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Breaking down the Jets tight ends ahead of training camp

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Tight end Eric Tomlinson #83 of the New York Jets scores a touchdown against free safety Ricardo Allen #37 of the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 29, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 29: Tight end Eric Tomlinson #83 of the New York Jets scores a touchdown against free safety Ricardo Allen #37 of the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 29, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The New York Jets tight ends may be the position group with the most to prove as training camp approaches. What type of an impact will the inexperienced group have during the 2018 NFL season?

The New York Jets have a group of six young players that will each be contending for roster spots and playing time at the tight end position for the upcoming season. The depth chart is brimming with potential but lacking in overall experience.

The good news is experience doesn’t always equate to success. The bad news — neither does potential. From the uber-athletic to the talented blockers, the Jets tight ends are varied in their strengths and could wind up complementing each other very well when the offensive gameplans are put into action.

Still, the group’s stunning lack of career snaps could provide some early headaches for the team as the players adapt to the increased playing time. It certainly says something when the two most likely candidates for the starting job have never played an NFL down before.

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One of those players, and the early favorite to land the starting gig is last year’s fifth-round selection, Jordan Leggett. Leggett was expected to begin last season as the Jets starting tight end as Austin Seferian-Jenkins served his two-game suspension but a preseason knee injury not only took away that opportunity but wound up sidelining him for the entire year.

Now after the departure of Seferian-Jenkins in free agency, Leggett once again finds himself in the front of the line at the tight end position. Fully healthy, Leggett will look to prove his worth after what was for all intents and purposes a medical redshirt rookie campaign.

The former Clemson Tiger is an athletic specimen who poses a serious threat as a receiving option. During his time with Clemson, Leggett established himself as legitimate red zone threat posting a total of 15 touchdowns over the course of his junior and senior seasons.

On top of that, Leggett is also the most polished route runner on the team giving him an edge over his fellow position mates as the primary receiving target in the passing game.

Leggett, however, should not be relied upon as an in-line blocker in the running game as his blocking skills leave much to be desired. He has more experience as a wing than a true end on the line of scrimmage.

If Leggett can come back from his knee injury and put on a solid performance in training camp and the preseason, then it’s likely his job to lose. But if he slips or doesn’t appear to be at full strength, there’s plenty of competition waiting in the Jets wings.

The most likely to do so would be rookie 4th-round pick, Chris Herndon. Despite the fact that Leggett has yet to take an NFL snap, there’s still a younger, fresher face ready to take his job at a moment’s notice.

Such is life in the fast-paced, high-roster-turnover world of the NFL.

Herndon may be the player on the roster who offers the most upside as a complete and all-around tight end. He is a very capable blocker and was asked to do quite a bit of in-line blocking during his time at the University of Miami which already gives him a leg up on Leggett (pun very much intended) and the rest of the Jets tight ends.

The former Hurricane is also a very solid receiving option with plenty of athleticism to get by. The one area that Leggett really shines in over Herndon is his route running ability and tendency to create separation on routes. Leggett simply looks like the better receiver.

But if Leggett’s blocking deficiencies become a liability early on and Herndon gets the chance to strut his stuff in training camp, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 2018 draft pick take some significant snaps away from Leggett or even outright win the starting job.

That is if he could stay out of trouble off the field.

Herndon was arrested for driving under the influence soon after he was drafted by the team which likely didn’t get him off on the right foot with the coaching staff. That being said, Herndon has been praised for his character and leadership in the past so one could only hope that this was simply an isolated mistake and not a sign of future behavioral issues.

While Leggett and Herndon will be battling for the starting job come training camp, one player that has settled into his role with the team admirably is 26-year old Eric Tomlinson.

Tomlinson stepped up last season and took over as the primary blocking tight end for the team. The former undrafted free agent proved to be a vital cog in the ground game opening up holes for the Jets running backs and serving as a de facto sixth offensive lineman at times.

He was particularly effective on outside zone runs, something the team could deploy a lot more frequently in Jeremy BatesMike Shanahan-inspired offensive system. The UTEP product also proved his worth as a situational receiving threat that caught opposing defenses by surprise on multiple occasions.

Since he is far and above the best blocking tight end the Jets have at their disposal, Tomlinson will likely find himself occupying a similar role this season. For that reason, his roster spot should be safe.

Despite their talent and potential, this would leave three other tight ends on the outside looking in when it comes to solidifying a roster spot. The only one of those players to previously play with the team is former Jacksonville Jaguar Neal Sterling.

Sterling has flashed his athleticism and receiving ability in the past and shined in limited opportunities last season. During his only real extended playing time, he hauled in five receptions for 74 yards against the New England Patriots in Week 17 which proved to be one of the best games by any Jets tight end last season.

Sterling has also reportedly looked very impressive thus far in the offseason workouts which could give him an edge over his teammates. Still, the former Monmouth talent is already 26-years old and is more or less an oversized wide receiver due to his inability to contribute as a blocker. However, if he continues to impress with his playmaking ability, it will be hard for the Jets to cut a guy at a position that is ultimately wide open.

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The player with the most experience out of any tight end on the roster is the recently acquired Clive Walford. Walford was claimed off waivers back in April and he brings some much needed veteran experience to the table.

The former Raider totaled nearly 800 receiving yards on 70 catches during his time in Oakland and is the only one with legitimate starting experience. Walford isn’t the most athletic tight end but he’s shown that he could be a competent blocker who could contribute a little as a receiver as well.

That being said, Walford’s upside is limited and with the young crop of tight ends the Jets currently have, it’s hard to see him standing out in any meaningful way come training camp. His best chance at a roster spot would be for one or both of the team’s top two inexperienced tight ends to struggle and look overwhelmed at the NFL level.

Perhaps then the team will opt to go with experience over potential.

The final tight end on the Jets roster is Virginia Tech product, Bucky Hodges. Hodges is an athletic specimen who possesses ample raw talent but has failed to stick around with one team for too long.

The former 6th-round draft pick had spent time with both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers before signing on with the Jets in April of this year. Hodges has yet to actually suit up for an NFL game and it’s unlikely that he will do so for the Jets this season.

Despite his athletic prowess, Hodges is an unreliable blocker and is relatively raw as a receiver and route runner. He’s shown potential in the past but will likely be too big of a project for the Jets to take on, especially when they’re attempting to develop their other young tight ends.

Ultimately, it would be surprising to see the Jets retain any more than three tight ends on their roster. This doesn’t bode well for the likes of Sterling, Walford, and Hodges who should all be considered outside contenders for a final roster spot.

If the team did opt to keep four tight ends, it would likely be because one of the above three really impressed and could also come at the expense of another roster spot, say potentially the fullback position.

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Another possibility is the team placing either Leggett or Herndon on the PUP list to begin the season if either of them isn’t fully recovered from their prior knee injuries. This would open up an additional roster spot, albeit temporarily, for someone to step up and earn.

The Jets tight ends are a mixture of unknowns heading into 2018 but if the team’s lucky, a hidden gem may just emerge from the abyss of unknown.