By Ernie Palladino
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Not so long ago, the tight end was a nebulous position. Neither pure blocker nor pure pass-catcher, he played as a hybrid sort of lineman. The main job was to help out the right tackle on a double-team of the defensive end.
If he caught the occasional pass, that was gravy.
These were the days before Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, Shannon Sharpe, Dustin Keller, or any of the other modern tight ends around the league who catch upwards of 60 balls a year.
Now, the tight end is an offensive weapon. So is it any wonder that the Jets’ second-round draft pick, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, is being handed a bushel full of expectations?
If Rex Ryan is to be believed — and why wouldn’t he considering last year’s offensive sluggishness — the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Amaro will be expected to become a prime target for either Michael Vick or Geno Smith. No matter who wins that quarterback competition this summer, Amaro’s worth as a second-rounder ultimately will be judged on his receiving numbers, not his blocking efficiency.
“I don’t know how many balls he caught (at Texas Tech), but it was a bunch,” Ryan said at rookie minicamp last week. “And I was like, ‘Hmmm. Looks like Marty Mornhinweg thinks we got a new toy and we’re trying to feature him.’”
The offensive coordinator had better do something. His passing game finished next-to-last in the league in 2013, which is pretty poor considering Mornhinweg runs a version of the pass-oriented West Coast offense in a pass-happy league. Hanging a big tight end on the passing tree won’t hurt, though, especially a productive one such as Amaro. That “bunch” of passes Ryan was talking about numbered 106 exactly, covering 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns.
It’s not that Jeff Cumberland did a bad job last year as the lead tight end. But Amaro is far more mobile. His size makes him that much harder to bring down.
And let’s face it. In today’s game, it’s just not good enough to have a strong corps of wide receivers. Teams need tight ends who can catch. The Super Bowl-winning Seahawks did quite well with Zach Miller, whose 33 catches and team co-leading five touchdown catches opened things up nicely for wide receivers Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Luke Willson.
The Jets might have even more grandiose plans for Amaro, however. For all practical purposes, they still have only two bona fide receivers in free agent pickup Eric Decker and holdover Jeremy Kerley. Despite drafting Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders and UCLA’s Shaq Evans back-to-back in the fourth round, as well as Nebraska’s Quincy Enunwa in the sixth, they can’t count on any of them to make significant contributions. If their drops of some fairly easy grabs in minicamp were any indication, they’ll need a lot of seasoning to be ready for the regular season.
Then again, Amaro also had a drop.
It’s Amaro, though, who the Jets appear to be counting on. As part of the modern NFL, his blocking ability one step wide of the tackle will be less important than his pass-catching ability out of the slot. If the blocking comes along, all well and good.
Even his long-term goals fit that mold.
“Eventually, I’d like to be … a tight end that catches 100 balls a year,” Amaro said. “That might be five years from now, it might be 10. But that’s kind of a goal for me.”
It could well turn into a goal for Ryan and Mornhinweg, too.
Times change. The would-be blockers of old have turned into the pass-catching sparks of today. The Ryan-Mornhinweg consortium can only hope that John Idzik’s second-round pick truly falls into the pass-productive form of the modern tight end. The blocking? They’ll worry about that later.
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