The Jets have many marquee pass-catchers, and their leading receiver in the preseason was not one of them. Tight end Jeff Cumberland stepped out of the shadow and into the spotlight, opening the eyes of many in August.
"I've been in the system a whole year now," said Cumberland. "Last year it was like a new language to me, and this year it's second nature. I go out there, use my potential and play fast. I'm not thinking as much as I was last year."
Cumberland came to the Jets in 2010 as an undrafted free agent from Illinois, where he totaled over 1,000 yards in his four-year college career. He was a highly touted TE recruit while he attended Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio, but was moved to WR midway through his sophomore season in college.
He finished his collegiate career as a receiver — a 6'4", 249-pound receiver.
"I was a tight end, but undersized for a college tight end," said Cumberland. "Then I got my weight up. My natural position is tight end, but I've got great speed and can run routes as if I'm a receiver."
Cumberland has resembled a pure wideout at times this summer. He led the team with 11 receptions and and 156 receiving yards. In fact, the yardage was second among NFL tight ends this preseason behind only the 178 of New England's Aaron Hernandez, and his 14.2-yard average per catch was the best in the league among the 13 TEs who had at least eight catches.
Working mostly with rookie QB Greg McElroy until McElroy dislocated his right thumb Thursday night, Cumberland has been in sync with his quarterback from day one.
"We practice every day together, three hours a day," said Cumberland. "We're both on point as far as where I'm supposed to be with my routes, as far as depth and timing. His timing is just there."
It can help all the Jets QBs to have such a large, speedy target at TE.
At Illinois' 2010 pro day, Cumberland ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds. His speed was obvious and his pass-catching ability above average, leaving one major hurdle for him to overcome to become a successful professional tight end.
"Blocking is something I'm always trying to improve," he said. "I feel like I made strides from last year, being physical coming off the ball, using the right techniques. But I still have a lot more to do. Each day I come out here and try to get better and better."
Over the course of the past month, Cumberland has improved his blocking skills, drawing notice from head coach Rex Ryan.
"He's done a great job blocking," said Ryan. "Right now I would put him in the average blocking category for NFL tight ends, but that's pretty good considering he was a wide receiver in college. I think he has a chance to be a great one, I really do."
Now that the roster has been shorn to 53 players and Cumberland remains a Jet, the second-year pro believes he can help the team while continuing to fulfill his potential.
"I'm ready," he said. "Like I said before, there is still things I have to work on to get myself better, get myself ready to be a starter. I feel like I'm ready to be an NFL tight end right now."