What do the Jets value in a tight end?
The answer to that question might offer us an indication of the path they will choose in free agency to address the position.
In the past year plus since Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur arrived in Florham Park, most assumptions about the team’s roster building on offense have been viewed through the lens of the San Francisco 49ers. That is the former employer of key Jets coaches. The 49ers provide something of a template for how the Jets want to build their team.
The Jets obviously need to upgrade their tight end position this offseason. A group comprised of Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, and Trevon Wesco simply will not do for the long run.
Unfortunately, the 49ers question isn’t particularly helpful when we try to figure out what the Jets want out of the tight end position. San Francisco has George Kittle, as much of a do it all player as exists at the position. Players like George Kittle don’t grow on trees. It isn’t realistic to expect the Jets to land a player like this. The selection pool is going to be much more limited in skillset. The choice will likely come down to which skills the Jets prioritize the most.
What makes this question interesting is there are plausible arguments to be made for numerous skills as the most important for Jets tight end.
You could make an argument that blocking should be a premium consideration for the Jets at the position.
Despite the team’s personnel deficiencies at the position in 2021, it is well-documented that the team utilized double tight end sets. Sharp Football Stats keeps track of personnel groupings and found that 32% of run plays for the Jets came out of 1 back/2 tight end sets, higher than the 28% league average.
One of the staple plays of the Jets offense indeed is a run where the back initial sets to go outside. The ability of the tight end to seal the edge could be the difference between a big run and a stuff.
Receiving is also a consideration. Going on the San Francisco model, it would make sense to seek a tight end who was particularly good after the catch. In two of the last three years, Jimmy Garoppolo has led the NFL in average yards after the catch per completion. For his part, Kittle averaged a robust 6.7 yards after the catch per reception in 2021 according to NextGen Stats.
League trends might lead to the rise of tight ends in another area, though. For this the NFL might have Brandon Staley to thank.
The Chargers head coach rose to prominence a year ago as defensive coordinator of the Rams. There are numerous aspects to the defense he installed which took the league by storm. One the key aspects of his system dealt with the way his safeties were deployed.
NFL defenses face a basic dilemma on every play. There is always one more gap (space between offensive linemen and/or tight ends) to cover in the run game than there are defensive linemen and linebackers.
In the dominant offensive personnel grouping of the current NFL (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), there will be seven gaps on the offensive line.
Most defenses in today’s NFL run with five defensive backs, leaving six combined defensive linemen and linebackers.
You might see the dilemma. There are seven gaps to cover and only six defenders.
One approach is to bring a safety near the line of scrimmage to cover the extra gap.
This approach wasn’t invented by Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks, but it became one fo the staples of their system as the Legion of Boom rose. Kam Chancellor excelled in a fairly dynamic role as the extra defender.
As Carroll proteges, including Robert Saleh, got promotions to run defenses across the league we saw this approach take hold.
Bringing that extra safety near the box as the seventh man (or eighth man if the third receiver was replaced by either a fullback or second tight end), left only one safety deep who patrolled the middle of the field.
With Earl Thomas as that deep safety and Richard Sherman manning one of the cornerback spots, Seattle had no problems.
This approach does come with a fairly obvious weakness for teams with mortal personnel, however. The NFL is a passing league, and having only one safety protecting the deep part of the field leaves large stretches vulnerable to the deep ball.
Knowing that he had a talent like Aaron Donald, he took advantage of it. Donald is the type of player who can handle two gaps on a given play.
His ability to handle that extra gap allowed the Rams to keep two safeties deep to protect against the pass. Two gapping requires defensive linemen to be responsible for a play that goes to either side of an offensive blocker. This requires so much discipline that most defensive linemen in a two gap situation can only hold the point of attack. If they try to penetrate, they will go through one gap, leaving the other exposed. (Staley has actually referred to this as a gap and a half, but the point here isn’t to go into deep detail about the responsibilities.)
That isn’t the case with Donald who has so much talent that can maintain both gaps he’s responsible for and still make a play, even after a pulling guard changes the blocker he’s responsible to neutralize.
This is all relative. All NFL defenses mix and match concepts. The Seahawks and other Carroll proteges run plays with two safeties deep, and Staley brings an extra safety into the box plenty.
Still it was pretty clear that Staley favored two deep safeties at a very high rate relative to the rest of the league. He and his mentor Vic Fangio were at the top of the league in 2020.
.@RamsNFL DC Brandon Staley using a similar scheme to Vic Fangio (spent 3 yrs together in DEN & CHI)— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 3, 2020
Rams & @Broncos - only teams to align pre-snap w/ 2-High safeties (Middle of Field Open) on 60+% of def snaps per @PFF & employ light boxes on 75+% of def snaps per @NextGenStats pic.twitter.com/ddYQQ1LZsv
It is frequently said that the NFL is a copycat league. This has become a painful cliche, but there are still points where it is true.
Staley’s success in building the Rams into a top defense was noticed across the NFL. While the data on coverage shells is not readily available, that which we have such as this PFF article suggests the rest of the league took notice and has incorporated more two safety deep looks.
Success will likely vary, but once something catches on in the NFL, it frequently spreads quickly.
So what does any of this have to do with the Jets and the tight end position?
Well, keeping two safeties back provides the defense more protection against the deep pass, but there still are areas of vulnerability.
When one safety is deep, he usually takes away the middle of the field. In two deep safety alignments, they split the field. That leaves the middle as a vulnerability.
Tight ends mostly align in the middle of the field so they are among the players who could exploit this vulnerable area. Of course, they need speed to get past the linebacker who will be covering them.
As teams keep two safeties deep more frequently, this will become an opportunity spot on the field.
The Jets surely will want to get Zach Wilson as much help as possible in trying to exploit this area. He might need this assistance. Throwing to the 10-20 yard intermediate middle range was one of his biggest weaknesses as a rookie.
Of course a lot of the improvement will simply have to come from Zach himself, but the Jets should be doing everything within their power to make life as easy as possible for their young quarterback. A tight end capable of getting open and making these throws easier certainly would provide a boost.
This leads us to the question of what the Jets should do at tight end.
Let’s take the NFL Draft out of the equation for a second.
Should the Jets rule out drafting a tight end? Of course not. If there is a talented prospect available at a good value, should the team select him? Absolutely. However, like most picks a tight end should be drafted with the future in mind. Most players aren’t going to be able to help on day one. They need to develop.
That especially goes at the tight end position. These players need to learn both blocking and receiving assignments. And by receiving assignments, I don’t just mean at the tight end position. They also have to learn the routes at multiple wide receiver spots.
It is difficult to expect a tight end to come in and perform on day one. Only eight tight ends in the last decade (and 36 in the history of the league) have produced 500 or more receiving yards as a rookie. Rookie tight end production should be viewed as a bonus, not taken for granted. As such, it would be difficult to justify the Jets putting a rookie into anything more than a second tight end role.
That leaves free agency. For the Jets, that might be fortunate. This year’s free agent class at tight end has plenty of quality players.
Unfortunately it lacks any complete players. All of the available players have strengths and weaknesses. That is natural for free agency. Do it all guys like Kittle get re-signed before they hit free agency.
That leads us to the question of what the Jets really prioritize.
If it is blocking prowess, Dallas’ Dalton Schultz could be a target. Schultz also has some utility even if undynamic in the passing game after posting a 78 catch, 808 yard season.
Schultz is more of a safety valve than a main target, though, and not particularly a big play threat. He isn’t overly dangerous after the catch, and only 11.5% of his targets were more than 15 yards down field. One might argue this was a function of a Dallas offense where other players filled those roles, but Schultz’s average athletic profile might show us his limits. Was his 2021 production a sign of things to come or a high water mark?
Spotrac currently projects Schultz with a $12.6 million market value. While he would clearly be an upgrade at the position, one could wonder whether that money could be spent on more of a game breaking type player, even if the Jets had to settle for something less at tight end. If the Jets were willing to break the bank for Schultz, it would be a clear indication of how much they value steadiness at the position.
Another option would be Cleveland’s David Njoku. Njoku has grown through his career, improving his blocking. He has the athletic ability to be a downfield threat. His questions are more about consistency as he has been up and down. An Njoku signing might indicate a focus on swinging for the fences trying to add as much explosive talent around Wilson as possible.
Miami’s Mike Gesicki is really a tight end in name only. He’s more of a big wide receiver. The Jets pursuing him would indicate a focus purely on building Wilson’s pass catching targets and a complete disregard of blocking.
Of course for the Jets having a Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, Trevon Wesco group adds an odd offseason benefit. The team doesn’t necessarily need to splurge at the position. They could improve things signing almost anybody.
Second tier options include the aging Zach Ertz. Ertz is in clear decline and not all that dynamic at this point of his career but is still enough of a technician to be effective. Ertz’s teammate Maxx Williams would be another choice if the emphasis was on blocking. Gerald Everett is a player with plenty of athletic potential who hasn’t put it all together yet as a receiver yet still would be an upgrade and likely more productive than what the Jets had in 2021. Mo Alie-Cox has established himself as a solid blocker and arguably has untapped potential as a receiving threat.
Ultimately I am not sure this is a question of which player is best. It is more a question of what the Jets prioritize. Do they want blocking, or do they want a receiver who can threaten the defense? Do they feel they help Zach Wilson more by establishing the run or exploiting the middle of the field? Do they value tight end enough to spend big, or do they settle for a cheaper second tier option, saving their money for bigger moves at other spots?
These questions will only be answered by the players the Jets target and do not target once free agency begins.