Tight End Blossoming Into Best At His Position Since Shuler

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com

NEW YORK (CBS 2) — So let’s talk about someone who’s not on the back pages for all the wrong reasons.

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The Jets have a certain tight end who is basically forcing everyone to take him seriously. And considering the franchise’s sparse collection of players who have actually excelled at the position over the last two-plus decades, the fact that Dustin Keller has truly arrived as both an athlete and a person makes it easier to stomach all the negativity that both the team and media have thrust upon the fan base.

Very quietly Keller is making a pretty big name for himself across the NFL. He’s starting to realize all the promise the Jets saw when they drafted him out of Purdue with the 30th overall selection in 2008.

While it’s true he’s not yet of the status of an Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark or Jason Witten, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before he ascends into the league’s elite at his position. If you need any proof look no further than last season’s playoffs and then check out film of last Sunday’s victory over New England.

By all accounts Keller is one of the good guys and is brimming with the type of confidence that’s genuine, not manufactured for the sake of a quick sound bite for the evening news or a tabloid headline. He’s clearly bought into coach Rex Ryan’s charge that the Jets are, indeed, the team to beat in the AFC and beyond. But his apparent “trash” talk truly appears to be more about belief than bravado.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a target on your back or you don’t,” Keller said after the 28-14 win over the Patriots. “This is the NFL. You’re going to get a guy’s best game every time.  He doesn’t care if you’ve been saying this or that. They’re going to do everything in their power to beat you no matter what.  So if you truly feel like you’re the best, why don’t you say it?  Why don’t you go up there and make those comments?”

The Jets have been hurting for a star at tight end since the mid-1980s, back to the days when Mickey Shuler caught everything thrown his way. The similarities between Shuler and Keller are tangible in that one of the few times in franchise history the Jets had a team on paper expected to do some things, Shuler was a key ingredient. Now Keller is seizing the spotlight as a player that will have a ton of say in just how far these hyped Jets ultimately go.

If ever there was a “golden age” of the Jets tight end, it took place long before the NFL took over as America’s national pastime. Before Shuler there was Jerome Barkum, who arrived on the scene in 1973. Barkum was a reliable player in the years leading up to the Jets’ 1982 AFC Championship game appearance. Shuler was also on that team, but didn’t realize his full potential until he morphed into the force that grabbed 326 passes, or more than 65 per season, from 1984-88. He made the Pro Bowl twice and was largely regarded during that stretch as one of the best tight ends in the game.

Since Shuler last made it to Honolulu in ’88, no other Jets tight end has earned the distinction. Some day soon he may find himself in the franchise’s new “Ring of Honor.” Ask any fan who’s old enough to remember and they’ll tell you he probably belongs there.

Now, fast forward through the muck and mire of the MTV and hair band eras — though Johnnie Mitchell did have his moments — to today and take a long look at Keller. He appears to have all the tools to end that drought and is off to the kind of start that can only mean good things for second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez and the somewhat helter-skelter Jets offense.

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“When me and Mark are clicking, it just seems like everybody is clicking,” Keller said.

Keller played like a demon in the win over the Patriots, hauling in seven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. He, along with just about every other receiving threat on the Jets, was ignored in the Week 1 loss to Baltimore. For the Jets to be successful there’s no question Keller must be targeted early and often. He must be both Sanchez’s and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s go-to guy between the hash marks because he’s proven in the past he can be an extremely viable cog in the machine when the ball comes his way.

Keller’s evolution began in earnest during the Jets’ surprising playoff run last January. He caught a TD pass in all three games and finished with 12 catches. He had one memorable hook-up with Sanchez against the Bengals that basically put the game away.

He has been all about consistency during his two-plus year career. Keller’s numbers were strikingly similar in 2008 and ’09, as he finished with 48 and 45 receptions, 535 and 522 yards and 11.6 and 11.1 yards per catch, respectively.

However, Keller could very well dwarf those numbers this season. Despite the fact that the team has only played two games, Keller has already become a focal point of the offense. He’s shown a fearlessness you want in your tight end as evidenced by the punishing hit he took from the Ravens’ Ray Lewis in Week 1, only to bounce back up no worse for wear, and the countless shots he absorbed against the Patriots.

This kid can block as well, and at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds is just too big a target for opposing defenses to ignore. When Keller is doing his thing over the middle Sanchez should see more and more openings deep and out wide as was the case against the Pats. The biggest beneficiary from a successful running game and Keller the safety valve and medium-range threat will figure to be wideouts Santonio Holmes, when he returns from his four-game suspension, and Braylon Edwards, assuming, of course, he stays healthy in both body and mind.

In the interim, expect Keller to remain a force between the 20s and a serious red zone threat.

All along the way reminding everyone of just how good he expects these Jets to be, but in a way that doesn’t come off as anything more than a guy who expects to win and carry himself with a measure of class and dignity.

“It’s not just going up there and thinking it gives us some kind of edge by saying that we’re the best. These guys truly believe that we’re the best,” Keller said.

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If so, it stands to reason Barkum and Shuler may one day have some company in the annals of great Jet tight ends, both as players and men.