Originally posted on Turn On The Jets  |  Last updated 8/16/12

New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller is entering the most crucial season of his NFL career. The team has understandably held off on giving him a large contract extension, instead choosing to wait and see how he produces in Tony Sparano’s offense. Through four years, Keller has been good but has never truly broke out in the way many around the team expect him to. This season, more than ever the Jets need the Pro-Bowl season that he has personally declared is on the way.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Jets are lacking proven offensive playmakers heading into this season, particularly in the passing game. Beyond that, Mark Sanchez is yet to have an opportunity to work with two of his top three receivers, Santonio Holmes and Jeremy Kerley, this pre-season because of his injuries. Without question, Keller is the receiver he is most comfortable with and should see a ton of passes coming his way all season.

Keller has never been able to sustain productivity throughout his career. The four seasons are marked by stretches of All-Pro caliber play followed by weeks of inactivity. The productivity tends to occur early in the season and then tail off throughout the year.

Last season, Keller caught 16 passes for 249 yards 2 touchdowns in the Jets first three games. Over the next six games, he only collected 15 receptions for 224 yards and o touchdowns. He improved slightly down the stretch but not much, finishing the season with only 5 touchdowns and 12.5 yards per reception. In 2010, it was the same story. He caught 5 touchdowns in the Jets first 4 games and then didn’t catch one the rest of the season. He also saw a gaudy early season yards per catch average drop off to 12.5 by the end of the year.

Keller needs to improve his consistency, his red-zone production and downfield playmaking ability. All of these issues don’t fall solely on him. It is fair to place blame on Brian Schottenheimer’s horizontal passing attack and perplexing game plans. It is also fair to blame Mark Sanchez for his occasional struggles.

Regardless, the top priority of the Jets passing game this year should be keeping Keller involved on a weekly basis and getting him the ball inside the 20 yard line. His yards per catch should improve thanks to Tony Sparano’s scheme. Anthony Fasano averaged 13.5 yards per catch and 14.1 yards per catch the past two years respectively and he is substantially less athletic and versatile than Keller.

It can’t be used as an excuse that defenses are keying on Keller. Santonio Holmes is enough of a threat on the outside to keep double teams away from Keller in most situations, nevermind if Stephen Hill develops into a viable deep threat. Keller needs to be moved around the formation to get matched up on defensive backs who he can take advantage of with his size, particularly in the red-zone. If he is seeing coverage from linebackers, the Jets have to get him down the seam where Mark Sanchez throws the ball particularly well.

The Jets can’t afford to have Keller go 5 straight weeks with less than 3 receptions. The Jets can’t afford Keller to have another 5 touchdown season. It is time to expand his route tree beyond bootlegs. Creativity will be needed because he is without question the team’s second best all around receiver and their most versatile weapon in the passing game.

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