Dustin Keller has entered each season as a key threat for the New York Jets. The fifth year tight end owns a skill set well suited for the new pass happy NFL. His emergence into elite status among those who play the position unfortunately, is constantly met with roadblocks.
Jet signal callers have stunted the growth of Keller. Brett Favre, Keller’s first quarterback in New York, injured his throwing arm down the stretch of 2008. A season that saw the Jets fall from an AFC East leading 8-3, to a playoff-less 9-7. Over the final four games, Keller had just eight catches (of his 48), while amassing only 75 of his 535 yearly yard total during the December swoon.
Fourth year starter Mark Sanchez has never been synonymous with accuracy, or big passing days. The Jets decision from the start to “handcuff” him while featuring the run, has tempered any thoughts of a symbiotic rise. Keller has nonetheless, been Sanchez’s favorite target since 2009.
The former USC QB finished 30th in yards per attempt in 2011 and is currently 28th among passers with a 6.7 YPA average. These numbers highlight a systemic failure by the offense to stretch the field. An issue that for Keller, leaves him both bottled up in coverages already keying on him, and unable to get downfield often enough with his own route running.
The Jets rushing attack has seen a downturn since the departure of Thomas Jones. The drop in production has put a damper on play-action; One of the most effective tools Sanchez uses well. During Rex Ryan’s first season as head coach in 2009, the Jets backfield carried the ball 607 times for a 4.5 average. Since then there has been a season decline in both number of carries (2010, 534 attempts 2011 443 attempts) and yards per carry (2010 total 4.4, 2011 total 3.8).
The dearth of talent on the outside has affected Keller’s ability to steer clear of double teams this season. Since the start of the second half, when Keller finally turned a corner on the nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of action for most of the first eight games, he has hauled in a mere 10 catches for 127 over three games. Two of those being losses in which the Jets trailed by three scores in the fourth quarter. A scenario where opposing teams often soften up underneath to allow for the trade off of modest receptions in exchange for minutes chewed up off the clock.
Jeremy Kerley, the Jets most “prolific” receiver, due much in part to the season ending loss of Santonio Holmes in week four, has had just one 100 yard receiving game. Through it all, Keller has displayed a 76 percent receiving grade when balls are thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus. A trustworthiness that is second on paper to only Texans TE James Casey (80 percent).
Game planning approaches employed by both former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and current one Tony Sparano since Keller has been a Jet, have played off of Ryan’s desired strategy to win games on offense by running the ball. Doing so makes the ability to block well essential for Jets tight ends, even though it is not Keller’s forte. Both playcallers have also been accused of risking less through the air based on a fear of their own quarterback’s penchant for turnovers. All of which make it harder for Keller to take over certain games where matchups and circumstances could allow him to.
Keller’s role in the Jets “play it safe” offense has room for so much more versatility. Bubble screens, deep posts, and fades could and should be attempted on a more regular basis. Any wishes to see Keller line up in more creative ways seem like a pipe dream however, in this messy 4-7 season.
Too many factors appear to be in Dustin Keller’s way to clear any path towards All Pro status as a Jet. His contract expires at the end of the season. Should he exit any time soon for the lure of a fresh new start elsewhere, his case may become yet another sad one in Jets history. Where a once promising star was again, not put in a position to maximize his potential.