FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Very little was expected from the Jets’ receiving corps in 2017. The group was young and missing Quincy Enunwa, arguably their best receiver, who was placed on injured reserve in early September after undergoing neck surgery.
The Jets traded for veteran Jermaine Kearse and claimed veteran Jeremy Kerley to bolster the unit. But right now, Kerley is serving a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s performance enhancing drugs policy, and Kearse, traditionally a second or third option with Seattle, has made little impact of late.
The one player who is performing well is second-year receiver Robby Anderson.
He’s scored a touchdown the last four weeks and is third in the NFL with 16 receptions of at least 25 or more yards.
“He is just so much more of a technician in his route running,” quarterback Josh McCown said of Anderson. “And there is still so much room for improvement, but he’s gotten so much better, and I think it’s a credit to [wide receivers coach] Karl Dorrell and [offensive coordinator Johnny Morton] and the system and how he’s being coached, and it’s a credit to him and his ability to work.”
On Sunday, Anderson will look to extend his touchdown streak when he faces the Carolina Panthers. And if the Panthers know anything about Anderson, it’s that playing him in single coverage could be dangerous. The Jets like to utilize Anderson’s speed so he can run go routes down the sidelines when he gets one-on-one coverage.
“I’ve seen him grow from the beginning of the season,” Kearse said. “He definitely came along for sure. Just his ability to stretch the field the way he has. I’m still surprised people are letting him catch go [routes]. [If] they’re going to keep letting him do it, then we’ll keep throwing them. He goes out there and tries to compete and that’s all you can really ask for.”
There was plenty of uncertainty regarding Anderson, who is a slender 6-3 and 190 pounds in his second year out of Temple. In his rookie year, Anderson was the third or fourth read with veteran receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker on the team. The Jets ran a more conservative offense with Chan Gailey as the play-caller and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick relied on the veterans more than Anderson to get the ball downfield.
After Gailey wasn’t retained and the team released Decker and Marshall, the West Coast offense was inserted by Morton.
McCown also was brought in to become the bridge to younger quarterbacks such as Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. With the two veterans gone, Anderson was asked to compete for a starting job and he won it. Morton, in his first season as play-caller, wasn’t afraid to ask Anderson to make big plays with his speed.
Morton wants to stretch the defense and he’ll utilize three and four receiver sets to get Anderson the man-coverage he needs to make impactful plays.
“I feel like I’m one of our sparks sometimes,” Anderson said. “I bring what we need a lot of the times to help us out.”
Anderson has been doing more than helping out. He leads the Jets and ranks third among second-year receivers in the league with 568 receiving yards. He also has a team-leading five touchdowns. Paired with Kearse, they have a combined for nine touchdowns. The Jets are only one of six AFC teams to have multiple wide receivers with at least four touchdown receptions.
Kearse isn’t a big speed threat, but he’s the more accomplished receiver who makes plays near the sidelines and in the middle of the field. Anderson is the speed the Jets look for to stretch the defense. To get there, Anderson worked on the little things, like footwork, route running and maintaining poise with opposing corners keying on him.
“It can annoy you a little bit when teams are focusing on you,” he said. “But that’s what you hope for, especially if we improve throughout the game.”
Anderson works with McCown in the film room and before practices on route running and recognizing what defenses are doing to them.
Last season, corners didn’t notice Anderson much. He caught 42 passes for 587 yards with two touchdowns while making eight starts. He already has surpassed his start total from last season and he’s close to getting career highs in catches and yards.
“I would say I’ve been making progress,” he said. “My game has improved from week one to where are now. You don’t want to peak out early and decline. I feel like my season has been taking an incline if you look at a graph. I feel like it’s been going up and I want to keep it going in that direction.”
Robby Anderson’s 2017 numbers: