Chris Herndon
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There are a variety of reasons that Chris Herndon is not putting up exciting numbers, and surprisingly, Adam Gase is not one of them.

It has been a highly disappointing start to the season for 24-year-old tight end Chris Herndon, who is failing miserably at building off of his intriguing 2018 rookie season. He is averaging only 18.5 yards per game on a minuscule 3.9 yards per target (with 0 touchdowns), a far cry from his 41.4 yards per game on 9.3 yards per target (with 4 touchdowns) from Weeks 6-17 of 2018.

I was a big believer in a Herndon breakout this year, but so far, Herndon looks like nothing more than a replacement-level player.

Fans love to point fingers at Adam Gase for every single problem with the team, and they are usually warranted in doing so, but I am not sure that Herndon’s poor start is one of the things that Gase deserves blame for.

Herndon has played over 70% of the offensive snaps in each game, so he is getting ample playing time. He has been targeted 19 times, 16th-most among tight ends, over 102 receiving snaps, 18th-most. Herndon has seen a target come his way on 18.6% of his receiving snaps, 15th-highest out of 40 qualified tight ends, and above the position average of 17.2%. All of this tells us he has been involved in the passing game at about the rate of an average starter, perhaps slightly more so.

Gase has even been willing to split Herndon out and give him chances to work in space. Herndon has lined up in the slot (29 snaps) or out wide (22 snaps) on 51 snaps this season, an average of 12.8 per game, and a 26.3% portion of his 194 total offensive snaps.

So, if Herndon is getting plenty of playing time, has seen a normal amount of targets, and is being used on the outside where he can attack defenses downfield, what gives? Why are his numbers so ugly?

Let’s dig into the film to figure out the reasons that Herndon is 34th among tight ends in receiving yards (74) after ranking eighth (455) over the final 11 games of his rookie season.

Sam Darnold missing him when open

Over the first three games, Darnold missed plenty of chances to hit an open Herndon.

The Jets are mounting a promising drive here with 1:06 on the clock in the first half and two timeouts. Herndon easily gets the edge defender – who drops into zone coverage – to open up his hips to the outside, and Herndon breaks wide open over the middle for a likely first down on 1st & 10. Darnold does not see it and decides to scramble for a lesser gain of six yards.

Herndon releases on a crossing route over the middle and gets a couple of yards of separation from the middle linebacker, but Darnold misfires under pressure.

Herndon finds the soft spot in the zone coverage and sits down for what should be an easy first down on 2nd & 5. Darnold panics under pressure and rushes the ball out to a tightly-covered Frank Gore instead of finding the wide open Herndon.

Herndon lines up out wide and manages to get a step on 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. Darnold underthrows it, forcing Herndon to stop and come back to the ball, but Moseley commits a 20-yard pass interference penalty. Some off-the-stat-sheet production for Herndon.

Obviously, that’s a tough throw for Darnold that you should not expect him to complete more than 50% of the time, at most (Herndon did not necessarily toast Moseley), but Herndon had a step and could have used his size advantage to make a play if Darnold dropped the ball in over top. Missed opportunity for a big completion, albeit a relatively excusable one.

On this play, Herndon leaks out late to give Darnold a checkdown option on 1st & 10. Darnold eventually targets Herndon, but he takes too long to move off of his downfield reads and look for the checkdown, giving the safety plenty of time to close on Herndon and make a play on the ball. This has to be dumped off much quicker.

Herndon runs an over route and is left wide open since no Colts defender is responsible for the underneath area on the left side. Darnold throws the ball behind him from a pristine pocket.

Herndon runs an out route from the slot, which does not materialize. However, once Herndon sees Darnold scrambling, he adjusts his route upfield, leaving his man in the dust and breaking wide open for a touchdown opportunity. Darnold opts to scramble instead of taking the shot to Herndon. He picks up the first down, but this is a throw that a confident Darnold would try instead of putting his head down and running. Right now, Darnold does not have the confidence to make these throws.

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Botching opportunities when the ball comes his way

Herndon’s lack of production is not all Darnold’s fault. He deserves plenty of blame for his own struggles.

That last play against the Colts is a perfect example of the improvisational ability that Herndon flashed in 2018. He showed a great feel for knowing how to make himself available when the play broke down. It was a tremendous compliment to the play-extending talents of Darnold, promising the potential for the two to form an outstanding duo for years to come.

We have seen some flashes of that here in 2020, but right now, the connection is just not in sync. When Herndon has made himself available, Darnold has not found him, whether it be due to a lack of confidence/poise or plain-old bad field vision. As we will see now, when Darnold has looked Herndon’s way, Herndon has not been pulling the ball in at a sufficient rate.

On this play, Herndon lines up in a stack alignment behind Berrios and then motions into the slot. He runs a quick out route on which he does not get open, but improvises when he sees Darnold scrambling. Herndon sells upfield and then pivots towards the sideline, opening himself up for a potential touchdown. Darnold sees it all the way and puts the ball in a perfect spot – Herndon drops it.

 

Herndon has not been good at the catch point this year. Here, he creates separation on an out route against Matt Milano. Darnold puts the ball a little lower than you would prefer, but it’s in a spot where Herndon can go down and get it with no competition from the defense. Herndon is unable to scoop it up on the diving attempt.

Here, Herndon releases late for a screen play, but Bills safety Jordan Poyer is all over it, and Herndon fumbles the ball away.

Herndon lines up in the backfield and releases, sitting down in the middle of the field for what should be a healthy gain on 1st & 10. Darnold puts it on him and Herndon drops it.

Darnold can stand to improve at finding Herndon, but Herndon has to do his part and stop flubbing opportunities. The most important part of being a professional pass-catcher is, well, catching the ball.

Inability to separate downfield

Darnold has missed Herndon when open underneath on quite a few occassions, but Herndon’s route-running has been lackluster overall. Two of the plays shown above – the penalized deep shot against San Francisco and the out route against Buffalo – are two of the only examples this season in which Herndon created any notable separation down the field on his initial route.

Herndon’s subpar separation was most apparent in the Broncos game last week. While Darnold failed to capitalize on quite a few chances to find Herndon from Weeks 1-3, there was not one play over Herndon’s season-high 36 receiving snaps against Denver in which I thought Herndon was the best available option and Darnold failed to find him.

Herndon runs a corner route in the red zone against 5-foot-9, 185-pound slot cornerback Bryce Callahan and is blanketed, failing to use his size advantage to create space, contributing to Darnold scrambling and throwing the ball away.

(Darnold should have quickly looked off the right side and found Jamison Crowder or Jeff Smith for a touchdown on the left, but that’s another story.)

Herndon lines up in the right slot and runs a seam route against cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who takes Herndon man-to-man. Because Bausby lines up with slight outside leverage and the safety to Herndon’s side drops to the deep middle, Herndon should have a good chance to win on this route, but he puts zero nuance into it and runs straight into Bausby. Herndon fails to make himself an option.

While it is understandable that Herndon’s primary goal on that play might have been to simply clear out his defender and prevent him from helping over top on the wheel route, he still could have put more into the route to make himself a viable option if Darnold ended up looking his way.

On this 4th & 3 play, Herndon lines up out wide against Bausby and runs a comeback route, which is completely covered up by Bausby.

On the optimistic side, perhaps the injuries at wide receiver have forced Herndon to spend too much time in a role he is not fit for. With so few healthy options available at wide receiver, Gase had no choice but to use Herndon outside relatively frequently against Denver. Herndon lined up as an outside wide receiver on 10 of his 55 total offensive snaps on Thursday, an 18.2% portion, more than double his rate from Weeks 1-3 (8.6%) and in 2018 (7.8%).

That is not Herndon’s cup of tea. In 2018, most of his production came working against linebackers or safeties, usually when lined up in-line, flexed out tight to the line of scrimmage, or in the slot. Very little of it (if any) came against cornerbacks and/or on the outside. Herndon should see his reps in that role decrease as the wide receivers work their way back, starting with Jeff Smith last week and continuing with Vyncint Smith this week. Ideally, Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims follow them in the near future.

Herndon has also been spending much less time in the slot than he did in 2018. So far in 2020, Herndon has run 24.5% of his routes from the slot, exactly half of his 49.0% rate in 2018. This is an area where Gase can make changes going forward. With Trevon Wesco doing a solid job of in-line blocking and a few outside wide receivers on the way back, Gase should look to phase Herndon back into his quasi-slot role. Herndon has lined up in-line on 70.1% of his total snaps in 2020 versus 60.9% in 2018. That number can be pushed down in exchange for more slot snaps.

As reinforcements return to the lineup, Herndon’s odds of getting back on track can be improved by giving him more reps in roles that better fit his skill-set. His usage to this point has been understandable given the team’s injury issues, but going forward, Gase can better optimize Herndon. Gase can use Herndon slightly less in-line, out wide, and as a pass-blocker (Herndon has protected on 14.4% of his offensive snaps this year versus 9.8% in 2020) while featuring him in the slot more often, where he can take advantage of mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

The problem with increasing Herndon’s slot reps is that it could get in the way of Braxton Berrios, who has had a promising start to the season that warrants giving him some playing time in a small role even as the wide receiver position heals up. Berrios is a pure slot man (78.6% of routes out of the slot this season), so pushing Herndon out there more often could block Berrios from getting on the field. It will be an interesting dilemma for Gase to wade through. Berrios’ offensive role may have to be sacrificed for Herndon to be unleashed.

Regardless of how his usage changes, Herndon just needs to be better, and Darnold needs to be more effective at finding him. While Gase can do a slightly more effective job of maximizing Herndon, the young tight end’s lack of productivity to this point can only be blamed on himself and Darnold. No matter where he lines up, nothing will change unless both start playing more effective football (and Joe Flacco for the time being). Darnold has missed Herndon too often, and Herndon needs to capitalize when the ball comes his way at a much, much greater frequency.

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