Mike LaFleur’s New York Jets offense in 2021 is the perfect formula to awaken young tight end Chris Herndon.
I know, I know … you’re probably tired to hear that this is going to be Chris Herndon‘s year. After a great rookie season in 2018, New York Jets fans have spent both the 2019 and 2020 offseason pumping Herndon up to no avail. I’m also a part of this group since I have drafted the Miami product in back-to-back fantasy seasons, while also telling my friends to do the same (they all hate me for that, by the way).
The hard truth of the matter is this: Chris Herndon has been disappointing.
After an injury-plagued 2019 year and an awful 2020, many fans have entirely given up on Herndon. While it’s an excellent way to protect themselves from hurt, the Herndon problem must be attacked from a reasonable standpoint.
Yes, he has played awful. Yes, the Jets must grab another tight end in the draft or free agency. Yes, number No. 89 can’t be trusted as the No. 1 tight end.
All the above is true.
Yet, it is also true that this is the year for Chris. There are ideal indications that the once-promising rookie can put his career back on track. After a strong finish to the 2020 season, Herndon is once again ready to play in a scheme that highly values his skillsets (Jeremy Bates’ 2018 Jets offense did Herndon a solid early in his career.
Succinctly put, we already know that:
- Mike LaFleur‘s system heavily-relies on the tight end position (the San Francisco 49ers used an extra tight end or running back on 56% of pass plays last year). Adam Gase‘s Jets, for example, used 11 personnel (1TE, 1RB) 72% of the time, ranking them sixth in the league.
- LaFleur needs athletic players that can play in-line tight end or fullback and who can get to the edge to run block.
- LaFleur’s system requires guys who excel at catching the football in space.
LaFleur loves to exploit speed mismatches out of multiple tight end sets, and Herndon’s combo of size, speed and athleticism will be an asset for the new Jets offensive coordinator to have.
This is not your traditional 11 personnel offense; multiple TE sets will be an integral part of the 2021 Jets offense.
If you read my piece about the nuances of the Kyle Shanahan scheme, you know that Mike LaFleur will rely heavily on speed mismatches to gain yards. But, unlike the Los Angeles Rams, who love to run out of a light 11 personnel, LaFleur’s 49ers (and soon to be LaFleur’s Jets) bet on creating said speed mismatches by adding extra blockers who are fast and athletic, while also adding extra gaps in the running game. The scheme also loves to get to the edge faster than the linebackers the defense deploys against “heavier” personnel.
Think about football like it’s a chess game. Each move by the offense generates an adequate response by the defense. When LaFleur puts two or three tight ends in the game, he expects the defense to counter that by showing either a 4-3 front (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) or 4-4 (four defensive linemen, four linebackers). That is the reasonable response by the defense, trying to counter the fact that the offense is putting stronger but usually slower players on the field. Unfortunately for the defense, this will usually backfire against LaFleur.
Deploying a base defense or adding extra backers would be a perfect response if the opponent were coached by Gase, for example. Whenever the former Jets HC used multiple tight end sets, the added pieces would indeed be heavier and stronger. He was always thinking binary when using multiple tight end sets: “Let’s get stronger and push people.”
This is not LaFleur’s thinking.
LaFleur, whenever he deploys multiple tight end sets, attempts to exploit an athletic mismatch on the field – while getting “stronger” is secondary.
He wants to get to the edge faster than the defense when rushing the ball and gain speed mismatches when throwing out of play-action. That is why the top-four tight ends on the 49ers’ roster are fast and athletic. George Kittle, Jordan Reed, Ross Dwelley and Kyle Juszczyk all ran sub-4.78-second 40-yard dashes, while Ryan Griffin, for example, ran a 4.87 forty on his pro day).
This philosophy is a perfect fit for Chris Herndon, who was underutilized in 2020. Often used as a blocker in pass sets or as a last-option check down on third downs, Herndon did not have many chances to showcase his speed – be it horizontally or vertically. And, whenever he did, the guy was already completely off his game.
It is clear that getting Herndon early is important to his in-game confidence, and I believe LaFleur will be able and smart enough to do that.
To materialize what I am saying, I break down several plays from the 2018 Jets season, when Chris Herndon was utilized properly, in a very similar way the Niners have used their tight ends since 2017.
1. Mesh concept out of 12 personnel
The mesh concept (two crossing routes by receivers that are on opposing sides on the formation) is a staple concept of the offense LaFleur ran in San Francisco. The goal is to stretch the field horizontally post-snap
In the play below, the offensive coordinator is betting that his athletic tight end (Herndon) will outrun the other team’s linebacker to the sideline. Whether it’s zone (first play) or man coverage (second play), this is a hard play to defend in a 5-2 front. Easy pitch and catch and nice wheels by No. 89. Jets ran the mesh out of 12 personnel once in 2020.
2. Quick flat out of the naked boot
Another staple of Mike LaFleur’s offense is the naked boot. On the next play, the Jets line up in 12 personnel and throw a quick flat out of the play-action boot by Josh McCown.
Herndon is fast with the ball in his hands and the Jets can get the linebackers engaged in the run action. The wide zone offense, when well utilized properly, brings these benefits.
3. Down the seam vs. a smaller, slower player
The benefits of mastering 12 personnel often are immense in a league that constantly attempts to create mismatches. Here, Herndon is one-on-one against a smaller safety down the seam.
Great catch and great adjustment. We did not see Herndon run the seam much in 2020, but when he did, he thrived (touchdowns vs. the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns).
So, when realizing that Herndon will return to a system that features some of the same principles that made him an exciting young player back in 2018 and that Mike LaFleur will coach to his players’ strengths, believing Chris Herndon is about to be unleashed is a legitimate thought.
He will have every opportunity to showcase his skills, and it couldn’t come at a more perfect time. Chris Herndon will be playing for a contract.
Get ready for the Chris Herndon awakening.