With the 2018 NFL season now seeming a long way in the past, we are continuing our look back at the performances of some of the players for whom 2018 was their first taste of NFL action. In this piece, we’ll look at a player who achieved the rarest of feats – he was a productive tight end for the New York Jets. Take a bow, Christopher Herndon.
We’ll take a look back at the positives, and negatives, of Herndon’s first year in the NFL from a numbers point of view. We’ll also look at a few players who enjoyed a similar rookie season to Herndon. We’ll take a quick look at how they’ve fared since their rookie seasons. This will allow us to see a possible range of outcomes for Herndon moving forward. Then we’ll touch briefly on his outlook for 2019.
In order to find some comparisons for the first year from Herndon, I set the RotoViz Screener
to find rookies from 2008 to 2018, and selected some basic production and usage numbers as variables. I also included the draft pick. The influence of draft pick on a player’s opportunity declines over time, but it’s still relevant heading into a player’s second season. Then I asked the Screener to find seasons comparable to my target player.
Let’s take a look at the players who enjoyed similar rookie success to Herndon.
Herndon shares three close comps with fellow rookie TE Mark Andrews. Namely, Zach Ertz, George Kittle, and Dwayne Allen.1 But the Jordan Reed comp is interesting. Reed has shown that he can be one of the most dynamic TEs in the NFL when healthy. He finished as the TE2 and TE9 in 2015 and 2016. But he has very rarely been able to stay healthy. He has played in just 19 games in the last two seasons. Still, if we discount the injuries, this is a positive comp for Herndon.
Rookie Year Highlights
The TE spot has long been something of a wasteland for the Jets. This is evident when one considers that Herndon’s 39 receptions were the 8th most in a season by a Jets TE since 2000. Only Dustin Keller had seasons with more yards than Herndon’s 502. Keller managed four seasons with between 815 and 522 between 2008 and 2011.
Herndon saw at least four targets in eight of his 14 games in 2018, with three or more receptions in six of them. He had a career-high seven grabs against the Patriots in Week 12. Herndon went over 50 yards in five games, with a season-high 82 yards in the Jets’ Week 16 meltdown loss to the Packers. It took him a little while to establish himself in the lineup. He didn’t see the field for more than 61.7 percent of the Jets offensive snaps between Week 3 and 8. But from Week 9 onwards, Herndon played at least 64.2 percent of the snaps in every game. Importantly, for fantasy purposes, he was out there running routes. He ran at least 14 in every game down the stretch and had four games where he ran more than 20.
Herndon amassed a lot of his yards through the air, with his 8.3 air yards per reception the ninth most among all TEs who recorded at least ten receptions. This helped him on his way to a 12.9 yards per reception mark, as well as 9.0 yards per target. These numbers were eighth and seventh most among TEs who commanded at least ten percent of their team targets. He developed a fruitful connection with fellow rookie Sam Darnold, who averaged 10.92 adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Herndon. This was the most efficient partnership for Darnold.
Herndon scored four touchdowns in 2018, with three of them coming from his targets inside the red zone. Herndon found the end zone in three consecutive games between Weeks 6 and 8. He had a six-game span between Weeks 6 and 12 in which he posted four TE1 fantasy weeks. He was the overall TE9 during this period, despite commanding the second lowest target share of any of the top-ten TEs.
The Negatives of the First Year
As previously mentioned, Herndon relied on air yards in amassing most of his receiving production. He averaged a disappointing 4.6 yards after the catch per reception, the 36th most among all TEs with at least ten grabs. Despite a decent level of production when he was targeted in the scoring area, he didn’t see a heavy dose of work once the field began to contract. He saw just one target inside the opposition five-yard line all season long. Only two of his 56 targets came when he was waiting inside the red zone.
Herndon wasn’t exactly dominant at the catch point either, with a 42.9 percent contested catch conversion rate. Though to be fair, only seven of his targets needed to be fought for.
Herndon’s chemistry with Darnold should stand him in good stead as we move into 2019. As already evinced, the partnership was fruitful when called upon. Herndon should go into the new season atop the depth chart at TE. The Jets have Neal Sterling set to become an unrestricted free agent, while fellow TEs Clive Walford and Eric Tomlinson are both RFAs. However, the Jets have a new coach in town, with Adam Gase replacing Todd Bowles. Gase’s history with TEs is spotty at best. Since featuring the overall TE3 and TE7 back in 2013 and 2014 (namely Julius Thomas), Gase’s offenses have not exactly gone out of their way to showcase the TE. Martellus Bennett is the only TE to catch at least 50 passes in a Gase offense since 2015. You have to go back to 2013 for the last (and only) 500-plus-yard season.
The 2019 NFL Draft looks like being another good one for TEs, and the Jets may be tempted to bolster their ranks by taking another one at some point. But while Gase has no commitment to Herndon, Jets GM Mike Maccagnan is still on board. It was he who drafted Herndon, so that should give him some extra rope. Changes will be coming for the Jets offense this offseason, but if Herndon can remain on the roster he is one of the few young players who have at least flashed genuine playmaking ability. Surely even Adam Gase will realize this, and seek to cultivate the Darnold-Herndon axis.
But there is a strong possibility that Herndon will be forced to miss time in 2019 due to an off-the-field transgression. Herndon pleaded guilty to DWI after an accident that occurred back in June. At the time of writing, there are no details as to how long any ban will be for. But assuming the Jets don’t add serious competition, and Herndon has a strong offseason picking up the new offense, then he should remain the guy for the Jets at the TE spot. But he still has ways to go before mock drafters are ready to take notice. In recent mock drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, Herndon is going undrafted.