Jeff Cumberland, the Jets’ No. 3 tight end during preseason, has stepped up in recent weeks for injured starter Dustin Keller.
In his last three games, the third-year tight end has seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown, showing the soft hands and route-running ability of a man who started off his senior season at Illinois as a wide receiver. Cumberland was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jets three years ago and was viewed as a project, who needed to fill out his frame a bit. He barely played as a rookie, then last year an Achilles injury limited him to just three games. It was a severe disappointment after he impressed during training camp and preseason.
Now, Cumberland has stepped up to fill-in for Keller, a major part of the Jets’ offense, and it isn’t his pass-catching ability that is drawing rave reviews.
“Really with Cumberland, more the in-line blocking,” head coach Rex Ryan said. “And [that is] not bad for a college receiver but he’s doing a tremendous job for us.”
In many ways, the past two years had been building for a moment like this.
In 2008, when Cumberland was a senior at Illinois, he was asked by the coaching staff to move from wide receiver to tight end. The Illini had lost their two featured tight ends to injury and the thought process was that Cumberland’s wide frame and strong lower body could handle the role for the season’s final six games.
Not much was asked of him in the role though. Now in his third year with the Jets and injury free, he’s able to focus on fine-tuning his game, in particular the blocking aspect.
“It’s the will about doing it, being sound about it. Being coachable is key and I’ve always been a coachable guy,” Cumberland said.
“The footwork will be the No. 1 thing — taking the angle, the right blocks. Take that right angle and you won’t get pushed as much. That’s the biggest thing for my development right now. You just have the chance to stick with that. You continue to get better and better with each practice and the more you focus on it the better you become. Last year, I had the injury with the Achilles and all that. I was focusing on the rehab and getting back there. I wasn’t focused on the tight end stuff. This next offseason is going to be really big for me though in terms of getting better.”
Cumberland has stepped up as Keller has struggled with injuries. His role expanded further when the Jets lost Josh Baker early in the year to a season-ending injury. He’s put in extra work with tight end coach Mike Devlin, again working on the blocking and his technique. It is easy, he said, to want to rely on your strength and ability when run blocking so he is fine-tuning his form so that it becomes more automatic.
During his senior year of college, Cumberland began to think about how he could see himself projecting at the next level as a tight end. On his left arm is a tattoo of himself catching a ball and he’s wearing the No. 17 jersey he wore in college. He is still first and foremost a pass-catching tight end, but much like when he was at Illinois, injuries have pressed him into a larger role. He knew that as a larger wide receiver he could grow into being a tight end in the NFL.
Cumberland will be called upon to play a major role in the Jets offense against linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown of the Titans.
“I want to become more than a receiving tight end, but to be an every down tight end. I’m not a selfish player and I want to do all the things a tight end can do. Coach Devlin has done a good job in helping me with the blocking role. The coaches see me out there. The coaches see what I’m doing, they know what I’m doing and I want to help every way I can,” Cumberland said.
“Losing a guy like Dustin is tremendous, but I have to take the same approach from camp. I won’t change anything about what I’m doing. I’m just going to keep working at everything even if I’m doing more right now.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.