FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Dustin Keller and Mark Sanchez watch film of the NFL’s top tight end-quarterback combinations and consider the possibilities with wide eyes.
Dallas Clark and Peyton Manning. Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers. Jason Witten and Tony Romo. Well, the New York Jets might be developing a big-time connection of their own.
“I think as long as we keep on working, continue to improve and be on the same page,” Keller said Friday, “that’s something definitely we can get to in the future.”
The speedy and sure-handed tight end is off to an outstanding start, ranking fourth in the NFL among players at his position with 15 receptions. But, it’s what he’s done in New York’s last two games that has everyone excited.
Keller has 13 catches for 213 yards and three touchdowns while establishing himself as Sanchez’s favorite target.
“He’s one of the first guys in the film room with me to watch third-down cutups,” Sanchez said. “He’s talking through shifts and motions: ‘OK, who’s going to line up on me? Why? What’s he doing? Who’s going to play this coverage? What’s the look that he’s going to get?'”
The two have worked on their chemistry since early last season, and things really began to click in the postseason. Keller had 45 catches and two touchdowns in the regular season, but caught 12 passes for 181 yards and three scores in three playoff games.
“Our plan this year was to pick up where we left off in the playoffs,” Keller said.
So far, so good. Keller had just two catches for 13 yards in the season opener against Baltimore, a game in which the offense struggled mightily. Sanchez has been throwing to Keller on a regular basis since, and the Buffalo Bills expect more of the same Sunday when they play the Jets.
“He’s one of our biggest concerns,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “When he goes in the game, you better know where he is and what his role is, and that role continues to grow as time goes on. So, we just have to make sure we pay attention to where he’s at and what he’s doing.”
At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, Keller creates mismatches for opposing defenses — something the Jets were counting on when they drafted him in the first round out of Purdue in 2008.
“When we first drafted him and I saw him run routes at the combine on film, I thought right away that he’s going to be a matchup problem,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “That’s exactly what he is. He runs great routes and you can’t put a linebacker on him and you can’t put a safety on him. We’re taking advantage of that right now and it’s good to see.”
Keller had Brett Favre throwing passes to him as a rookie, and the then-Jets quarterback regularly heaped praise on his young tight end.
“The sky’s the limit for the guy,” Favre said that season.
Keller had 48 catches for 535 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, and was expected to take off last season. But, when Favre retired and left the Jets, Keller had to develop a rapport with a new quarterback as the Jets decided to go with Sanchez over Kellen Clemens.
“As soon as they made that decision near the end of training camp, we started at square one,” Keller said. “Instead of learning in the offseason, we had to kind of do it on the fly during the season. That made it a lot tougher.”
Motivated by the postseason success he had with Sanchez, Keller spent a large part of the offseason with his quarterback who was recovering from knee surgery. When Sanchez put together a camp with his receivers in Southern California in mid-July, Keller jumped at the opportunity.
“He was one of the first ones to come out to California to throw,” Sanchez said. “He was the first one to book his flight. As soon as I talked to him about it: ‘I’m there. What do you need?’ That work we got in the offseason was huge. Now, he’s just trying to fine-tune it.”
Keller sees a correlation between how he and Sanchez are playing to how the offense operates.
“If he and I aren’t in sync, it seems that this offense doesn’t run smoothly,” Keller said. “So, I might get a lot of double-teams and I’m seeing that now, and it could open up other guys. As long as they keep one guy on me, that’s a mismatch every single time. I just have to take advantage of that.”
Ryan has been pleased with Keller’s development as a receiver, but has been even more impressed by his improving blocking skills — a big knock on the tight end coming out of the draft.
“He has been outstanding,” Ryan said. “It won’t be too long before people are comparing him with the best tight ends in the league.”
Notes: DE Trevor Pryce practiced for the first time with his new team after signing Thursday. He said he felt comfortable once he got over wearing green instead of Ravens purple. “I was looking at myself in the mirror and Bryan Thomas caught me looking,” Pryce said with a laugh. “I’m upset I wasn’t here sooner.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.