Can Keelan Cole provide the New York Jets with an explosive big-play threat at the No. 4 wide receiver spot?
Sliding in as the fourth wide receiver on the depth chart, for the time being, former Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Keelan Cole brings quite a few positive traits to the New York Jets that make him an enticing addition to the offense.
Contested catch ability
Despite standing at only 6-foot-1 and 194 pounds, Cole – who will turn 28 years old in April – is one of the best wide receivers in football at pulling in 50-50 balls.
From 2018-20, Cole caught 19 of his 29 targets that were deemed “contested” by Pro Football Focus, a 65.5% rate that led all wide receivers over that span:
- Keelan Cole (65.5%)
- Michael Thomas (64.0%)
- Tyler Lockett (63.9%)
- Kenny Golladay (63.1%)
- Corey Davis (62.5%)
Checking in at No. 5 on the list is Cole’s new Jets teammate and fellow 2021 free agent, Corey Davis. With the additions of Cole and Davis, the Jets have a pair of fantastic jump-ball winners who can be a massive help in bailing out whoever is under center in 2021. Toss in Denzel Mims, and that gives the Jets three wideouts who the quarterback can feel comfortable about targeting no matter how tight the coverage is.
Cole has never been a high-volume deep target, ranking no higher than 20th among wide receivers in deep receptions in a single season (with 7 in 2017), but his efficiency as a deep target pops off the page. He makes the most of his opportunities when given chances downfield.
Here is a look at Cole’s production on deep targets throughout his career, including his percentile ranking among wide receivers with at least eight deep targets.
Cole posted elite efficiency as a deep threat over his first three seasons before falling off in 2020, but his 2020 dip can be largely blamed on the quarterbacking. Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, and Jake Luton each ranked among the top-12 worst deep passers among 41 qualifiers in terms of Pro Football Focus’ deep passing grade.
For his career, Cole has caught 22 of 49 deep targets (44.9%) for 772 yards (15.8 per target) and three touchdowns. In 2020, a 44.9% deep catch rate would have ranked at the 70th percentile among qualifiers, while an average of 15.8 yards per target would have ranked at the 71st percentile.
Great contested-catch talent is not the only skill that Cole shares with Davis. Both free agent additions are also among the better blocking receivers in the league.
Cole posted a 66.8 run blocking grade at PFF in 2020, ranking at the 74th percentile among qualified wide receivers. Davis placed at the 77th percentile with a 67.5 grade.
For their careers, Cole has a run blocking grade of 69.1 while Davis has a grade of 68.7. The 2020 average for wide receivers was 59.8.
Because of the emphasis on the outside run game, blocking at the skill positions was a crucial element of the San Francisco offenses that Mike LaFleur was a part of, and it appears he has carried over the valuation of that trait to New York.
Cole has never missed an NFL game, appearing in all 67 possible regular season and playoff contests for the Jaguars from 2017-20. In fact, he has never even been listed on the final injury report heading into a game.
Return game potential
While Cole’s sample size of return opportunities is limited, what he has shown is rather promising.
Cole had never returned a punt prior to 2020, but he got nine opportunities this past season, flashing potential with a 91-yard touchdown against the Packers. He only averaged 6.1 yards per return across the other eight chances.
Cole has returned eight kickoffs in his career, averaging a healthy 27.0 yards on the strength of two returns for 40-plus yards.
Playmaking with the ball
Cole is not much of a threat with the football in his hands. He has only forced nine missed tackles over 159 career receptions, an average of 0.057 per reception that is only slightly more than half of the 2020 average for wide receivers (0.111).
Since posting a sublime 6.8 yards after catch per reception in his 2017 rookie season, Cole has dwindled to 3.6 yards after catch per reception over the past three seasons. His average of 3.3 yards after catch per reception in 2020 ranked 66th out of 84 wide receivers with at least 50 targets.
Cole had two fumbles in each of his first two seasons, although he has not fumbled in either of the past two seasons.
Interestingly, Cole is actually quite solid on passes behind the line of scrimmage. He averaged 6.6 yards per reception on passes behind the line in 2019, ranking 16th of 54 qualified wide receivers, and crept up to 6.9 yards per reception in 2020, ranking 20th of 69 qualifiers.
Cole’s solidity in the screen game tells us that his lack of elusiveness primarily shows up in the open field on non-designed plays. Over the past three seasons, Cole has averaged 3.1 YAC and 0.029 broken tackles on passes caught beyond the line of scrimmage, breaking only three tackles over 105 receptions. He’s not the type of player who will shake free of a tackle after the catch and pick bonus yardage that is completely his own doing.
Cole is a little drop-prone with 15 career drops against 159 receptions for an 8.6% drop rate that is above the 2020 average for wide receivers (6.8%). He had five drops against 55 receptions in 2020 (8.3% rate).
Cole has lined up in the slot for 832 of his career passing plays and on the outside for 1,022 plays, a 44.9/55.1 split. The Jaguars altered their utilization of Cole quite a bit each season.
- 2020: 30.8% outside, 69.2% slot
- 2019: 47.6% outside, 52.4% slot
- 2018: 78.0% outside, 22.0% slot
- 2017: 65.3% outside, 34.7% slot
Cole primarily lined up in the slot this past season. He ranked seventh among wide receivers with 399 total routes run out of the slot.
Throughout his career, Cole has been a greater threat when lined up outside. He has averaged 1.37 yards per route run and 9.3 yards per target from the outside versus 1.13 yards per route run and 8.1 yards per target from the slot (these numbers remove any targets that were thrown away, batted at the line, etc).
We’ll start things off with one of the best catches in NFL history, period. This one is just insane. Cole uses a skip release to get the corner (Eric Rowe) to widen his base and take false step forward. Cole then releases outside, getting a step vertically. Blake Bortles’ throw is well behind and to the outside, but Cole extends his right arm and somehow grabs the ball by its nose and pulls it in. Unbelievable.
As the outside man in a stack alignment, positioned off the line, Cole shows off some of his ability to separate deep. Cole sells the out-breaking route to No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah before cutting upfield, toasting him on the out-and-up for 35 yards.
A combination of Cole’s deep prowess and his contested-catch talent, Cole burns his man on another out-and-up, this time from the right slot. The ball is underthrown, forcing Cole to flip his hips and come back to it. He allows the ball to come into his body and secures it while absorbing a hit to the chest/face.
Let’s take a look at some more examples of Cole’s signature contested-catch ability. His toughness shines more than any particular athletic trait – the majority of his contested grabs are not necessarily acrobatic, above-the-rim grabs, but rather, Cole simply doing a great job of hanging on to the ball through a bone-shattering hit.
That’s what Cole does here as he makes a diving, hands-only grab and maintains control despite a hard shot to the knees while in mid-air (12 more plays available below for the Jet X subscriber):