The NY Jets are in desperate need of an upgrade in so many positions this offseason, not least at tight end. For current starter Chris Herndon, 2020 was another disappointing year and who knows what will happen to him in 2021.
Since his encouraging rookie season in 2018, where he posted 502 receiving yards and four touchdowns, he’s failed to live up to expectations. After an injury-riddled second year, he managed just 287 receiving yards in his third year in the NFL in 2020.
Former fourth-round Trevon Wesco has been utilized more as a fullback in his NFL career, so bolstering their options at tight end is important.
Now with a new system to come under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, alongside Ron Middleton who was recently named the Jets’ new tight ends coach, 2021 could see a major change in personnel in the position.
Herndon may well get a fresh start under the new coaching staff and, considering his tantalizing form and the potential he showed back in 2018, his stock could well rise again next year.
But the Jets would still be better off bolstering their tight end room, even if they plan to give Herndon another chance.
Here’s a list of five potential options.
Next: 1. A high-profile draft target
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1. The NY Jets could target Pat Freiermuth
A trade for Deshaun Watson would obviously change things in the draft for the Jets, but they could take a tight end early if they keep hold of their first-round picks.
Florida’s Kyle Pitts has been by far the most highly-touted player at the position ahead of April’s draft and it’s easy to see why.
His form as a receiver for the Florida Gators during his junior year has been unbelievable, picking up 12 touchdowns in just eight games in 2020.
Only five tight ends have been top-10 picks in the NFL Draft this century, but Pitts could well become the sixth. Daniel Jeremiah even ranks Pitts third on his top prospects list.
But will New York draft him at No. 2 overall? It’s highly unlikely.
It’s unusual for a tight end to be chosen that early. Cole Kmet, the first tight end selected in last year’s draft, wasn’t taken until the Chicago Bears picked him 43rd overall.
On the priority list for Joe Douglas, the quarterback decision is the most important decision. After that, they’re desperate for some high-caliber receivers and a possible upgrade at the running back position, as well as needing improved protection up front.
The Jets are unlikely to draft him with the picks they currently have, so will be looking at their later selections for this position.
Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth enters the draft ranked by many as the second-best tight end prospect behind Pitts. He’s projected to be selected towards the back end of the first round or dropping down into the second, which could bring the Jets into play.
Despite COVID-19 limiting him to just four games in 2020, he still managed to record 16 touchdowns and 1,185 yards during his two years at Penn State.
The Jets could seriously use someone of Freiermuth’s size up front on offense. He’s a strong and powerful runner, who’s second behind Pitts in terms of receiving but certainly at the top of his class as a blocker, drawing comparisons to All-Pro Rob Gronkowski.
While his lack of playing time this year could hamper his chances of being drafted early, he’s a considerable talent and likely to be highly sought after.
If he’s still available by the time the Jets select in Round 2 or even Round 3, Freiermuth would be a logical option for the Jets to consider.
Next: 2. Digging deeper into the draft
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2. The NY Jets could target Brevin Jordan
There will be plenty of tight end options for the Jets to consider in the mid-to-late rounds of the upcoming draft too.
Brevin Jordan, who’s coming of the back of a breakout year for the Miami Hurricanes in 2020, offers another alternative.
At 6-foot-3 and around 235 pounds, he’s quite a bit smaller than Freiermuth, and many of the elite tight ends currently in the league for that matter, but his athleticism makes him stand out as a credible offensive weapon.
He’s an elusive, dynamic receiving threat who had great production in 2020, amassing 785 receiving yards for five total touchdowns.
Elsewhere, Duke’s Noah Gray had an excellent showing at the Senior Bowl recently, which could shoot him up in the mock draft rankings. Jake Ferguson, Hunter Long, and Tre’ McKitty are also other credible options.
Ohio State junior Jeremy Ruckert, who we picked in the fifth round of one of our mock drafts, recently stated that he would return to college for his senior year, so he’s no longer available.
There’s no doubt that there will be plenty of opportunities for the Jets to select a tight end in this year’s draft. And someone like Jordan has the potential to become a mid-round steal.
He should definitely be considered if he’s still available in the later rounds.
Next: 3. A valuable free agent
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3. The NY Jets could target Jonnu Smith
We know the Jets have a significant amount of salary cap to fill this offseason, so a move for a free agent is logical.
At first glance, the tight end market looks fairly strong going into the 2021 offseason, with established pros such as Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski and Jared Cook potentially available.
It will, however, prove difficult for the Jets to acquire these targets. The Los Angeles Chargers will be keen to hold on to Henry, who proved a valuable asset for Justin Herbert in his rookie year, and Gronkowski will almost certainly stay for another year with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay.
Gerald Everett could also be an option, but he’s more likely to join Seattle if he leaves Los Angeles, considering ex-Rams coach Shane Waldron has replaced Brian Schottenheimer as their new offensive coordinator.
Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith will be the most likely target and he fits the build of a yards-after-catch weapon.
Smith had a career-high year in terms of receiving yards (448) touchdowns (8), despite missing games to injury towards the back end of last season.
At 25-years-old, he’s young too, and considering the Titans heavy run offense, he may want to look elsewhere to find greater production.
A potential decrease in the 2021 salary cap could deter Tennessee from re-signing Smith. They could take him on a relatively short-term contract for next season for him to prove that he’s a consistent playmaker, but he could be looking to ensure his long-term security elsewhere.
It’s without question that there will be considerable competition for his signature from across the league. If the Jets were to take a chance on one of the top, young tight ends available as a free agent this year, Smith is most likely their best option.
Next: 4. An experienced star
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4. The NY Jets could target Jared Cook
In 2020, the Jets turned to Frank Gore in an attempt to bolster their limited running back options. This year, they could turn to another veteran to help with their tight end situation.
Jared Cook, who’s well into the twilight of his career, looks set for free agency as he is almost certain to be let go by the New Orleans Saints this year, considering their salary cap issues.
He’ll turn 34-years-old in April but still has a lot to offer and could do a decent job for the Jets next season.
Despite a less productive 2020, Cook has been a valuable asset for the Saints over the past two seasons, making the Pro Bowl in 2019 having done so with the Las Vegas Raiders the year before.
Having someone of Cook’s experience could prove essential for the Jets to have around and help develop their young offense. If they do draft a young quarterback, he’ll need a decent receiver to throw at. Cook would be a reliable target.
He could also come in alongside a rookie tight end taken in the draft.
While he didn’t start many games for the Saints, Cook, like Gore for the Jets last year, can expect a significant number of snaps as the younger prospects develop alongside him.
And if the Jets do choose to keep Chris Herndon, Cook could serve as a mentor for the former Miami product and push him to become more consistent in the long term.
The Jets desperately need to upgrade the position for the future, but Cook could fill a void in 2021.
Next: 5. A gamble worth taking?
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5. The NY Jets could target David Njoku
Given the abundance of draft picks that the Jets have over the next two years, the Jets may choose to trade for a tight end.
And while general manager Joe Douglas won’t want to part with these picks cheaply, trading for a good starter could prove to be a decent solution to their problems at the position.
David Njoku of the Cleveland Browns is one tight end who’s been rumored to be available this offseason, having reportedly requested a trade in 2020.
Njoku was vital for the Browns against the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs last month, making a couple of crucial plays as Cleveland pushed Kansas City close.
Like Chris Herndon, he was much more productive early in his NFL career.
And after hardly featuring in 2019 due to injury, he only started five games before the playoffs and recorded just 213 receiving yards in the regular season.
The Browns also have two other solid options at tight end in two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper and impressive rookie Harrison Bryant. Njoku may well sit third in line with the Browns going into 2021, so he could be tempted by more playing time elsewhere to help kick-start his NFL career.
Having been drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Njoku must certainly have the talent, despite, like Herndon, not living up to expectations so far in his career.
If Joe Douglas is willing, it could make sense to gamble a mid-round pick to acquire someone like Njoku.