Joe Douglas should be criticized for ignoring the New York Jets’ tight end position
Douglas is not a flawless angel, though. While I believe that he is doing a decent job, there are plenty of things he has done (or not done) that should be criticized.
With two 2021 regular-season games in the books, my biggest criticism of Douglas’s 2021 offseason as we sit here today would be his lack of attention to the tight end position.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has made the tight end position a focal point of his scheme throughout the early goings of the year. The Jets have run 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs) on 38% of their offensive plays, ranking second-highest in the NFL behind Atlanta (40%).
The top-ranked Falcons are equipped to effectively run a two-tight end offense. They have Kyle Pitts, the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history, and Hayden Hurst, who was a solid No. 1 tight end for them last season (56 catches, 571 yards, 6 touchdowns).
The Jets are absolutely not equipped to be utilizing 12 personnel more often than 30 other teams. Their starting tight end duo features Tyler Kroft and Ryan Griffin, two career-long role players who combined for 205 receiving yards over 26 games in 2020.
Here is a look at the production the Jets have gotten out of the tight end position so far this season and where those numbers rank out of 32 tight end units through two weeks:
- Receiving first downs: 2 (31st)
- Receiving yards per route run: 0.87 (26th)
- Pro Football Focus run block grade: 55.2 (23rd)
- Pro Football Focus pass block grade: 35.3 (32nd)
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Kroft and Griffin have been atrocious as both pass catchers and blockers.
It was expected that each player would provide little in the passing game, and Griffin’s ineptitude as a blocker is nothing new, but Kroft has disappointed as a blocker so far.
Kroft’s 45.8 run-blocking grade at PFF ranks 57th out of 65 tight ends and would be a career-low. Plus, he has already allowed two pressures in pass protection after giving up the same total over the previous two seasons combined.
Most likely, Kroft will improve to his usual blocking level as the season goes on, so the unit’s blocking output will probably not be this bad throughout the year. However, even if he does, Kroft’s talent level is best suited for a TE2 role in this type of scheme, not the TE1 role that he is playing, whereas Griffin is probably not worthy of either role at this stage of his career. A strong leader for the unit is sorely needed.
The bottom line is that the level of production that the Jets have gotten from their tight ends so far is a major killer for the offense considering how much they are being used.
These issues could be worked around if the Jets made the tight end position invisible, a la 2015 Chan Gailey, but they are relying on it as much as any other team in football. In that case, it is unacceptable to have the unit performing this poorly in both phases (blocking and receiving).
The atrocious output from the tight end position is not surprising considering the effort (or lack thereof) that was put into building it.
New York had a ghastly tight end position last year. Every human being on the face of the Earth knew it was a weakness heading into the offseason. Even your dog probably knew it.
Yet, the Jets brought every member of that awful unit – Griffin, Chris Herndon, Daniel Brown, and Trevon Wesco – back into the fold while making Kroft their only addition of note (with a measly one-year, $2 million deal).
Douglas also added undrafted free agent tight end Kenny Yeboah, but that certainly does not count as a legitimate investment at a position of need. NFL teams passed on Yeboah 259 times in the draft for a reason. He ended up failing to beat out any of the Jets’ other five unimpressive tight ends and landed on the Jets’ practice squad.
The team’s uber-conservative approach to the tight end position is extremely puzzling. Douglas and the Jets knew that they would be running a boatload of 12 personnel. LaFleur undoubtedly communicated that to the front office.
So … why in the name of Jeff Cumberland did Douglas act like the position did not exist? Did he – or maybe even LaFleur – seriously think Herndon, Kroft, and Griffin could hold it down in a 12-heavy offense?
As it turns out, the Jets would trade Herndon and a sixth-round pick to the Vikings for a fourth-round pick after the preseason, further thinning an already-super-thin position. Herndon was brutal as a receiver in 2020, but he offered the possibility of rediscovering the potential he showed as a rookie in 2018. Additionally, he had proven himself as an average run blocker and good pass blocker.
The Jets should not have gotten to the point where the loss of Herndon was crippling, though.
There were plenty of good tight end options on the free-agent market for the Jets to consider. While some of the contracts promised to tight ends certainly stand out as a bit lavish, they would have been fair numbers for the Jets to pay considering the importance of the position in their offense.
Here are just a few of the notable tight ends who signed deals in the 2021 offseason:
- Jonnu Smith (TEN) – Signed with Patriots for 4 years, $50 million, $31.3 million guaranteed
- Hunter Henry (LAC) – Signed with Patriots for 3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed
- Kyle Rudolph (MIN) – Signed with Giants for 2 years, $12 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
- Dan Arnold (ARI) – Signed with Panthers for 2 years, $6 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
- Gerald Everett (LAR) – Signed with Seahawks for 1 year, $6 million, $6 million guaranteed
- Jared Cook (NO) – Signed with Chargers for 1 year, $4.5 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
Kroft’s $2 million deal was the 12th-richest contract signed by a free agent tight end.
Let’s think about that for a moment. The Jets had the second-most cap space in the NFL, owned arguably the worst tight end unit in the NFL, and were preparing to run an offense that would use 12 personnel at the second-highest rate in the NFL.
And all they did was bring everybody back, sign the 12th-biggest contract for a free agent tight end, and draft nobody.
For the most part, Douglas has done a great job emphasizing the quarterback-supporting positions. He drafted an offensive lineman and a wide receiver within the first two rounds of each of the last two drafts. He spent big on guys like Corey Davis, George Fant, and Connor McGovern. He also added Keelan Cole and Morgan Moses this year while keeping Jamison Crowder around on a restructured deal rather than cutting or trading him.
The tight end position is the lone exception. In an offense that runs 12 personnel a whopping 38% of the time, the tight ends are far more instrumental in supporting the quarterback than they are for most teams, and for some reason, Douglas has not valued it accordingly.
LaFleur can take a little bit of blame for not molding his scheme to the personnel rather than the reverse. Adjusting the offense to run primarily out of 11 personnel (3 WR) would make perfect sense considering this team’s great wide receiver depth and brutal tight end depth.
However, that’s not the scheme LaFleur was brought up in.
The Shanahan coaching tree has always been built around two-tight end football. It is baffling that the Jets did not just go out and get LaFleur the groceries he needed when they had money to blow and there was a going-out-of-business sale for tight ends on the open market.
It is too early to label this a surefire trend, but LaFleur may be on the path to adjusting. He did bend the offense closer to its strengths in Week 2. After running 12 personnel 40% of the time (3rd-highest) and 11 personnel 50% of the time (20th) in Week 1, he ran 12 personnel 35% of the time (3rd) and 11 personnel 62% of the time (16th) in Week 2.
Unless LaFleur continues that trend and completely alters his schematic approach mid-season, Douglas’s neglect of the tight end unit will hurt the Jets this year. It is imperative that he makes up for it with a big splash at the position in 2022.