Zack Kuntz, NY Jets, Rookie TE
Zack Kuntz, New York Jets, Getty Images

Pinpointing some of the more overlooked storylines to watch in New York Jets vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Going into each of the New York Jets‘ first two preseason games, Zach Wilson and Mekhi Becton were arguably the two most important storylines to keep an eye on. And as we head into the third game, that is once again the case.

I don’t need to tell you to watch Zach Wilson and Mekhi Becton against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tonight. Every Jets fan will have their eyes glued to No. 2 and No. 77.

With that in mind, I’m going to ignore Wilson and Becton in this game preview. Instead, I will be focusing on three of the more unheralded storylines to watch tonight.

Will any of the fringe wide receivers finally do something?

The Jets’ fringe wide receivers were seemingly making a lot of noise in training camp prior to the first preseason game. However, through two preseason games, the WR unit has done almost nothing of note outside of a 57-yard deep catch by Malik Taylor in the first half of the Hall of Fame Game.

Here are the cumulative numbers of the Jets’ wide receivers in the preseason:

  • 25 targets
  • 9 receptions (36.0% catch rate)
  • 130 yards (5.2 yards per target)
  • 1-for-5 on contested targets (20.0%)
  • 2 drops (18.2% drop rate)
  • -22.3% catch rate over expected
  • 1 missed tackle forced after the catch

The unit has been atrocious, to put it bluntly. Separation is scarce, catchable passes are being flubbed, and little is being created after the catch.

If the wide receivers continue to perform this poorly, it is fair to wonder whether the Jets would even keep a sixth wide receiver. Who has proven they deserve it?

Jason Brownlee was the favorite, backed up by the $246K guarantee New York gave him (fourth-highest of any UDFA in this year’s class and the highest of any offensive player), but he hasn’t lived up to the hype. Brownlee has caught 4-of-8 targets for 27 yards in two games.

Xavier Gipson, Irvin Charles, T.J. Luther, and Alex Erickson appear to be in the mix, although none of them have been able to maximize Brownlee’s quiet start. Three of those four players are yet to catch a pass this preseason; Gipson and Charles have caught 0-of-3 targets while Luther has seen one target. The exception is 30-year-old Erickson, who has caught 3-of-4 targets for 36 yards.

Malik Taylor might be the favorite. Taylor made the unit’s lone big catch so far and is experienced on special teams. Plus, he already built familiarity with Rodgers and Hackett across four seasons in Green Bay.

The problem for Taylor is that he is already 27 years old and proved over multiple years in Green Bay that he is not going to offer much production as a pass catcher in the regular season. Would the Jets really use a roster spot on him?

New York needs to see more from its fringe wide receivers over these next two preseason games. If things continue how they have been going, the Jets might be forced to enter the regular season with only five wide receivers on the active roster. Right now, it would be difficult to justify a roster spot on any of the wide receivers beyond the top five.

Could someone in the tight end unit make a surprising case for the roster?

While the wide receivers have been sputtering, the tight ends have been thriving.

Here are the cumulative numbers of the Jets’ wide receivers in the preseason:

  • 15 targets
  • 14 receptions (93.3% catch rate)
  • 114 yards (7.6 yards per target)
  • 3 touchdowns
  • 0 drops
  • +7.2% catch rate over expected

Granted, the tight ends’ jobs have been easy. Each of the three touchdown receptions was wide open. Overall, across the TE unit’s 15 targets, there has been an average separation of 6.1 yards from the nearest defender when the ball arrived. Not one of their 15 targets was deemed “contested”.

Still, give the tight ends credit for doing their jobs. Even considering how easy their catch opportunities have been, they’ve still exceeded expectations, catching 93.3% of their targets versus an expected catch rate of 86.1% (+7.2% catch rate over expected).

In the second preseason game against Carolina, the Jets’ fringe tight ends stood out. Zack Kuntz, Kenny Yeboah, and E.J. Jenkins scored touchdowns. It’s worth noting, though, that Hard Knocks showed Aaron Rodgers calling out Kuntz for running the wrong route on his touchdown. Yeboah and Jenkins were uncovered on their touchdowns.

More notably, Yeboah had a 21-yard reception on a screen while Kuntz showed some YAC ability by turning a block-and-release catch at the line of scrimmage into a 13-yard gain.

The Jets like the depth of this tight end room, even beyond Kuntz, their seventh-round pick. Yeboah has stuck around for a few years now. Jenkins was one of their most highly prioritized UDFA signings, earning a $110K guarantee that ranked third-highest among all UDFA tight ends in the 2023 draft class and third among all players in the Jets’ UDFA class (behind Brownlee’s $246K and Gipson’s $165K).

Tyler Conklin, C.J. Uzomah, and Jeremy Ruckert appear to be roster locks. Whether the Jets keep a fourth tight end remains to be seen. If they do, Kuntz seems like the easy pick to take the spot, but is that really the case? Could Yeboah or Jenkins make a case for that spot if they outshine the incredibly raw Kuntz?

Watch the tight ends closely tonight – and not just as receivers. How well they block will play an equally pivotal role in their pursuit of a roster spot.

And that’s not all. Special teams will also be crucial in this battle. The fourth tight end on a roster must be able to contribute on special teams.

Yeboah leads the Jets with 24 special teams snaps this preseason, playing at least one snap for every unit except for the field goal block unit. Kuntz is fourth with 18 snaps and has appeared on four of the six units. Jenkins is all the way down at 25th with eight snaps, so that could cost him here. For Yeboah, though, special teams could be his path to making the roster.

Can rookie safety Trey Dean continue his strong push for a roster spot?

Florida safety Trey Dean earned a $100K guarantee from the Jets after going undrafted this year. It tied him for the fourth-highest guarantee among all UDFA safeties in the 2023 draft class. Not only that, but it tied for the highest guarantee among defensive players in the Jets’ UDFA class (with Texas Tech safety Marquis Waters).

Early in the offseason, Dean’s performance in OTAs and minicamp had him generating buzz as a sneaky pick to make the roster. His work in the preseason has only added to the buzz.

Logging 76 defensive snaps through the first two preseason games (second-most on the team), Dean has played largely mistake-free football. Dean is second on the team with 11 tackles and is yet to be credited with a missed tackle. In coverage, Dean has allowed only two catches for five yards across 44 snaps. He hasn’t allowed a first down or a touchdown and has not committed any penalties.

NFL safeties are at their best when fans don’t notice them on gameday. The fact that very few fans are talking about Dean’s performance in the preseason is just a testament to how sharply he is playing.

Dean is competing against Waters and Ashtyn Davis for the Jets’ fourth safety spot behind Tony Adams, Jordan Whitehead, and Adrian Amos. So far, it seems Dean has been the most impressive player.

Dean has more tackles than the two of them combined (Waters 6, Davis 3) while both Waters and Davis have been credited with one missed tackle apiece. Davis is yet to allow a catch, although he’s played less than half as many coverage snaps as Dean (Davis 21, Dean 44). Waters has allowed 2-of-2 passing for 19 yards.

We’ve seen the Jets deploying Dean all over the field. He has played 50% of his snaps in the box, 43.4% as a deep safety, and 6.6% in the slot. Compared to league average, though, this snap distribution makes Dean a very heavy box-leaning safety.

These were the league average snap distribution rates for safeties in 2022:

  • Deep safety: 51.2% (Dean: -7.8%)
  • Box: 26.7% (Dean: +23.3%)
  • Slot: 16.2% (Dean: -9.6%)
  • Edge: 3.9% (Dean: 0.0%)
  • Outside CB: 1.9% (Dean: -1.9%)

The Jets already have two other box safeties they can trust in Jordan Whitehead and Adrian Amos, so they might be primarily seeking deep coverage skills in the final safety on the roster. However, both Waters and Davis have also been playing a very similar role to Dean, so they’re not necessarily outshining Dean in that specific department. Dean has held up well in his deep coverage reps so far.

Keep an eye on the safety battle – or don’t, for that matter. If the game goes by and you realize that Dean never really caught your eye, it’s probably a good thing. Noticing a safety while casually watching the game on the broadcast view is a bad thing more often than not.

Fans haven’t noticed Dean on the gameday broadcast very much through the first two games because he simply hasn’t messed up. If he keeps that going, he might have the inside track to the Jets’ final roster spot at safety.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at] - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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1 month ago

Why keep 6 WR just to keep 6? If they cut any of those guys the chances of them being claimed by another team are slim and if they do so what? Are any of those guys really going to make a difference on this team? They have Cook, MC, Knight, Hall, Izzy they can keep all 5 RB AND a FB and just dump one of those WR’s and put them on the practice squad. Bam can play special teams and return kicks.

You also know my feelings on overrated Bryce Hall, I’m keeping an eye on Jimmy Moreland. He’s made some plays and from what I’ve see I’d rather have him than Hall (who is hurt).

I’m also watching Z, I know he’s been as good as can be in games this pre-season but if the Jets are going where we all want them to go, he’s going to have to make some big, game winning kicks. He was good last year not great, and I think he was a bit overrated because he was compared to the mess they had at kicker. Does anybody really trust him to kick a 47 yard game winning kick in New England on the last game of the season to win the division? I’m not there yet.

Mike Palazzo
Mike Palazzo
1 month ago

Adding Mike Evens From Tampa would be a good move at WR. The Buc’s are in town, So there was plenty of time for talk. I think Yeboah might stick around because of his special team skills and Trey Dean seems to be playing well.

1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Palazzo

For me, Yeboah, is the most difficult decision. I do think he’s proven enough that if they do cut him he’ll be claimed by someone (Carolina maybe, one of the teams they practiced with), and as you say he’s got some special teams value. He also seems to have improved to a playable TE. The challenge is they like Bawden, and I don’t see how they can keep 4 TE’s and a FB. I can see them making room for the 5th RB by not keeping a 6th WR, but I don’t see where they get the extra roster spot to keep Yeboah AND Bawden.

At the end of the day, it’s a good thing they are going to be cutting some guys who get claimed by other teams. Let’s just hope they are keeping the “right” guys.