The New York Jets wide receiver position remains a question mark heading into the 2013 season. There is potential for a productive, deep group but there are a concerning number of “ifs” surrounding that potential: If Santonio Holmes can return healthy from off-season foot surgery. If Stephen Hill can return healthy from off-season knee surgery. If Hill can begin to improve his route running and consistency catching the football. If Braylon Edwards is brought back on a minimum contract to provide necessary depth. If Jeremy Kerley can take another step forward in his development. If one or two of those “ifs” break the wrong way, the Jets are going to have another season with an ugly situation at receiver.
One of the questions worth exploring for both the 2013 season and future seasons is can Jeremy Kerley become a capable full time starting receiver in the place of Santonio Holmes? The Jets are going to try (and fail) to trade Holmes this off-season, we don’t know how healthy he will be 2013. After this season, barring a surprising turn of events, he will be released to free up cap space long term.
Since joining the Jets, we have seen two versions of Holmes: The pre-contract Holmes who proved to be a clutch playmaker and lethal after the catch in 12 regular season games and in the playoff run during the 2010 season. And the post-contract Holmes who throughout the course of the entire 2011 season and first four games of 2012 season had 2 games with over 70 yards receiving and generally looked completely overmatched as a lead wide receiver.
There is no denying Holmes had to deal with mediocre quarterback play and a poor supporting cast. Yet, consider in 2011 Holmes started 16 games with a serviceable Mark Sanchez (26 TDs, 18 INTs, 76.2 QB Rating), Plaxico Burress at the other wide receiver spot, Dustin Keller at tight end and LaDainian Tomlinson as a pass catching option out of the backfield. In those 16 games he produced 51 receptions on 102 targets, for 654 yards on 12.8 yards per catch. This past season, Jeremy Kerley started 12 games in Holmes’ spot with a thoroughly awful Mark Sanchez (13 TDs, 18 INTs, 66.9 QB Rating), either Stephen Hill, Chaz Schilens or Clyde Gates at the other receiver spot, Jeff Cumberland at tight end and Bilal Powell as a pass catching option out of the backfield. In those 12 games he produced 46 receptions on 92 targets, for 630 yards on 13.7 yards per catch. It is worth nothing that in Holmes last 20 games with the Jets he had the previously mentioned 2 games with over 70 yards receiving, in Kerley’s last 20 games with the Jets he has 7 games with over 70 yards receiving.
Kerley exceeded Holmes rate of production while working with a much poorer supporting cast. Throughout 2012, he was moved all over the formation as most “Z” receivers are (the position Holmes played in 2011) and showed an ability to make plays outside of what just a traditional slot receiver is asked to do. Below are just a few examples -
In the first play, Kerley is lined up as the “X” receiver or the split end, meaning he is the lone receiver on the weak side of the formation.
Kerley immediately beats his man (Jonathan Joseph, one of the better corners in the NFL) off the ball and to the outside. This was only a 36 yard gain instead of a touchdown because Mark Sanchez (surprise, surprise) put too much air under the football. Kerley finished with 5 receptions for 94 yards in this game.
In the second play, Kerley began tight to the formation but motioned out to the middle of three receivers split out to Mark Sanchez’s left. In this formation, he winds up lined up in a traditional spot for a “Z” receiver or a flanker.
Kerley runs a beautiful seven or deep corner route and gets himself free for a 19 yard gain. He torched the Patriots repeatedly on this route as he finished with 7 receptions for 120 yards.
In the final play, Kerley is again lined up as the “X” receiver, this time against Patrick Peterson who is arguably one of the five best cornerbacks in the league. Kerley beats him off the ball with a strong release to the outside and pulls in a back-shoulder fade for a game clinching first down.
The point is thinking that Kerley’s ceiling is just a slot receiver is misguided. He is only entering his third season and will continue to develop, nevermind eventually get surrounded by a stronger supporting cast. He has the ability to be moved around the formation and shouldn’t have his reps relegated by being pigeonholed as strictly a slot receiver.
When discussing him comparatively to Holmes, the following must be noted. Kerley has never shown the ability to dominate a game the way Holmes did at times in 2010 and prior to that season. Holmes has a proven higher ceiling and also has a much better nose for the end-zone. He still had 9 touchdowns between 2011 and 2012, compared to only 3 for Kerley. There were times last season where Kerley saw double coverage and had safeties rolled towards him but Holmes has seen a much higher percentage of that type of attention during his time with the Jets. Yet to be fair, Holmes will be the highest paid receiver in football this year. He is supposed to be able to handle that kind of extra attention and produce more than he has in 2011-2012. Kerley is a 2010 fifth round pick and a minimum contract player. Even if Kerley is 80-90% percent the player that Holmes is, he comes at a tremendously higher value.
In reality, both Holmes and Kerley are better suited to be number two receivers instead of true #1 options. We don’t know how Holmes will produce coming off such serious surgery but it seems unlikely he will be on the team long term. If he misses time this year, Kerley should be able to adequately step in. If Holmes leaves next year, Kerley should be able to assume his role while the Jets continue their search for a true number one receiver.
For 2013, if Holmes is healthy the two of them should be able to play effectively together. There is no reason Stephen Hill or Braylon Edwards should be playing more reps out of the gate than Kerley, regardless of their size or assumed fit at the “X” position. Kerley and Holmes both have the skill set to be interchangeable between “X” and “Z” and should be the two players on the field for two receiver formations the bulk of the time. When the Jets go three wide receivers, then it makes sense to slide one of them in the slot while Hill or Edwards plays on the outside.