Dustin Keller is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the tight end has made it no secret that he is looking for a long-term extension from the Jets. Although Keller's representatives have approached the team about working on a deal, those initial talks have not resulted in much progress, leaving a frustrated Keller to play the waiting game.
So often, when a player is seeking a payday or an extension, you will hear a collective fan base or even the media chirp that the team should "pay the man."
Perhaps I need my ears (and eyes) checked, but I can't really recall hearing those words said about Keller, and I think there is a good reason why: For as valuable as has been to our quarterback, and for as much potential as he has, he is still frustratingly, bang-your-head-against-the-wall, drive you to drink inconsistent.
Consistency is an often over-used term in the NFL, but it is a highly valued one, especially when you consider that tight ends are generally a young, developing quarterback's best friend. No doubt Sanchez and Keller are buddies, but if Keller wants to get paid, he is simply going to have to be more dependable on the field.
Before I examine Keller's consistency, I want to first address the matter of opportunity, because it is vital to not only the discussion of his reliability, but to his overall value.
There is a common belief that the team must use Keller more. But numbers would tell us otherwise.
In 2010, Keller was the second-most targeted receiver on the team (100 targets), just two targets behind team leader Braylon Edwards. Keller's performance that season tapered off substantially after a hot start, and his play that year quickly earned him a reputation as one of the most inconsistent tight ends in the league based on numbers.
With Edwards no longer on the team, Keller supplanted the wide receiver as the primary target in 2011, leading the Jets in both targets (116) and receptions (65), posting career best totals in nearly every category and finishing sixth among tight ends in receiving yards. Many people are surprised to learn that Keller lead the team in both of these categories, in large part because he failed to show up in key moments. (More on that in a second).
No doubt Keller's 2010 season totals were affected by Santonio Holmes' return from his suspension in the latter half of that season, but his 2010 and 2011 statistics clearly show that that the tight end was used quite frequently, and that he has not suffered from a lack of opportunity.
I too, would like to see Keller have even better numbers in 2012, but given this data I simply cannot buy the argument that in order to be a top-5 tight end, he needs to be used more. It is up to Keller to improve Keller's numbers, and that means he must be more steady and available in big moments, and that has unfortunately been his biggest problem.
Ask anyone and they will tell you that Keller is prone to drops. I once again looked to the stats to find out just how much of a problem Keller's drops have been.
In 2011, Keller had a less than 57% catch rate, putting him outside of the top 100 among receivers, a rather unflattering statistic when you consider the opportunities he's been given. However, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Keller had a 21.7 reception-per-drop rate, which ranked 16th among players targeted at least 100 times. ESPN describes drops in this instance as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort," which basically means blatant drops that are 100% on the receiver (meaning, you can't blame the QB). This is an important point to consider, as this data actually shows that Keller had a fairly decent target to completion rate when he was in the driver's seat.
Still, regardless of who is or is not "at fault," Keller's target to reception rate overall is not the best, and needs improvement, particularly when you consider that in 2010, he was tied for last in the league in drops among tight ends.
Unfortunately, it is not just the volume of actual drops that is the concern, but rather, the timing of Keller's drops, fumbles and bumbles in key moments. You know, those boneheaded you-may-have-just-cost-us-the-game moments that just stick out in your mind? Keller's tendency to be careless, distracted and even absent-minded is incredibly frustrating and interferes with his ability to play up to his full potential.
This phenomenon is a difficult thing to quantify, as stats and data do not account for getting overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage, hurdling over guys for no good reason to show off and and then gettting hurt, or watching balls bounce off your helmet because you ran the wrong route.
At the end of the day, you can live with drops, fumbles, and the occasional miscommunications, but you die with a lack of big plays in big moments.
In 2012, this simply has to be better.
In fantasy football, contract years are traditionally the best years to own players. There is a long, well-documented history of position players performing well above expected in contract years (amazing what a litte incentive can do!) and perhaps the Jets are hoping to get the same out of Keller in 2011.
To learn more about what we expect from Keller in 2012, I spoke with Jets Nation blogger Dennis Agapito, who attended minicamp this week . Based on what he saw, he believes Keller to be the focal point of the 2011 offense. Dennis explained that they had him lined up all over the field - tight on the line, in the slot and in the backfield. Now, keep in mind that both Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill sat out of team drills, but Dennis' observation tells me the Jets plan to continue to use Keller just as much as they have in year's past, as a primary pass catcher on a receiver starved team.
According to both the coaching staff and those in attendance at camp, Keller is playing extremely well, and it is my hope that we can expect to see him live up to the potential that we all know he has, though I know that overreacting to OTAs and minicamps is a dangerous road to go down.
But only a guy that needs to prove himself would be the focal point of an offense and find himself without a long-term deal. He has been given the opportunity, and it appears that he willl yet again be given the opportunity, but with the team's plans to employ a run-heavy offense, I do not think it's practical to expect Keller to exceed his 116 targets from last season.
Of far greater importance than Keller's statisitcal achievements will be his ability to take greater advantage of opportunities on both a regular basis and in key moments, and to prove that he really is the reliable, consistent security blanket for Mark Sanchez that we have made him out to be.
At the end of the season, if the team is still unconvinced that Keller has lived up to his potential, he could easily be a candidate for the franchise tag, an option Keller has made it clear he would not be happy with. But if Keller doesn't have the productive year expected, I simply can't expect him to get a long term deal or get paid anywhere close to what these other receiving tight ends - like, ahem, that guy up in New England - are getting.
The scene is set for Keller to have the kind of year that long-term extensions are made of. You want your extension, Dustin? Go out and get it.