Tight end was seen to be one of the deepest positions for the Jets coming into this season. Veteran Bubba Franks was brought in from Green Bay as a big target and added depth to the position behind Chris Baker, who joined the team for his seventh season.
So many Jets fan were surprised when the team moved up late in the first round of the 2008 draft to select Dustin Keller.
"He's taking a lot of coaching," said Baker. "The coaches have been on him pretty tough and things like that, so he's done a good job as far as just taking the coaching and trying to apply it to the field. It's tough coming in as a rookie and playing a lot, but I think he's done a pretty good job with it and I think he'll just continue to get better as the year goes on."
"I didn't really set any true numbers, goals or anything like that," Keller said this week as he prepared to play the Bills at Buffalo on Sunday. "It was just more of a weekly-improvement type of thing for me."
Seven games into his rookie season, Keller has contributed a respectable 11.6 yards per reception on 11 catches for 128 yards, along with two touchdowns. (A third was nullified by a penalty against Cincinnati.)
The Jets rookie tight end has most often been compared to the Indianapolis Colts' veteran Dallas Clark, and at 6'2" and 248 pounds, the athletic Keller has the size and strength to cause headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.
Known more as a receiving tight end at Purdue, Keller remains unfazed by criticism about his ability to block and grow into an all-around tight end.
"I feel like I've progressed a lot in that area. I've definitely made some improvements," he said. "It's shown in film that my blocking has gotten better every single week.
"I don't know who set expectations for me or what they are, but I'm happy with where I'm at right now. That's my main goal of the season, just to come out here, get better every single week and just continue to improve, and I feel like I've done that and I feel like I'm going to continue to do that."
Keller's improvement came in handy when the Jets found themselves in a precarious situation just before the start of last week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Baker was a last-minute scratch when a hip injury flared up, and Bubba Franks was already deactivated with a hip injury from the Raiders game.
Not a problem, as it turned out. Keller played almost 50 snaps, the most in a game in his short pro career, while offensive lineman Robert Turner lent his services for that game with 20 snaps at TE.
"At this point, we are able to do a few more things in terms of preparation," Mangini said. "Dustin played a lot more reps last week and I'm not afraid to play Dustin more than he has to this point. He's made good progress, so I would see him taking more of a role as the true tight end, getting involved with more of those plays than maybe he has in the past, where maybe it was Bubba, Chris and him."
"I feel good about it," Keller said of Mangini's confidence. "I feel like with each week he's gaining more confidence in me. I'm more and more comfortable with the system, more and more myself. I'm getting more comfortable, he's getting more comfortable with me, so by the end of the season we'll see where we're at."
Keller's coachability coupled with his natural talents have allowed him to be a contributor through the first half of the season.
"It feels good getting a lot under my belt," said Keller, "just getting better every week through repetition."