Winslow, the son of a hall of famer, was the 6th pick in the 2004 draft, but has suffered some serious leg injuries early in his career, which continue to trouble him to this day. However, he has still been a productive player and his four 75-catch seasons are the third most in NFL history, behind only Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez. He does not have a good reputation as blocker though and has been a controversial figure over the years.
After the jump, I’ll be looking back over his career with an in-depth look at last season in particular in order to assess what he brings to the table and whether the good outweighs the bad..
Who is Kellen Winslow Jr.?
Kellen Winslow was one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history and caught passes from Dan Fouts in San Diego’s legendary “Air Coryell” offense. His son, Kellen Jr. attended the University of Miami, which had produced several elite tight end prospects over the previous few years, where he would catch 117 passes in two seasons. The 6-4, 247-pound Winslow Jr. would forego his senior year after winning the John Mackey award and all-American first team honors as a junior and lit up the combine with an excellent performance. Heading to the draft, his pedigree, skill-set and productivity made him one of the best tight end prospects of all time. Sure enough, the Browns took him with the sixth pick. That was a long time ago, though.
After suffering a broken leg in his first season, limiting him to just two games and five catches, Winslow badly injured his knee in a motorcycle accident and missed the entire 2005 season. His knee continued to be a problem, limiting him in practice and requiring at least five surgeries over the years. Despite this, after returning in 2006, he actually played all 16 games in five of the next six seasons, only missing six games in 2008 due to a staph infection. During this time, he was one of the most productive pass catching tight ends in the NFL.
2006 saw him catch a career-high 89 passes, although he averaged less than 10 yards per catch for the only time in his career. The following season, as his knee improved, he became more of a downfield threat, achieving career highs in yardage (1,106), yards per reception (13.5) and touchdowns (five, although he would match this twice later in his career). This would lead to the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career. In 2008, his production slipped because of the games he missed and at the end of the season, he was traded to Tampa Bay, who rewarded him with the biggest contract for a tight end in NFL history ($36m over six years).
In Tampa, he continued to be productive, averaging over 70 catches per season, scoring 12 touchdowns and playing in every game over the next three years. However, he did not get on well with new coach Greg Schiano and found himself traded for the second time in his career last May, this time to Seattle. Seattle released him at the end of preseason when he refused to take a pay cut and then New England picked him up but released him after one game for “personal reasons” according to Bill Belichick. It’s believed he did not want to play for New England because he had realized he wasn’t going to get many reps.
Eight seasons (plus one spent on IR)
Never played in the postseason
438 catches, 4.848 yards, 23 touchdowns
11.1 yards per catch
66% catch rate (since 2007)
19 drops (since 2007)
One carry for seven yards
Seven fumbles (three lost)
12 tackles on turnovers
24 offensive penalties committed since 2007
57 20+ yard plays and five 40+ yard plays
Let’s now take a more detailed look at what happened in 2012, since this affords us our most recent look at what Winslow is still capable of.
2012 Preseason (w/Seattle)
Week One: Tennessee
Winslow did not suit up for this game, although he had been practicing during the week and was expected to play.
Week Two: at Kansas City
After a Zach Miller concussion, Winslow was named the starter for this one and played during the first half. He was targeted once, making a catch for an 11-yard gain after getting a step on Wesley Woodyard on an out pattern. As a blocker, he didn’t make any mistakes that affected plays, although he didn’t really make any positive blocks to influence a play either. He did stay in to block once on a pass play though and on another play he initially double-teamed a pass rusher before leaking out on a route. It was interesting to note that Anthony McCoy was used as a motion tight end quite a lot, but Winslow was usually in-line (occasionally in the slot).
Week Three: at Denver
Winslow caught two passes in this game, for 23 yards and a touchdown. His first catch saw him motion over to H-Back and then catch a pass in the flat, but it was slightly behind him and he was tackled for a short gain. He then added a 21-yard touchdown, which you can see here. Obviously that wasn’t particularly impressive, because it was more of a coverage breakdown. On one other play, he was wide open on an out pattern but Wilson opted to throw downfield. He was targeted one other time, down the middle, but the ball was thrown too far out in front of him.
One thing about this game that reveals more about the reasons behind Winslow’s departure from Seattle was McCoy’s continued emergence. It was obvious he and Wilson had good chemistry, probably due to playing on the second unit together, which gave them the leverage to demand Winslow took a pay cut if he wanted to remain with the team.
Week Four: Oakland
As you’d expect, Winslow didn’t play much in this last game, which mostly featured backups. He was targeted once on a throw down the middle which was too high and over his head, but he did get a couple of steps on his man.
2012 Regular Season (w/New England)
Week Three: at Baltimore
His cup of coffee with the Patriots saw him feature in just four plays before being granted his release the following week. The first play was actually a 59-yard gain as his route down the seam played a part in drawing the defense out of position on a pass to Wes Welker over by the sideline. On the next play, he and Rob Gronkowski made a double-team block, but the run was bottled up. In the second half, he was in on two plays and targeted on both. The first saw him run an out pattern on 2nd and six, but the ball was off his fingertips on a diving attempt for what would have been a first down. On the second, a slightly deeper throw on another out pattern saw him make the catch and step out for a 12-yard gain.
There’s not too much we can read into those four games, since he was only thrown the ball seven times. However, he did show an ability to get open and – as we’d expect – no significant impact as a blocker. He made a couple of plays – and looked good doing so – and other than one difficult drop, didn’t really do anything to hurt the team. The fact he was released twice doesn’t therefore seem to be connected to anything he did or didn’t do on the field of play. As we’ve already touched on, there were other reasons and the footage would seem to back that up.
Now let’s break down some observations about Winslow based on the above footage and some from earlier in his career.
Winslow is a guy that will be split out wide or in the slot quite often. In his last full season, he did that on 241 of 840 snaps. That’s not quite as high of a percentage as Dustin Keller, but it’s clearly a similar role, whereby neither of them would be required to make a key block very often and they would mostly be running routes or otherwise occupying a defensive player as a decoy.
Winslow’s numbers speak for themselves. If he returns to the level of production he had in each of his years with the Bucs this year, he’ll surpass 500 catches for his career, which would put him in the top ten all-time for tight ends. He’s capable of piling up a lot of short catches for modest gains and occasionally getting downfield to stretch the field. As I noted in last week’s look at Marty Mornhinweg’s offense, Winslow makes a lot of catches on throws down the seam, which could be a staple route in Mornhinweg’s offense this year.
In each of his three years in Tampa Bay, he made three catches beyond 20 yards downfield. However, they targeted him progressively less with such passes (14 in 2009, seven in 2010, four in 2009). Maybe that’s a sign that he is slowing down and perhaps is less of a threat downfield now unless the element of surprise is involved.
Winslow’s route running has been praised in the past and he does make it look pretty effortless. Maybe he doesn’t always come out of his breaks with the quickness or sharpness of a slot receiver, but that probably doesn’t matter. Usually he will have an athletic advantage compared with any linebackers that try and cover him, so he often doesn’t even need to run technically sound routes to get open.
Winslow’s hands are very impressive, suggesting that even if he has lost a step, he can still make plays in the passing game. Reviewing all his drops shows that hardly any of them were routine plays. In fact, of the six he had in 2011, one was a catch anyway (he bobbled it and it was ruled incomplete, but the Bucs opted not to challenge because even though he clearly caught it, it was fourth down anyway). Two others would have seen him hold onto the ball but for a hit from a defensive back as he gathered it in. Two were slightly off target and off his fingertips and the last one was fired into his shoulder pad from close range.
He consistently catches the ball with his hands rather than his body, is able to go up and high point the ball and looks comfortable catching it. Here’s a legendary catch he made while in college, a leaping catch from a couple of years ago and an insane one-hander on a tipped ball from 2010.
Yards after the catch
Winslow hasn’t been a player that makes a lot of yardage once the ball is in his hands over recent years, averaging between three and four yards after the catch per reception over each of his three years with the Bucs. He did break 18 tackles though, 11 of them in 2010. He did make this memorable and spectacular move to get into the end zone against Seattle in 2010.
In recent years, I’ve noticed that Winslow seems to have calmed down somewhat on the field. He did seem to be more fiery and demonstrative when he was younger. However, maybe that’s just because he lost motivation with the Bucs struggling in 2011. He is a guy that will jaw with an opponent and show frustration when he makes a mistake though.
I was intrigued by a comment I read from a Bucs fan who said that Winslow gets upset if he isn’t getting a lot of looks and this causes the quarterback to force the ball to him, leading to interceptions. I therefore went back and reviewed all the times Josh Freeman was intercepted trying to throw it to him in 2011. Sure enough, this happened nine times and nearly all of them were head-scratching “why did he throw that?” type passes. Also, nearly all of them were either in the red zone or on the first play of a drive, situations where Winslow might specifically be demanding more of the ball. Some were of the variety where Freeman stared down his target and didn’t see another defender coming off their man to jump the route and some where where he was hesitant and then threw it late, both situations Mark Sanchez finds himself in far too often in recent times.
So, there may be some truth to this – I can certainly remember a similar situation with Jeremy Shockey and Eli Manning in the past whereby you could see Shockey demanding the ball even when he wasn’t open and the inevitable Manning forced throw that gets picked a play or two later. However, I could not find any direct evidence of Winslow looking like he was frustrated at not getting the ball. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it seems more likely Freeman just started struggling and tried forcing it to his best target a bit too often – a theory strengthened by the fact that in 2009 and 2010 Freeman-to-Winslow only led to an interception twice (one each year).
I found it a little difficult to get a read on Winslow’s blocking, by virtue of the fact they rarely employed him in a key role. I didn’t see anything impressive from him, but at the same time, he didn’t make any terrible mistakes. I don’t want to say he wasn’t trying (and, of course, some of the footage was from preseason, so even if he wasn’t trying, maybe it’s not that big of a deal), but I did get a sense he was doing the bare minimum most of the time. He’d stay on his guy, slow him down, but if the run wasn’t coming to his side, he wouldn’t maintain leverage and rarely played to the whistle unless he had to.
In one way, maybe this is like his route running – if he’s going to get open anyway, then he doesn’t need to run a perfect route because the play will still work. This could be the sign of an experienced player not expending too much energy on things that don’t make a difference and concentrating on those things he can do well which have an impact. Like I say, that’s just a sense I get, because he seems to be under control and it seems like the game comes pretty naturally to him. By contrast, I always got the sense Keller – who did make improvements as a run blocker – was really trying hard, just made a bunch of mistakes.
Maybe as he becomes more experienced and thinks about reinventing himself to stick around into his thirties, Winslow could start to channel his experience and become more of a blocker. It would be reminiscent of Bubba Franks, another Miami product who was better known as a pass receiver who joined the Jets at about this stage of his career and – although Rex Ryan was mocked by the media for suggesting he could serve as a blocking tight end for them in 2009 – he actually didn’t do a bad job as a blocker in 2008.
As a pass blocker, Winslow has stayed in just 73 times from 2008 to 2012. That’s less than Keller, which is not a good sign in terms of how much his teams trusted him in that role. Having said that, Winslow has only surrendered one pressure (no sacks), whereas Keller gave up a sack and four pressures in 111 pass block snaps. Where I saw him in this role, he again uses his big frame to get in front of his man and the play almost always saw some kind of quick pass. I doubt they would use him too often on a play where the he had to sustain his block to buy time for a downfield route.
One of the bigger reservations about Winslow is that he has been a controversial figure over the years. At Miami, he had to issue an apology after making a fired-up speech comparing himself to a soldier. In Cleveland, he was suspended by the team after criticizing their handling of him while he was dealing with the staph infection. In Tampa, he was traded after bad-mouthing the organization and coaching staff. Other than these three examples, he has always been brash, outspoken and overconfident. That could be a combustible mix when facing the New York media if things aren’t going well. The hope is that last season may have been a humbling experience for him and maybe he will mature as he enters his thirties, but this must be something the Jets weighed up against the potential benefits of bringing him in.
Here is a move with plenty of pros and cons. Winslow is an extremely talented player, who has had seasons where he put up numbers twice as good as all of the other tight ends on the roster combined have ever managed in their entire careers. However, he’s a controversial figure with an injury history and might not have much left in the tank.
The good news from the Jets perspective is that the deal comes with no real financial risk and that the tight end competition has been bubbling along nicely during the offseason program, so the Jets do have other options if the Winslow move doesn’t work out.
At his best, there’s no question he’s a better pass catcher than any of the tight ends (and arguably most of the wide receivers) on the roster. It just remains to be seen how close to his best he can be in 2013. Hopefully, the young guys behind him will learn some things that will elevate their game as well.
Exclusive stats from Pro Football Focus were used in this article.