The 2014 New York Jets are filled with interesting position battles. Whether it’s the battle for number two receiver, the number two corner, the battle for (possibly) both guard spots or the (not really a battle) battle for starting quarterback. But one positional battle no one seems to really be focusing on is at tight end.
Maybe it’s because most people assume rookie Jace Amaro will be given the job or maybe others expect Jeff Cumberland will hold down the starting job until Amaro is ready, but a new leader has emerged and honestly maybe we all should have seen this coming sooner.
Zach Sudfeld was the talk of the Patriots training camp last year as he wowed everybody in attendance, but after three games into the season, with Aaron Hernandez in prison and Rob Gronkowski hurt, the Patriots felt that they couldn’t waste a roster spot on a tight end who couldn’t contribute immediately since they needed active bodies at tight end. So, the Patriots released him and the Jets quickly pounced on him.
As soon as Sudfeld walked into the Jets locker room the Jets beat writers understood why people were so enamored with his potential, at 6’7″ 260 lbs. you can instantly start picturing him catching passes in traffic in the middle of the end zone. Sudfeld didn’t get much playing time with the Jets last year either, but the Jets had the roster spot available to use hoping it would pay off this year and after the first four days of training camp it looks like the Jets might just reap the rewards from that decision as he has looked like the best tight end on the roster.
As impressive of a training camp as Sudfeld had with the Patriots he basically had to start from scratch when he arrived in Florham Park last year. He had to learn an entirely new system, new terminology and adjust to his surroundings. Sudfeld admitted it was a bit overwhelming at first, but says he is feeling much more comfortable with the offense and his role in it this year.
“Absolutely. Last year coming in I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants, trying to pick up the offense and everything.” Sudfeld said, “So it feels a lot more smooth, a lot more comfortable being out here this year.”
Last year Sudfeld said he was thinking a bit too much, too much in his own head worrying about every detail of the route and that would keep him a step slow, which of course is completely normal for a rookie adjusting to life in the NFL. This year he says he has all the details down pat, he’s able to just go out there and do his job like it was second nature as he no longer has to think about what he’s doing. He just does what he’s supposed to and reacts as needed.
“You can just go out and play, I’m not thinking like, ‘ahhhh I got to do this and (remember all) the terminology,’ and all that.” Sudfeld said, “You just start to speak the Jet language.”
Sudfeld has looked spectacular, not in a way where he is making spectacular game-breaking plays, but in the way he is doing everything right and making no mistakes. He has been getting open constantly and catching everything that’s thrown to him. Sideline catches on out-routes, catches in traffic or as he runs past defenders not fast enough to keep up with him on crossing routes and catches while running open up the seam. He’s not Jimmy Graham, he’s not necessarily a threat to take it 70 yards into the end zone on every play, but he looks like he could very well be Geno Smith’s best friend and constantly move the chains and be a huge weapon on third-down and red zone situations.
Cumberland got a late start to camp, as he missed the first day for personal reasons, and Amaro has struggled catching the ball. Amaro tweaked his knee in practice on Sunday (which was actually his best day of camp until the injury), but before that he continued his struggles from OTA’s. The potential is obvious with Amaro and we’ve seen the size, power and speed on display as well as his ability to use his big frame to shield defenders and get his hands on the ball, he just needs to concentrate on finishing the catch and not letting the ball leave those hands. The injury is no big concern according to Amaro or the team and he didn’t have issues like this with drops in college so once he gets comfortable with the system and his routes he should be able to stop thinking as much and just react and make catches.
But until that happens Sudfeld looks like he could very well see the most snaps at tight end for the Jets this year. Both Cumberland and Amaro were more receivers in college than tight ends, with Cumberland actually listed as a receiver and Amaro, while listed as a tight end, played the heavy majority of his snaps at outside receiver or in the slot. Amaro did an excellent job of blocking defenders in space in college, but that was usually against defensive backs. Preparing to line up in-line with his hand in the dirt to block NFL defensive linemen and linebackers is a much different and more difficult task. Of the three tight ends Sudfeld is easily the best blocker of the bunch which should give him more reps during the season.
Sudfeld said improving his blocking was one of his main priorities coming into the season and he feels he has made progress in that area and it certainly looks that way on the field.
“Yeah, absolutely. I’m trying to progress, I feel like I’m getting a lot better.” Sudfeld said, “It’s small steps, small wins everyday just trying to get a little better and really focus on the technique and really put in the effort so, that’s the goal this camp.”
Making the challenge of improving his blocking just that more difficult is having to block one of the best defensive lines in football. Sudfeld acknowledge just how tough it is going up against this line and also acknowledge the futility of that task at times, but as hard and frustrating as it can be at times he knows it will only help him down the line to be able to practice against the best.
“Dude… (laughs) This D-line is unbelievable so, you know that if you can block these guys you can go out there confident in your ability.” Sudfeld said, “Sometimes I’ll be honest (laughs), it’s just holding on for dear life but you have to be real sound in your technique because we got some excellent D-linemen.”
The other benefit of practicing against such a dominate line is it’s easier to accept that you just got worked over if you get blown up during a specific play. With his improved blocking and comfort running routes Sudfeld looks to be the most complete tight end on the roster as of now. He can be the safety valve for Smith, move the chains and be a big red zone threat and getting humbled over and over again by this defensive line helps him move onto the next play a little easier as well as boost his confidence when he gets the job done.
“You know it’s embarrassing.” Sudfeld said, “But it’s like listen man, ‘these guys get everybody.'”