Talk to anyone around the Jets for a few minutes about why they believe their offense can be improved this year and it does not take long for them to mention a 6-foot-4, 253-pound reason to believe.
The return of tight end Chris Herndon after a lost 2019 is almost like a free-agent acquisition for this offense. Herndon can be a huge factor for an offense that was among the worst in the NFL last season. In 2018, Herndon and quarterback Sam Darnold showed instant chemistry.
Then, last year, Herndon began the year with a four-game suspension stemming from a DUI charge the previous year. As he was preparing to come back, he suffered a hamstring strain that lingered and cost him another four games. Finally, he returned in November against the Giants. He caught one pass for 7 yards and suffered a broken rib, ending his season after just 18 snaps.
The 24-year-old has worked his way back and looked great in training camp. Now, he will take the field Sunday in Buffalo to complete his comeback.
“I’m anxious to get out there, but I definitely want to prove to myself that I’m back and better than I was when I last played,” Herndon said.
The Jets will look like a different team than last year if Herndon can improve upon his rookie year, when he finished with 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns. Darnold will have his security blanket back and coach Adam Gase will have a piece in the middle of his offense to create mismatches with.
“I think Chris is somebody that really is a game-changing type player because he can force the defense to have to make a decision,” Gase said. “If they want to play man-to-man, all right we’ll see how good he is. And if we start hooking up on throws all over the field, then now all of a sudden you have to change the way you play.”
Gase once called Herndon a “unicorn.” He is the rare tight end who can do it all. He is a good receiver, a good pass blocker and a strong run blocker. Ryan Griffin filled in admirably for Herndon last season, but he does not have the same type of skill set.
“When you’ve got a guy like that and he can force the defense to change what they’re doing, that’s very beneficial,” Gase said. “And him not being here last year, I think the guys that were playing did a great job, but Chris is unique. He can do a lot of stuff and he can cause a lot of problems for teams.”
The Bills have a very strong defense and a big part of it is their lineup in the middle of the field. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are all good players. The Jets need Herndon to win his matchups against them.
Just how good Herndon can be is yet to be determined. He showed a ton of potential as a rookie, but NFL tight ends are usually only as good as the quarterback they play with and the offense they play in. Look at the top tight ends in the NFL — Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz — and all of them play with good quarterbacks and for good coordinators.
Herndon needs Darnold and Gase to use him correctly as much as those two need him to stay on the field and blossom into the player he showed glimpses of in 2018.
If it works, it can be a mutually beneficial relationship in which Herndon can make Darnold and Gase look good and they can make him look good.
The offense’s success just might depend on it.