As offenses continue to evolve, there has been a recent influx of ultra-talented, hybrid tight ends who resemble receivers more than they do linemen. No longer are tight ends expected to be hulking beasts whose main responsibility is to aid the running game and serve as a safety valve for the quarterback. More and more, tight ends are becoming threats in the vertical passing game.
Jets TE Dustin Keller is the lone remaining draft pick from the Jets' 2008 draft. Over his first four years in the league, Keller has emerged as a reliable target for QB Mark Sanchez and has developed into one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league.
Last season was his best offensive year, as he had a team-leading 55 receptions for 687 yards and five TDs. On Sunday, he was again a key to the Jets victory, totaling five catches for 61 yards and their first TD.
"Dustin's been here for years, so he knows the Xs and Os of the offense," said fellow TE Jeff Cumberland. "He knows how to get it done."
Cumberland is another one of the Jets' several weapons at the position. The former college wideout had one catch for 33 yards on Sunday after leading the team in receptions, receiving yardage and yards from scrimmage during the preseason.
TE Matthew Mulligan rounds out the triumvirate of tight ends, a group that is proud to contribute to the offense and has been given a bigger role by head coach Rex Ryan. On Sunday the Jets ran several offensive plays where all three were on the field at the same time.
"We were happy with the way it worked out," said Ryan. "That will be part of what we do offensively. We want to give multiple formations and personnel groupings. It's a package we've been working on a little bit."
Keller, the veteran leader of the unit, has liked what he has seen thus far from his two understudies.
"They've played really well, especially after not getting a ton of reps last year. They've really come on and done a good job," he said. "We think we can do some really good things to help out the offense as a little changeup. We'll see."
While the Jets have found innovative ways to use their own tight ends, they have recently had difficulty stopping those of their opponents.
Against the Cowboys, TE Jason Witten led Dallas in targets (9, tied with Miles Austin), receptions (6) and receiving yards (110). While Witten was able to run a bit wild on the Jets' defense, Ryan hopes the situation will be different on Sunday, as they look to stop the Jaguars' TE Marcedes Lewis.
"We've got to watch him," said Ryan. "Here we go again, facing another really good tight end."
In the teams' 2009 matchup in the Meadowlands, he had a 33-yard catch that helped the Jaguars mount a final drive to a field goal that beat the Jets.
Lewis caught two balls for 28 yards during the Jags' 16-14 win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. However, he left the game early in the third quarter with a calf injury. He didn't practice today and it is unclear if he will play Sunday.
Ryan jokingly made a suggestion to the Jaguars and head coach Jack Del Rio:
"I'll be honest, he should probably lay this one out. ... It's a long season. I don't think he needs to be playing this week."
While Ryan wasn't actually trying to make personnel decisions for his opponent, the absence of Lewis would figure to help a Jets defense that has struggled to contain tight ends in the recent past.
Before Witten's explosion in Week 1, they had difficulties matching up with the tight ends in each of their three playoff games in 2010. Taking those games into account, over their last four games the Jets have allowed an average of 80 receiving yards per game by tight ends, out of an average of 250 net passing yards per game. In other words, 32 percent of opponents' passing yards in the Jets' last four games have come from the tight end position.
So what's happening?
"Some of it is what you're playing coverage-wise," said Ryan. "There are vulnerabilities in certain calls we make, and maybe they made the right call where they got a favorable matchup. There are a lot of things that go into it, and we're not playing a standard four-across secondary, which a lot of teams play."
On the bright side, the Jets have found ways to win more often than not under Ryan's tutelage, regardless of what the numbers of the opposing tight ends have been. Fact is, the Jets have some weapons at that position as well. To be exact, Ryan believes he has three potential weapons at tight ends, which is more than most teams can boast.