Will C.J. Uzomah or Tyler Conklin emerge as the New York Jets’ go-to tight end?
The New York Jets made a statement at the tight end position this offseason, signing not one but two starter-level players. Longtime Cincinnati Bengals locker-room leader C.J. Uzomah inked a three-year, $24 million deal, while Minnesota Vikings breakout star Tyler Conklin agreed to a three-year, $20.3 million deal.
With the two players earning similar salaries, it’s up for debate as to who will end up being the team’s “No. 1” tight end – or if they will even have one at all.
The Jets run a lot of 12 personnel packages, which feature two tight ends on the field, so both players will get plenty of snaps. It’s interesting to think about how much of an impact they will each make while playing a similar diet of reps. Can either of them truly emerge as the top guy, or will they share the wealth equally?
Conklin appears to be the player who is turning the most heads in the very early goings of offseason practices. DJ Bien-Aime of the New York Daily News predicted that Conklin will end up being the Jets’ TE1 “by a decent margin.”
Tyler Conklin will be the Jets TE1 , by a decent margin.
— DJ Bien-Aime (@Djbienaime) June 9, 2022
Despite earning the smaller contract, could Conklin separate from Uzomah and establish himself as the Jets’ best weapon at the tight end position?
Let’s compare Conklin and Uzomah by identifying some of the advantages that each tight end holds over the other.
Advantage Conklin: Route-running
Conklin is a technically refined route-runner. He is great at freezing defenders when he reaches the top of his route, and when making his breaks, Conklin is explosive and takes sharp angles.
Conklin with a really nice route to establish inside leverage then burst upfield for 19. Spreading five wide creates the space for all that YAC: pic.twitter.com/Bz2DcmDSUa
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) December 11, 2021
Im very early into it. But I really like what im seeing from Conklin. pic.twitter.com/ik61VwVeHV
— Joe Blewett (@Joerb31) March 17, 2022
I haven’t been overly impressed with Uzomah’s route-running. He’s good at finding soft spots in the defense’s underneath zone coverages, but you rarely see him create a throwing window by beating a defender. His routes can be clunky as he seems to lack impressive change-of-direction quickness.
At 6-foot-3, Conklin is built much lower to the ground than the 6-foot-6 Uzomah, so it’s no surprise that Conklin is better in this area. It’s tough for a player with the height of an NBA small forward to run buttery-smooth routes in the NFL. Uzomah makes plays with his smarts and physical tools much more so than with his route-running or technical refinement.
When the Jets need their tight end to get himself open by winning in a one-on-one situation, Conklin is their guy.
Expect Conklin to handle routes that require precise technique, such as slants, outs, digs, and corners. The Jets will also likely look to maximize his suddenness at the apex of the route stem by giving him opportunities to run a lot of option routes against linebackers.
Advantage Uzomah: YAC
Uzomah runs laps around Conklin in the yards-after-catch department.
In 2021, Uzomah ranked 11th among tight ends with 298 yards after the catch and eighth with 10 missed tackles forced.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Uzomah ranked fifth-best at his position with plus-89 YAC above expectation. Only Dallas Goedert (+93), Kyle Pitts (+99), George Kittle (+135), and Travis Kelce (+143) sat ahead of him.
Standing at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds with 4.62 speed, Uzomah is a freight train in the open field.
Big man said GET OFF ME 😤pic.twitter.com/z9rUc1fNFR
— Bengals Nation (@BengalsNationCP) October 1, 2021
YAC is the biggest weakness in Conklin’s game. He only has average speed (4.80 forty) and does not have any moves in his toolbox at the tackle point, usually opting to simply put his head down and take what’s given to him.
Conklin only forced two missed tackles in 2021 across his 61 receptions. He ranked 53rd out of 67 tight ends with 0.033 missed tackles forced per reception.
While Conklin ranked eighth among tight ends with 332 yards after the catch, that is mostly because the Vikings did a great job of setting him up with a lot of well-executed screen passes in which he gained a ton of free yards. When it comes to creating his own YAC, Conklin is not very good.
If the Jets need one of their tight ends to go make a play in the open field, Uzomah is their guy.
Look for the Jets to try and give Uzomah chances to catch the ball with a head of steam. They can do this by feeding him on routes that allow him to build horizontal momentum, such as drags, flats, and crossers. He should get some screens, too.
Advantage Conklin: Hands
Conklin has been more reliable at securing the football than Uzomah.
Over four seasons, Conklin has dropped only three passes compared to his 93 receptions, giving him a stellar drop rate of 3.1%. That’s exactly half of the 2021 league average for tight ends (6.2%).
Uzomah has 16 drops compared to 163 receptions in his career, giving him a below-average drop rate of 8.9%.
In the contested-catch department, Conklin also takes the edge despite his smaller frame. According to Pro Football Focus, Conklin has caught 56.0% of his contested targets (14-of-25) while Uzomah has a contested-catch rate of 51.7% (15-of-29).
Both rates are good, though. The 2021 league average for tight ends was 49.7%. So, the Jets have two guys who can win more than half of the “50-50 balls” thrown their way.
Tyler Conklin with the nice release and catch pic.twitter.com/wEKHzCNzJJ
— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) November 1, 2021
Advantage Uzomah: Stretching the field
The Bengals didn’t give Uzomah many chances to stretch the field throughout his tenure in Cincinnati, as his role was usually restricted to very basic underneath stuff. However, when he did get chances to go down the field, Uzomah executed with tremendous efficiency.
Over the last three seasons, on targets that traveled at least 10 yards down the field, Uzomah caught 9-of-16 passes for 248 yards and six touchdowns. Bengals quarterbacks had a passer rating of 114.6 on these throws.
In 2021 alone, Uzomah caught 4-of-7 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns on passes that went at least 10 yards downfield.
CJ UZOMAH. 55-YARD TD.
— NFL (@NFL) October 24, 2021
Conklin can occasionally make plays down the field but he has not shown nearly as much upside in this area as Uzomah.
On targets that traveled at least 10 yards downfield in 2021, Conklin caught 7-of-18 passes for 170 yards and zero touchdowns, generating a passer rating of 78.1.
Conklin only has two catches in his entire career that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, those coming on six targets and generating 58 yards. Uzomah has caught 6-of-16 passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, collecting 195 yards and three touchdowns.
When the Bengals let Uzomah explode vertically up the field, he showed that he can use his size and speed to separate and then do damage after the catch. The Jets should tap into Uzomah’s potential in this area by giving him more vertical routes in 2022.
Look for Uzomah to be the field-stretcher of this duo, getting chances to occasionally run seam and post routes. Conklin will probably be mostly restricted to the underneath and intermediate ranges.
Both players offer: Reliable security blanket
Conklin and Uzomah can both be relied upon as trusty security blankets underneath.
In 2021, Conklin ranked fifth among tight ends with 46 receptions on passes that traveled 0-to-9 yards downfield. Uzomah wasn’t far behind, ranking eighth with 41 of these catches.
Both players earned the same exact rankings when it came to receiving yards in this range. Conklin placed fifth with 366 yards on short catches while Uzomah placed eighth with 330 yards.
From an efficiency perspective, both players were consistent at coming up with the catch on these safe throws. Conklin ranked 18th out of 52 qualified tight ends with an 82.1% catch rate (46-of-56) on short throws. Uzomah ranked 20th with an 80.4% catch rate (41-of-51).
These numbers make Conklin and Uzomah enormous upgrades over the Jets’ tight ends from a year ago. Ryan Griffin ranked 36th out of 52 with a 72.1% catch rate on short throws (21-of-29). Tyler Kroft placed 51st with a dismal mark of 64.7% (11-of-17).
Conklin and Uzomah provide their underneath security in different ways, but they are both reliable check-down guys nonetheless. Conklin will use his quickness to create windows. Uzomah will use his awareness to locate holes before using his huge frame to wall off defenders.
Both players offer: Solid blocking
I don’t think either Conklin or Uzomah will ever enter be in consideration for the title of the NFL’s best blocking tight end, but both can be considered solid, above-average blockers.
Conklin has the edge as a pass-blocker. He was trusted to pass-block more than any other tight end in the NFL last season and showed why with his lengthy reel of impressive reps against star edge rushers. His quick feet and good technique help him thrive here.
Uzomah’s size and athleticism give him greater upside in the run game.
Alright Uzomah pic.twitter.com/dbYnmpM4Sc
— Joe Blewett (@Joerb31) March 15, 2022
That’s how I’d lay out their primary strengths in the blocking game, but still, Uzomah can be trusted as a pass-blocker and Conklin can be trusted as a run-blocker. Both players can handle any blocking role.
The Jets might not have a true “TE1” this year
Conklin and Uzomah both offer a multitude of skills that the other player does not have. They complement each other really well. If you combined their strengths, you would probably have the best tight end in the NFL.
I think the Jets will end up giving a very similar number of snaps to both Conklin and Uzomah, and both players will make a positive impact if the Jets do a good job of playing them to their strengths.
Will either of them significantly out-produce the other from a receiving perspective? That, we’ll have to wait and see. They figure to get a similar amount of opportunities, so, for one to separate from the other, they’d have to be far more efficient with the targets they’re given.
From there, if one guy does prove to be significantly more productive, perhaps the Jets start giving him a greater portion of the target volume and/or snap volume, giving him the chance to truly take over as the “TE1”.
If I had to choose one player who has a better chance of producing significantly better numbers as a receiver, I would have to go with Conklin. With better route-running skills and stronger hands, Conklin seems more likely to emerge as a guy who can be relied upon week after week.
Uzomah has a higher ceiling than Conklin if the Jets can find a way to perfectly tap into his potential, but therein lies the question mark. If Uzomah fulfilling his potential is dependent on his usage, then it feels unlikely that his dream scenario will actually play out – considering that the Bengals had him for seven seasons and never found a way to get him up to even a 500-yard season.
Conklin, on the other hand, has shown he is capable of creating his own targets. I can see Zach Wilson quickly falling in love with Conklin once he finds out Conklin will consistently get open on short and intermediate throws.
Regardless of who comes out on top in the box score, the bottom line is that the Jets have two starter-quality tight ends after many years of having zero. Having two capable players at the position will go a long way toward helping Mike LaFleur bring his idealistic offensive vision to life.