Going into this year's NFL Draft, the New York Jets were in desperate need of a quarterback as well as an explosive wide receiver. When the first two rounds wrapped up Saturday evening, they left with neither. However, they managed to draft Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston with the sixth overall pick and, to the surprise of Jets fans, then traded up to get the Green Bay Packers' first-round pick (30th overall) and draft Purdue University tight end Dustin Keller. Presumably, Keller is the reason general manager Mike Tannenbaum, did not take a wideout in the early rounds; and with comparisons to Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark, Tannenbaum might not have had to.
Nonetheless, Keller still has a lot to prove in his transition from the college to the pros, especially considering that he was the first and only tight end (or receiver) taken in the first round. Keller is coming off of a somewhat decorated senior season, being named a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's top tight end, as well as earning Purdue's team MVP award and getting selected to the All-Big Ten Conference second team. His evolution from a wide receiver to a tight end involved several changes. The most striking of which was gaining almost 60 pounds, which changed him from a 185-pound wideout into a tight end that weighed in at 242 pounds at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine.
Positives and negatives
Considering his position, there is no doubt that Keller is an offensive playmaker. He offers explosiveness off of the snap that should keep opposing linebackers on their heels. His ability to assist quarterbacks in trouble should help the Jets (no matter who the quarterback is), as well as his ability to gain yards after the catch. He can also separate from slower defenders and make catches over the middle of the field.
The weakest part of his game is his inability to block successfully. Often blamed for this flaw is his technique, which can be worked on by Jets tight ends coach Mike Devlin. Recently, when asked of his own blocking, Keller responded, "If somebody says I can't do anything, that means I have to prove them wrong." With the determination and effort that he has already shown, there is no reason that Keller can't improve this offseason. However, his frame is still small for a tight end and becoming a good blocker could be an uphill climb.
The Chris Baker situation
When the Jets drafted Keller, almost everyone in the organization was ready to welcome him with open arms, everyone that is, except current starting tight end Chris Baker. Of course, Baker's quarrel with the club began before the drafting of Keller with a discontented Baker upset over his current contract. Scheduled to make $683,000 this year, Baker, the presumptive starter would be making the least of the three tight ends the Jets have. This includes recent acquisition, veteran tight end Bubba Franks, who signed a one-year deal worth $1.65 million. However, what is not being represented by Baker is that the team advanced him $800,000 of his scheduled base pay for 2008, and his four-year deal pays him an average of $1.65 million per year.
However, before the draft Baker requested a trade, which was promptly denied. It is still unknown whether or not there will be further contract negotiations. Tannenbaum recently expressed that he expected Baker to be in attendance for all mandatory team functions, which includes training camp. In the meanwhile, Baker has left all voluntary activities and will boycott voluntary practices in May, which means Keller should have some time to learn the ropes.
Fantasy football outlook
Despite the fact that a starter has yet to have been determined between quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Chad Pennington, the final choice figures to have a minimal impact on Keller's performance. The statistics he gathers should depend on the overall efficiency of the Jets offense and his own ability to get on the field. He could find himself behind Baker and Franks when the season starts, though he will most likely be used in certain formations where he can spread out wide or serve as a second tight end. His well-documented limitations as a blocker make it difficult to project him seeing a lot of time as a traditional in-line tight end this season.
Considering whether to draft Keller on your fantasy team isn't nearly as questionable with rookie tight ends traditionally struggling even in better situations. The Jets have two other quality tight ends in Baker and Franks, which makes Keller a player to ignore in single-year leagues. The same holds true for Franks, but Baker could have value as a backup tight end or even a low-end No. 1 in deeper leagues assuming he works out his issues with the club before the start of the season.
About Pete D'Antonio
Pete has been a KFFL contributor since May 2008.
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