Kellen Winslow proving he’s here to stay

Kellen Winslow celebrates after catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Geno Smith. It was Smith's first TD pass as a professional.

Florham Park, NJ – As quarterback Geno Smith was celebrating in the aftermath of Nick Folk’s game winning field goal on Sunday, one player in particular came over to congratulate him.

Smith’s arms were outstretched like a Baptist preacher as tight end Kellen Winslow approached, slapping his rookie quarterback on the green number seven stitched into his jersey before wrapping him up in a bear hug.

It was a big moment for both of them.

Winslow has not played a full NFL season since 2011 when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team he and his new quarterback managed to beat on Sunday.

“I was real emotional before the game. I had to control myself,” said Winslow in the locker room afterward.

After being drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2004, Winslow spent three years with the Bucs before getting traded to the Seattle Seahawks in May 2012.

Winslow was, and is still, critical of the Seahawks for unceremoniously cutting him following training camp in 2012. After that, he managed to resurface for one more game with the New England Patriots before getting cut again.

That is, until Sunday.

“For some reason I just feel like I’ve been here before in this game,” he said. “I’ve been envisioning it for so long that, I don’t know how to explain it, but I was just ready for the game. [It was] real emotional. I was just prepared.”

The Jets took a flier on the veteran tight end this past offseason after losing Dustin Keller to the Miami Dolphins via free agency. And like a young Mark Sanchez did with Keller in his first few seasons, Geno Smith, at least initially, has made Winslow his target of choice – his safety blanket.

In Sunday’s win over the Bucs, Winslow was targeted eight times, leading the team with seven completions and 79 receiving yards. He’ll also go down as the player to catch Smith’s first touchdown pass, a seven yard strike, as well as the crucial 25-yarder, which set up Smith’s scramble, Levonte David’s personal foul penalty and Nick Folk’s game winning field goal.

“Kellen always tells me, ‘If you’re scrambling, if you’re ever breaking the pocket, just find me. I’ll find you and get open,’” said Smith after the game.

In recent years especially, tight ends have become a popular offensive weapon. Just look at the Saints with Jimmy Graham or the Patriots of 2011 and 2012. Tight ends dominated so often in 2011 that it was dubbed “the year of the tight end” by some.

That time may be coming to an end, but it’s always been a common axiom that tight ends are a quarterback’s best friend, especially for young ones. Sanchez and Keller come to mind from 2009-2011.

In Sanchez’s first three seasons, Keller was targeted 298 times, 102 more times than any other receiver on the team. It’s been one game, and Smith and Winslow aren’t close to that level just yet, but their chemistry is evident.

“He knows how to get open in zones. He constantly got open all night,” said Smith. “He really had a big game for us. He’s one of the main reasons why we were able to pull it out late – because he was able to find those windows and sit down for me.”

Winslow’s performance hasn’t gone unnoticed by head coach Rex Ryan, either.

“I remember Kellen when he was just coming out in the Cleveland days and we had to go against him. I had some of those nightmares,” said Ryan. “As soon as the name pops out you’re intrigued, but then when he gets here and you realize this guy still has great receiving skills, he’s smart, he’s a warrior — to quote himself — that’s his mentality.”

“Is he as good as he once was? Maybe not, but he’s pretty darn good.”

On Thursday, Winslow, Smith and the Jets will roll into Foxborough for a nationally televised bout against the Patriots. The last time that happened, well, most people can’t help but remember.

It’s been played on loop for 40 consecutive weeks as the king of ESPN’s “Not Top 10.”

But Smith and Winslow weren’t on the team then and they’re hoping to change a few things.

“It motivates me when guys think they’re better than me,” said Winslow. “When it’s clutch time and it’s time to play, that’s what I live for man. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t want to let these guys down and vice versa. That’s what it’s all about.”

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