20 passes while lined up outside.
In college, Cole would sometimes carry the ball on reverses and jet sweeps, racking up 118 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. He has just two carries for eight yards at the NFL level.
Cole mostly played wide receiver and defensive back in high school but also played some quarterback. He threw one incomplete pass at the college level.
Despite his slow timed speed, Cole has proven to be a big play threat at the NFL level, with at least a handful of downfield catches each season.
He has shown an ability to get a quick release off the line and get behind the defense for long passes, including on a 75-yard touchdown reception in his rookie year, as well as being able to go up and get a jump ball down the field.
Perhaps more impressive than that, however, is his ability to track and adjust to poorly thrown passes.
Poor quarterback play appears to be to blame for him not making more big plays down the field as there were numerous examples of him being missed or not seen when open. He generally was efficient on downfield throws, catching over 50 percent in his first three years. However, he only caught five of 16 last year.
Cole displayed reliable hands early on in his career, but struggled badly with drops in the middle of the 2018 season, causing him to lose his starting role.
He has a lot of spectacular catches on his highlight reels, going up to catch high throws or keeping his feet inbounds. However, this was probably his best grab.
Cole’s route running is clearly something he’s worked hard at. He’s technically proficient, using deception and footwork to get clean releases off the line and making sharp and well-timed breaks. On this play, he uses the threat of being able to get downfield to break down and come back for the football.
Cole has been among the league leaders in production on crossing routes with the Jaguars, but he shows an ability to succeed on a variety of routes and can effectively lose a defensive back with a double-move.
Yards after the catch
Cole hasn’t shown much in terms of an ability to break tackles and generate yardage downfield or on short passes. However, there are signs that he’s starting to show some improvement in that area.
On this play, he slips a tackle to prevent the screen pass being stuffed for a loss and does well to get good yardage downfield.
He shows some good smarts to pick up the first down here by hurdling over a prone defender.
Cole fumbled four times, losing three, in his first two seasons, which was one of the reasons the team didn’t throw him any short passes and eventually cut his playing time. He hasn’t fumbled since though.
Cole has a good ability to go up and get it when a ball is thrown up high, so he can be productive in the red zone. 10 of his 12 NFL touchdown receptions have come from inside the 20.
His route running is also an asset down here, as his ability to create separation in tight areas makes him a good option.
Cole is an excellent blocker, displaying aggressiveness and hustle. He’ll contribute by blocking down on linebackers and even defensive ends in the running game and constantly hustles into position to make good plays down the field.
He’s been flagged three times in his career so far while blocking - once for holding, once for an illegal block in the back and once for an illegal blindside block.
As noted, Cole displays good physicality as a blocker, but he also showcases this in terms of hanging onto the ball in traffic and in some of his route running.
He’s also put up good numbers at making contested catches, especially since his rookie year.
He has been called for two offensive pass interference penalties in his career so far.
Cole has some return game ability, having scored three times in college while averaging 24.6 yards per kickoff return and 10.2 per punt return.
While he hasn’t done this much at the NFL level, he’s been solid when asked to do it, averaging 27 yards per kickoff and scoring on this long punt return.
He has also seen some action as a blocker and in kick coverage, although he only has one special teams tackle in four years and missed a couple of tackles. He had 15 tackles in college.
On one kickoff last year, Cole circled around and executed this surprise onside kick that he came close to recovering himself.
Cole displays a good ability to find open areas in coverage, as demonstrated on this fourth down play where he improvised well to get open on fourth down.
He has been guilty of three pre-snap penalties over the course of his career.
It should come as no surprise, given the other signings made by the Jets so far, that Cole is a player with strong football character. He’s considered a football junkie and reportedly took things seriously in the weight room and with his nutrition to develop himself from a player that was too lightweight to play top-level college football into one who could thrive at the pro level.
He has a humble attitude and you can tell from his blocking and route running that he’s worked hard to improve his techniques and given a consistent effort on the field.
Cole hasn’t had to deal with many injury issues so far in his career. In fact, he has played in all 16 games in each of his four pro seasons.
He was knocked out of one game last year due to a concussion, though, and was listed with a back injury during last season. As a rookie, he was dealing with an ankle problem and he also missed time with a concussion in high school.
Although Cole played more in the slot last season, he’s been productive on the outside throughout his career, including in some of his biggest games. The Jets will probably have Corey Davis and Denzel Mims starting on the outside and Jamison Crowder in the slot, so Cole will look for opportunities to contribute in either role.
The only link Cole has to current Jets players is that he was briefly a teammate of kicker Chase McLaughlin, although he has been mentored by DaMarcus Ganaway, who was in camp with the Jets in 2012. Ganaway, also a wide receiver, also went to Kentucky Wesleyan.
The signing of Cole is one which seems to have been completely overlooked by fans and media, many of whom are calling for the Jets to add even more receiving talent high up in the draft.
We shouldn’t sleep on Cole though, who was a burgeoning star early on in his career and proved he can still be a productive player on a bad offense last season. Over the last 10 games of his rookie year and the first six of his second season, Cole racked up 1,037 receiving yards so he theoretically has the potential to be a thousand-yard receiver or close to it.
With what he brings to the table as a route runner and downfield threat, Cole could be a good addition to the Jets, but - once again - if things don’t work out, it’s only a one-year deal so no long-term harm will be done.