As a tight end last season for the AFC East's first-place team, the Buffalo Bills, Tyler Kroft snagged three TD passes the entire season in a limited role. That was before he signed with the Jets in free agency in March.
If his play and his pair of TD receptions against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Saturday afternoon's 23-14 preseason victory are an indication of possible things to come, then his teammates and coaches have to be thrilled.
"In this offense in general, the tight ends get asked to do a lot in the running or passing game," Kroft (6-6, 260) said. "They put a lot on our plate and as a unit we're building good chemistry."
In the offense being installed by coordinator Mike LaFleur, tight ends play a big, often pivotal role. From their days in San Francisco, LaFleur and first-year head coach Robert Saleh witnessed the development and breakout play of the 49ers top TE, George Kittle. The situation in the Jets' TE room gives the team experienced and multiple options -- there's Kroft (7 years), Chris Herndon (4), Ryan Griffin (9), Daniel Brown (7), Trevon Wesco (3) and rookie Kenny Yeboah.
"They're gonna catch the ball when the time comes," LaFleur said in June. "But that's what kind of stood out with that group is they're pros. And they've played on Sundays before, you can tell."
Kroft made the most of the mere 12 plays (22% of the offensive snaps) he participated in during the first half on Saturday, with his two catches (for 36 total yards) both going for 18-yard TD plays from rookie QB Zach Wilson.
With the Jets trailing, 7-3, early in the second quarter, Wilson threw a dart down the middle of the field to an open Kroft on the Packers' goal line. He fought off a tackle, spun around and fell into the end zone. It was Wilson's first TD pass as a professional and Kroft's first TD grab in the Green & White.
"Right off the snap the near safety started pushing into the middle of field and the 'backer was coming to me play me man," Kroft said. "We had a double move on, and the safety kept pushing to the middle. I tried to keep the route skinny and Zach threw a perfect ball away from the safety. He was trying to protect me as much as he could."
The QB had a perfect view as the play began, developed and then ended with a successful trip through the red zone.
"They [the Packers] were in their Cover-3," Wilson said. "They had a backer sitting in the middle on my first read to the right. Tyler did a good job staying up the seam; the safety was a little bit deep. So I just tried to put the ball on his back shoulder a little bit, keep it away from that safety. He's a big body; he'll take a shot. And he got into the end zone. It was a good route. Good execution."
Kroft's second TD grab from Wilson (9 of 11, 128 yards, 154.7 QB rating), on the first play after the two-minute warning, was a true thing of beauty. Kroft was lined up on the right and broke to the left behind the line of scrimmage as Wilson took the snap. As Wilson rolled to his left, he tossed a soft pass to the wide-open Kroft, who turned up field, made a neat juke past a would-be tackler and rolled into the end zone as the Jets took a 17-14 lead, which they never relinquished.
"Zach has been making strides every week," Kroft said. "One thing, you can tell he loves playing ball, loves being with the guys. It's cool seeing him progress. He's getting more and more comfortable. That first TD, great touch, kept me away from the defender. It's cool seeing him taking these steps forward that way."
With Buffalo in the 2019-20 NFL seasons, Kroft played with a pretty good young quarterback in Josh Allen, calling it a "fun system that was pretty tight end friendly."
Asked to compare the two, Kroft said: "Every quarterback is a little different. I used to talk to Josh, and now to Zach, telling him to go out there and have fun. Be yourself out there. And he's definitely getting comfortable in the offense, which is awesome."