With the season over, most Jets fans seem to be in agreement that tight end Tyler Conklin had a pretty underwhelming first season with the Jets. The fact that he ended up with 58 catches is often a surprise to anyone who hadn’t been keeping track of his stats over the course of the season, because it didn’t seem like he was contributing that much most of the time.
Conklin ended up with 552 yards on those 58 catches which actually represents the most yards and the most catches by any Jets tight end in over a decade. In some respects, that underscores how poor the Jets’ production from this position has been in recent years.
Where does this rank in terms of the Jets franchise history, though? Let’s try to add some context to how valuable his contributions were.
As noted, we need to go back over a decade to find someone who was more productive. That would be Dustin Keller, who 65 catches in 2011 and also had more yards than Conklin’s 2022 total in 2010.
Other than Keller, only one other Jets tight end had more catches than Conklin in a season. However, that was Mickey Shuler who surpassed 58 catches four separate times in the mid-eighties. In fact, he surpassed 68 catches in all four years, with 76 setting the franchise record in 1985. Shuler was only a pro bowler twice, although even that was an impressive achievement as he was stuck in the AFC with the likes of Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow (Sr.) and Todd Christiansen.
The thing about Conklin’s production is that he padded his catch totals with a lot of short catches. For the players with the top-25 receiving yardage totals in a season for franchise history, Conklin’s yards per catch average (9.5) was the lowest.
As a result, Conklin lands outside the top-10 for most yards in a season, with the likes of Rich Caster, Johnny Mitchell and Pete Lammons all also outgaining him on fewer catches. Shuler again holds the record with 879 yards. Mitchell is a fascinating player, long remembered as a bust despite putting together two monster years where he was a dangerous big play threat and one of the most productive tight ends in the league.
Clearly the Jets’ plan was for Conklin to be an underneath safety valve and for CJ Uzomah to be the player who would stretch the field or leak out for big plays. Uzomah did average a more healthy 11 yards per reception but his catch total was lower than expected, probably because he was employed more as a blocker than initially intended.
Conklin was also way down the list for touchdown receptions. He only had three which has been surpassed many times. In fact, a Jets tight end has caught six or more touchdowns on eight occasions.
Basically, the Jets have pretty much had at least comparable production from one of their tight ends to Conklin throughout their history apart from (a) the past decade and (b) that period during the late 90’s and early 00’s where they had a block-first tight end as their main starter (Anthony Becht and, before him, Kyle Brady).
A historical context also needs to be added to some of these numbers. A player like Lammons deserves extra credit because not only did he achieve his numbers in 14 game seasons, but he also played in an era where tight ends weren’t generally as productive in the passing game as they’ve been in the current era. In 1967, Lammons had 46 catches, but this was enough to make him an AFL all-star. Hall of famer John Mackey of the Colts never even had 58 catches in a season.
Fast forward to the current era and you find that Conklin’s 58 catch total is not that special. Travis Kelce led the league with 110 catches as a total of 10 tight ends had 58 receptions or more in the regular season. Two others - Dallas Goedert and Hayden Hurst - had over 50 despite missing nine games between them.
That’s not to say it’s completely worthless either. On a team whose passing game struggled for most of the season, using Conklin as a reliable safety valve option for a handful of plays per game helps keep drives going.
One final point on these historical numbers is that two of the more productive Jets tight ends were Caster and Jerome Barkum, each of whom spent half their career as a wide receiver and half as a tight end. This makes it difficult to determine which of their numbers should be included in an analysis such as this, but if they played in the modern era, they’d probably be considered tight ends no matter where they lined up - much like Mark Andrews is at the moment.
Now his 2022 season has been placed into some context, we can look ahead. Conklin’s three-year deal was backloaded, so his cap hits are a little higher over the next two years at around $8.5 million per year.
Cutting him seems unlikely. That would mean the Jets basically paid him $10 million for just one season which would be a poor use of resources. It would only produce a small cap saving - or if they did a post-June cut, the saving would be $3 million but with some dead money pushed to 2024. You’re probably not going to find an upgrade for that kind of price.
Financially, a trade could be viable. Conklin has $4 million in guaranteed salary in 2023, so if he was traded the Jets would be off the hook for those guarantees and the cap saving would be much more worthwhile. Had Jeremy Ruckert developed to the point where he was looking like a surefire contributor in 2023, this may have been a contingency they had in mind, but obviously he’s been slow to make an impact so far.
The Jets’ original intention was to sign Evan Engram, who ended up opting for a one-year deal with the Jaguars. He had a career year but is now a free agent again so perhaps the Jets could revisit the possibility of bringing him in and then trade Conklin away.
Realistically, though, Conklin will probably be back for at least the 2023 season, at which point maybe Ruckert will be ready to take over. Being durable enough to start every game, play over 850 snaps and rack up some production in volume are valuable traits. The Jets just need to do a better job of supplementing that production with more splash plays from everyone else on offense.