The New York Jets offense will benefit greatly from Chris Herndon‘s talent in these four particular areas.
Following the 2018 season, Sam Darnold‘s most revered trait was his ability to make something out of nothing. He was known as a quarterback who could extend plays and find a way to generate a positive result even after the initial concept was shut down.
In 2019, we did not see quite as much of that from Darnold as we did in his rookie season.
A big reason why? Chris Herndon wasn’t out there.
Herndon and Darnold had innate chemistry in 2018. When his initial route was covered, Herndon knew how to improvise and make himself an open target for Darnold, showing an excellent understanding of how to move in harmony with his scrambling quarterback.
Darnold is immediately forced to scramble left on this play as Kelvin Beachum instantly loses to Yannick Ngakoue on an inside move. Herndon, meanwhile, runs an out route, but there’s a defender sitting directly on the path. Darnold notices a vacated space in which he can drop the ball in a spot where either Herndon can adjust to it or nobody will get there – a no-risk shot. Herndon instinctively adjusts his route upfield into the vacated space and tracks the ball beautifully to haul in one of Darnold’s prettiest throws in the NFL.
Honestly, even after watching that play countless times, I still don’t know if Darnold actually tried to get that ball to Herndon or if he was just throwing it away. Regardless, it’s a fantastic adjustment by Herndon that showcases his knack for feeling out the environment on a broken play.
Lined up slot left on this play, Herndon sits down for a short curl route about five yards downfield. Once Darnold begins to scramble, Herndon feels out the soft spot. He understands the hook/curl defender to the inside will be ranging towards the sideline, cutting off any potential for an inside throw, so he drifts towards the sideline as well. Darnold hits Herndon on the hands while taking a huge shot from Jadeveon Clowney. Herndon makes the leaping, fadeaway grab, and hangs on after absorbing a helmet shot straight into his back.
Herndon made another phenomenal adjustment later in the Houston game. His out route is shut down with a defender guarding the sideline. Darnold scrambles to Herndon’s side following pressure allowed by Spencer Long and Beachum. Herndon recognizes the defenders in his area crashing downhill to pursue Darnold, so he flies upfield into the space they vacated. Darnold threads the needle for a big completion.
During Darnold’s career, the Jets have lacked players who could make bail-out grabs on a consistent basis. Darnold’s weapons have not come up victorious in nearly as many 50-50 situations as the typical NFL skill position group should.
Herndon could prove to be one of those bail-out targets that every quarterback needs. He had a flair for the dramatic in 2018, yanking in some incredible low-percentage catches.
Many would consider this play as the best of Herndon’s rookie season. Slot right, Herndon goes uncovered on a short slant route. Darnold puts the ball way too far out in front (you can see the grimace in his face, he knows that he missed as soon as he releases), but Herndon makes an absurd diving one-handed grab, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he hangs on through a hit that lands directly on the ball.
Herndon runs a wheel route out of the H-back spot, and Darnold tosses up a jump ball. While fading back with free safety Malik Hooker draped on him, Herndon uses his size advantage to go up for the ball, but he can only tap it into the air since he timed his jump a bit too early. However, he maintains focus and is able to yank the ball into his chest after just one tap, keeping it cradled through the contact and to the ground.
That was not the only juggling act that Herndon performed in 2018. He made an even more impressive circus catch against the Jaguars earlier in the season.
Lined up outside left, Herndon runs vertically up the sideline on a switch concept with Quincy Enunwa. Under pressure allowed by Long, Darnold shows some confidence in Herndon as he tosses up a risky ball that gives an even chance to Herndon and cornerback A.J. Bouye, who was sitting back in Cover-3 perfectly positioned to play the throw. Like on the Colts play, Herndon times his jump too early, but is still able to use his size to reach the ball first and tap it to himself. He somehow pulls it in after four bobbles.
In the spirit of the 2018 season, that play was called back due to a hold by Eric Tomlinson.
Herndon’s ability to convert in low-percentage situations is a tremendous compliment to an aggressive quarterback like Darnold, who is not afraid to take chances. With Herndon, Breshad Perriman, and Denzel Mims, Darnold could finally have multiple targets that he can feel confident about making gutsy throws to.
Herndon can produce within the structure of the offense as well. He showed a lot of promise as an intermediate route-runner in 2018, looking slick on vertical-breaking routes such as posts and corners.
In-line to the right, Herndon stems upfield to keep the safety (Harrison Smith) to the outside, and then makes a sharp inside/upfield cut off of his outside foot to separate for a touchdown grab.
Flexed out to the left, Herndon draws a favorable matchup as he is to run a corner route to the front pylon against a linebacker who is lined up way to the inside. Herndon keeps the ‘backer honest as he stems vertically, preventing him from undercutting the route by forcing him to respect the possibility of a vertical or in-breaking route. He then breaks outside off of his inside foot, successfully keeping the linebacker at bay to open up for a touchdown. Great timing on the break, too, as Herndon cuts just in time to stay above the outside receiver’s route and avoid running into the outside cornerback.
Contrary to the play above against Chicago, Herndon is placed in a disadvantageous one-on-one matchup on this snap against New England. In-line to the right, Herndon is to run a dig route over the middle against Dont’a Hightower, who lines up to the inside, well-positioned to cover the route. Herndon releases outside and sells an out-breaking route by angling his shoulders outside, getting Hightower to bite, winning leverage over the middle. He slices back inside, stacks Hightower, and cuts over the middle with plenty of separation for Josh McCown to make an easy completion for a big gain.
Highlight-reel plays raise a player’s ceiling, but it’s excellent route-running that separates the league’s star pass-catchers (at any position). Players like Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle can make incredible touchdown grabs and are surprisingly elusive in the open field, sure, but they would not make those plays at such a high frequency without the ability to consistently create separation.
Herndon just might have the route-running chops to allow his natural ball skills to shine at a star-caliber level.
Tight end blocking was a mess for the Jets in 2019. Ryan Griffin and Daniel Brown were brutal, while Trevon Wesco had a rough start to his career as a blocker before making some strides later in the year.
Cumulatively, the Jets tight end group ranked 23rd in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grade (54.3), 29th in pressure rate allowed (9.8%), 30th in pass-blocking grade (55.5), and 32nd in yards before contact on rushes directed outside of the tight end (0.26). With all of these numbers combined, I had the unit as the league’s absolute worst in the blocking department.
Herndon has a lot of room to improve as a blocker in the run game (although he is still better than Griffin and Brown), but he will almost certainly represent a substantial upgrade in pass protection.
Pro Football Focus scored Herndon with a pass-blocking grade of 70.0 in 2018, which ranked 20th out of 53 qualified tight ends (63rd percentile).
On this play action rollout by Darnold, Herndon pins the defensive end inside and sustains the block to keep Darnold completely unpressured.
Herndon teams up with all-time Jets great Jordan Leggett to keep the edge pristine.
Between his improvisational knack, circus catch ability, intermediate route-running, and pass protection, Chris Herndon brings a bevy of skills to the Jets offense that simply were not present in 2019.