Lichtenstein: Jets' Lack Of Depth Will Be Tested During Herndon Suspension

Weighing Options Until Tight End Returns From 4-Game Ban

Steve Lichtenstein
July 15, 2019 - 12:53 pm
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Even the most optimistic Jets fans knew that depth would be an issue this season. Despite Gang Green bringing in a few players this offseason who will be expected to solidify their core, their next men up, thanks to years of management’s wasteful drafting, generally are not quite yet ready for prime time.

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Training camp is only more than a week away, yet the Jets are already facing a difficult challenge in this department. Tight end Chris Herndon was suspended Friday for the first four games of the season due to his guilty plea in January for driving while intoxicated in a two-car crash last year. Typically, such first-time suspensions carry a two-game term, but the league determined that an injury suffered by a woman in the incident created aggravating circumstances.

Ordinarily, teams just roll up the depth chart to mitigate the loss of key players. But this is the Jets. The drop-off in ability at this particular position is vast.

Herndon, a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, was one of the few bright spots that emanated out of New York’s desultory 4-12 campaign. His budding chemistry with quarterback Sam Darnold, a fellow rookie, had Jets fans salivating over the next steps.

Herndon’s 39 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns from last season might not wow a casual observer, but he was actually graded as a top-10 tight end by ProFootballFocus.com. Over the last 10 weeks of the season, he was ranked fourth.

He was most impressive in the red zone, where his 152.7 passer rating when targeted was the best of any NFL tight end with at least five such targets.

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Four games is a quarter of a football season. It’s not insignificant. Herndon will miss the home games versus Buffalo and Cleveland plus road affairs at New England and Philadelphia.

And yes, he will be sorely missed. These are the Jets options right now to fill the hole:

1) Roster Incumbents

The Jets were blessed with numbers at tight end last season, but new coach Adam Gase released 2017 fifth-round pick Jordan Leggett in May in his first action after general manager Mike Maccagnan was fired and then cut Neal Sterling after OTAs in June. That leaves a hugely underwhelming trio of Eric Tomlinson, Daniel Brown and rookie Trevon Wesco on the depth chart.

How is Tomlinson still a Jet? Maccagnan had no evidence to support his re-signing in free agency in March, giving Tomlinson $300,000 guaranteed to boot. If anyone deserved the ax based on last season’s dismal performance, it was Tomlinson, not Sterling or Leggett. PFF may have graded Herndon as a below-average blocker, but Tomlinson was even worse, his reputation notwithstanding. In run blocking, Tomlinson was ranked 42nd out of 47 tight ends with at least 200 snaps. Oh, and he’s also horrific in the passing game, with two drops in 13 targets last season.

Jets tight end Eric Tomlinson carries the ball past Denver Broncos cornerback Isaac Yiadom on Oct. 7, 2018, at MetLife Stadium.
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Images

Brown’s most recent experience was almost exclusively on special teams, where he does a decent job despite being credited with just two tackles in four NFL seasons. He played a grand total of 24 offensive snaps in 14 games with Chicago last season, just two on pass plays. Brown's career high in receptions is 16. He reportedly looked decent in noncontact OTAs, but I don’t believe he’s the guy.

That leaves Wesco. Can the Jets again capture lightning in a bottle with another fourth-rounder? It’s a bit of a long shot since Wesco wasn’t used as a receiver as much as Herndon in college. Still, I would hope Gase gives this kid plenty of reps in training camp and the preseason games.

2) Outside Help

Even if Herndon wasn't suspended, new GM Joe Douglas surely would have been scouring the waiver wires daily in search of tight end upgrades anyway. It’s too soon to determine who will be the salary-cap casualties. Keep an eye out for anyone with resumes that list the Dolphins or Eagles, Gase’s and Douglas’ prior gigs, respectively.

Clive Walford, who performed adequately for the Jets a year ago in the preseason before losing out in the numbers game, is now a member of the post-Gase Dolphins. Again, he’s down on their depth chart. If he’s healthy, he’s probably still better than what the Jets have on hand.

As for the two former Jets, both Leggett (Buccaneers) and Sterling (Chiefs) were scooped up after being unceremoniously dumped. Sterling suffered two concussions last season, a red flag even if he doesn’t make the final cut in Kansas City.

With Herndon clearly the Jets’ future, it makes no sense for the Jets to dip into their draft-pick inventory for a trade. 

3) Scheme Away

The Jets, like some other teams, have abandoned the concept of a fullback. They haven’t had a real one (Lawrence Thomas was a converted defensive end) since Tommy Bohanon four years ago. 

Why not add tight end to the extinct list as well? Stretch teams out with running back Le’Veon Bell and four wideouts. That would keep Bell free from seeing eight-men boxes. Quincy Enunwa is a wide receiver who blocks like a tight end. I know, the Jets have talked all offseason about limiting the injury-riddled Enunwa’s duties that require excessive physical contact to keep him on the field. But necessity sometimes trumps precautions in football. The fact remains that Enunwa has been at his best in the middle of the field, not on the outside. Jamison Crowder is competent enough at slot receiver to help create more space for Enunwa crossing underneath where Herndon would be. 

There are a couple of problems here, besides the obvious that I don’t see Gase going for this much of a radical concept for his base offense. Without the option of max protection against opponents’ blitzes, the Jets would be exposing Darnold to an awful lot of extra hits unless he suddenly morphs into Peyton Manning and learns how to get the ball out well beforehand. 

The other issue: Besides Enunwa, Crowder and deep threat Robby Anderson, the Jets don’t have a fourth NFL-quality starting receiver on their roster. Their lack of depth bites them again. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.