With the New York Jets pre-season debut on deck for Thursday, the Jets have some serious decisions to make at tight end. A position that had often been ignored in the past, the Jets now possess their most talented tight ends unit in recent memory. General Manager Joe Douglas has added talent through veterans and young prospects, to a point where a tough call will ultimately be necessary.
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New York Jets 2023 Preview: Tight Ends
Tight Ends Recap from 2022 Season
In the 2022 off-season, the Jets revamped the tight end position entirely. Two significant additions via free agency and the drafting of another brought intrigue to the position’s potential. Albeit underwhelming quarterback play, Jets tight ends combined for 792 receiving yards on 80 receptions with only five touchdowns. Certainly, with the acquisition of Aaron Rodgers, Gang Green has higher expectations for the unit entering 2023.
Week 1 Starter: Tyler Conklin
Prior to last year, Tyler Conklin departed the Minnesota Vikings for a three-year deal worth over $20 million. At the time, Conklin was coming off a career year, where he exploded onto the scene as a receiving target. And this past season, he proved that to the Jets his 2021 campaign was no fluke. For a second straight year in 2022, Conklin hauled in over 55 receptions for over 550 receiving yards. As a matter of fact, Conklin trailed only wideout Garrett Wilson for the team lead in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and yards after the catch.
The Central Michigan product only just turned 28 years old and has two more years under contract with New York. In other words, Conklin is aligned to be the Jets primary tight end for the foreseeable future of the Rodgers era. His quickness over the middle of the field and ability to find open space is undervalued in the Jets offense.
At 6’3” and 254 pounds, he is not a big red zone threat, with just seven touchdown receptions in 81 career games played. But because of his ability as a safety valve underneath, he’ll post big numbers with Aaron Rodgers passing him the ball. Being he is under contract through 2024, the Rodgers-Conklin connection could prove crucial to the team’s success in 2023.
Backup Role: C.J. Uzomah, Jeremy Ruckert
Tyler Conklin was not initially thought to be the Jets primary starting tight end when joining the team, a year ago. Veteran C.J. Uzomah, who signed a three-year deal for $24 million, was the projected starter until injuries limited him during the off-season. Ultimately, he finished his first campaign in Gotham Green with 21 receptions on 27 targets, for 232 receiving yards and two touchdowns. For eight million in average annual value, one would immediately assume the Uzomah deal was a mistake.
But the reality is Uzomah is one of the most valuable players in the Jets offense. The 30-year-old has been around the league for years and continues to be among the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. As the Jets run two-tight end sets often, Uzomah offers them not only a 6’5” and 271-pound target but essentially an additional offensive lineman. With Rodgers now under center too, expect Uzomah to see more usage as a receiver in the red zone.
Plus, with the Conklin-Uzomah pairing, the Jets have fantastic mentors to 2022 101st-overall pick Jeremy Ruckert. In college, Ruckert needed to capitalize on his strong blocking ability because of the receiving talent present at Ohio State (a.k.a. Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jaxson Smith-Njigba, etc.). After seeing limited reps as a rookie, Ruckert is in store for a much bigger role in 2023. As the Jets selected Ruckert on day two of the draft months after signing Conklin and Uzomah, the team hopes he is the eventual heir to the position’s throne.
On the Roster Bubble: Kenny Yeboah, Zack Kuntz, E.J. Jenkins
With three tight ends as locks to make the roster, it will be interesting to see how the team approaches the fourth spot… if at all. This past year the Jets carried all three on the 53-man roster, with Kenny Yeboah moving between the roster and practice squad as the fourth man in the unit. The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss has flashed his potential in limited opportunities, although, most have come on special teams. At 6’4” and 240 pounds, Yeboah’s size has always been a knock against him because of his lack of in-line blocking power. For Yeboah to win the role, he needs to improve off the line as a blocker and show consistency as a pass catcher.
On a similar note, both Zack Kuntz and E.J. Jenkins present developmental players who could stick on the practice squad as well. Zack Kuntz, who the Jets took with the 222nd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft earned the highest relative athletic score of any tight end in NFL history. At 6’8” and 245 pounds, with a 4.55 40-yard dash time, Kuntz is a raw, but high-upside player. On potential alone, the Jets must strongly consider keeping him on the 53-man roster, or have him as a lock to make the practice squad and develop.
Whereas E.J. Jenkins follows the Darren Waller model, being a larger receiver who transitions to tight end. Last season at Georgia Tech he displayed his big catch ability, averaging 18.6 yards per reception. However, like Kuntz, Jenkins has a long way to go before earning meaningful snaps. Thus, making him another tight end on the roster bubble but on the practice squad watch list.
Who to Watch for in Pre-Season: Jeremy Ruckert
As Conklin and Uzomah steal the first team reps, Jeremy Ruckert is the x-factor of the Jets tight ends room. An argument can be made for Kuntz because of his athletic upside, yet the fact of the matter is the Old Dominion product is not a contributor for 2023, but rather beyond. For Ruckert, between his blocking and strong hands in the receiving game, he could seriously push the veteran tight ends for playtime. His rise begins with a strong pre-season showing following a strong training camp. With that he will have a big role in store by the conclusion of this upcoming year.
Pre-Season Tight Ends Projection
Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah will be tight ends one and two on the depth chart for Week 1. Jeremy Ruckert is at third string, posing a threat to enter the rotation on a regular basis with more exposure. Thus, leaving a pre-season competition between Yeboah, Kuntz, and Jenkins not only for the fourth tight end spot but to make the practice squad. When it is all said and done, the Jets could have their long-term plan for the position already in place by September.
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