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Improving The Tight End Room

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There is one sentiment that I’ll stick by to the day I die, a good tight end is a good QB’s best friend. This year the Jets failed to put a reliable tight end on the field for Zach Wilson, and while some of that is related to injuries, had Tyler Kroft been healthy for the entirety of the season he still would have been considered one of the weaker starting tight ends in the league.

Fortunately for the Jets, improving the tight end room shouldn’t be overly difficult this off-season. The options in both free agency and the draft are plentiful, and if I were the Jets I’d probably advise trying to dip into both to find the solution to our woes.

Remember how good it was to have Dustin Keller? The Purdue TE was one of my favorite Jets back in the day and one of the better receiving tight ends I can personally remember suiting up for the Jets.

Back in 2011, he caught 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns, the year before it was 55 passes for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns. Mickey Shuler may have started slow, but he had 5 straight seasons of 400 yards or more receiving, including a 76 catch, 879 yards, and 7 touchdown season in 1985. Jerome Barkum played on some awful Jets teams but he finished his career with nearly 5000 yards and 40 TD’s, all with the Jets.

Here is a look at the free-agent class at tight end along with their stats from 2021 (I pulled these a couple of weeks ago, but you get the point in terms of the production through the majority of the season). Some won’t hit the open market, but more than a couple will. I’ve left Rob Gronkowski off the list as there is no chance he’s landing in New York.

Like with anything stat-related, context is needed. Tonyan tore his ACL in October which limited him to 8 games, and who knows how he’ll bounce back from that injury. O.J Howard’s numbers aren’t great, but he is playing behind Rob Gronkowski, and even when Gronk was down he had to share the reps with Cameron Brate, yet Howard’s 70% completion on his targets is higher than both Gronkowski and Brate.

Gesicki’s contested catches look great, but that’s because Tua frequently throws it up for him, he’s completed 13 of 28 for a success rate of 46.4% which puts him at the lower end, behind the likes of Everett who is at 100% ( 4 from 4) and Schultz who is at 60% ( 9 of 15). Engram has improved his hands this year and he has Daniel Jones throwing to him, so how many opportunities have been left on the field? Maxx Williams is a great blocker but he’s well behind Ertz in terms of target share in Arizona.

Dalton Schultz for me is far and away the most appealing free-agent tight end. He’s a good blocker, he’s reliable and he’s productive. He does have the benefit of having Dak Prescott throw him the ball while the secondary needs to worry about Lamb, Cooper, and Gallup, but he still put up over 600 yards in 2020 with Andy Dalton throwing him the rock for the majority of the season.

Behind Schultz you have Njoku who’s 14.5 yard per reception average shows how explosive he can be, and he’s a much better blocker than people give him credit for. It could be argued that Cleveland don’t use him enough as he’s had to share reps and targets in 2021 with Austin Hooper (48 targets) and Harrison Bryant (23 targets).

The simple fact is that maybe outside of Williams, any of those players would be an improvement on what we have. But, if you’re trying to help your young rookie QB, a player like Schultz or Njoku should be your target.

NFL Draft

In an ideal world, I think you sign one big name tight-end and then you draft another between rounds 2-4. That’s where the value is to be had in this draft class. Using the same metrics as above, let’s take a look at some of the options that will be available. Some are guys that tend to get a lot of love like McBride and a lot of national attention like Wydermyer, and some guys like Cole Turner are often overlooked.

There are four tight ends in here that I’m really interested in. Trey McBride, Isaiah Likely, Cole Turner, and a guy I’ve liked for a couple of years Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar.

All four of those guys are good in most areas you look for in a tight end coming out of college. They’re all good blockers at the college level, which doesn’t always translate well to the next level, but I’d rather take a good blocker at the FBS level than a bad one.

All of them have been productive, McBride, Turner, and Kolar’s contested catch numbers are outstanding, and Likely has shown the ability to win in those scenarios (like the one below), but his quickness often had him open, so no need for a contested catch.

A lot of people like Wydermyer, and while I like him, 8 drops on 40 catches is a concern and while he played in the more difficult SEC, his blocking is behind everyone but Grant Calcaterra who’s basically a slot receiver (only 27.5% of his snaps came as an in-line TE). I don’t always trust PFF, but the eye test matches the numbers there.

Jake Ferguson is a bit of a dark horse, he won’t get a ton of attention because he’s not flashy. He’s a traditional Y tight-end who’s as reliable as they come, in terms of a target and as a blocker. Wisconsin is a heavy run-team and they have experienced a lot of inconsistency with their passing attack, Ferguson has been the constant.

Who are your TE targets for the Jets heading into the off-season?