FLORHAM PARK, N.J.— Sam Darnold took the snap at the Texans’ 46-yard line and couldn’t find an open receiver. Sensing the pass rush was bearing down on him, the Jets’ rookie quarterback scrambled to his right to buy some time.
Meanwhile, rookie tight end Chris Herndon saw that Darnold was in trouble and quickly reacted to the situation by cutting off his route, which had taken him toward the right sideline.
“In that type of situation, you try to find a good spot and let Sam do the rest,” Herndon said. “I was heading toward the sidelines and if he were to throw it, I would have gone out of bounds after catching it. I didn’t want to do that, so I found a soft spot in the defense.”
Darnold saw Herndon’s adjustment and delivered a perfect pass for a 12-yard gain.
It was an important play on a significant drive, as Darnold led the Jets into the end zone two plays later on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Robbie Anderson to bring the Jets to within a touchdown, 16-9. The Darnold-to-Herndon connection once again paid dividends and offered hope that the two can continue to build a reliable connection that will thrive for years.
It’s still early for the fourth-round pick out of Miami, but Herndon at least offers the potential for the Jets to have a solid pass-catching tight end, something they have rarely enjoyed in recent years. He’s the kind of player who can provide a security blanket of sorts for Darnold, who can use the 6-4, 253-pound Herndon on relatively safe intermediate patterns, but also for longer routes that Herndon excels at running.
He is not expected to be the next Tony Gonzalez — the former Chiefs and Falcons tight end who is likely to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer in February. But the Jets don’t need another Gonzalez to get decent production at tight end. What they need is someone more reliable than, say, former 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro, who is already out of the league after being a washout with the Jets and Titans.
Through just 14 games, Herndon has already outpaced Amaro in career yards (412-404). And Herndon’s 32 catches are just nine away from Amaro’s total. Herndon already has more touchdown catches (3) than Amaro (2).
“I think it’s gone pretty well so far,” Herndon said.
It was an uncertain beginning for Herndon when he got to the Jets, with questions about a season-ending knee injury he suffered ln November of 2017 when he was playing college football for Miami. But plenty of rehab and trust were the right combination to have him ready going into this season.
“I feel like I did what they asked me to do when I got here as far as my knee, trusting them and following what they had for me,” said Herndon, who suffered a torn medial collateral ligament that required surgery. “Just watching how it’s been playing out, I feel like it’s been real good.”
And there is a growing confidence between Darnold and Herndon that has the rookie tight end encouraged about what comes next. The play off the scramble against the Texans was a perfect example of their trust in one another.
“It kind of starts at practice,” Herndon said. “Just gaining that chemistry, with each other and as a team. We’re all starting to get a feel for each other, how we play, and what we can do, and it’s starting to show on the field.”
Consider Herndon a bright spot on general manager Mike Maccagnan’s resume, and another reason why Jets CEO Christopher Johnson may consider retaining Maccagnan at season’s end. Despite remaining holes on the roster at pass rusher, offensive line and running back, Maccagnan drafted the Jets’ quarterback of the future in Darnold, and newly minted Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams is a cornerstone player on defense.
Herndon isn’t as big a presence as the quarterback or safety, but he certainly is a piece to the puzzle. Herndon acknowledges he occasionally thinks about how high his ceiling can be, but he doesn’t dwell on his long-term potential.
“I try not to think too far ahead,” he said. “Just think about the next day and get better whatever way I can and see the growth. Preparation is what allows you to have success.”
Sounds like a player who gets it.