Jets rookie tight end has special hands -- even without 12 fingers

Jets rookie tight end Chris Herndon has 17 catches in the Jets' past four games. Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Chris Herndon hopes to be known one day as a tight end with great hands. This much we already know about him: He has unique hands. Or did, anyway.

The New York Jets' rookie recently revealed in an interview with SportsNet New York that he was born with 12 fingers, a genetic physical anomaly known as postaxial polydactyly. Translation: Herndon had an extra pinky finger on each hand, and those fingers were surgically removed when he was an infant.

Naturally, once his teammates found out, the razzing began.

"I get a lot of, 'You're weird' and 'I knew there was something different about you' -- stuff like that," Herndon told ESPN. "It's been all fun, though."

Herndon had no idea that he had 12 fingers until he asked his parents about the small scars on the sides of his hands. They explained what happened, and he hasn't given it much thought since. He joked that he might try to get more info from his parents now that it's a thing.

Right now, his 10 remaining fingers are working pretty well.

A fourth-round pick out of the University of Miami, which has produced several terrific NFL tight ends, Herndon has emerged as one of the few bright spots on the Jets' offense. He's fourth on the team with 19 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns. With scoring receptions in Weeks 6, 7 and 8, Herndon joined Keyshawn Johnson (1996) and Thurlow Cooper (1960) as the only rookies in team history with a touchdown catch in three straight games.

The Jets have struggled to find impact players in the middle rounds, but maybe Herndon can reverse the trend. He slipped to the fourth round because of a knee sprain late last November that ended his 2017 season and hindered his ability to work out for teams before the draft. He didn't have jump-off-the-page production in college -- career totals of 86 receptions and seven touchdowns -- so the Jets had to do their homework and trust their scouts.

As luck would have it, Herndon's best college game occurred on Oct. 21, 2017, against Syracuse at Hard Rock Stadium. The Jets happened to be in South Florida for their game the next day against the Miami Dolphins, so it was a convenient scouting trip for their brass. Herndon impressed, with 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.

The more the Jets studied Herndon, the more they liked. It's hard to call him a sleeper because he played at a high-profile program, but he did slip between the cracks because of the injury. In 2016, he was overshadowed by teammate David Njoku, a fleet tight end who was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns.

"He wasn't as well-known, and he didn't have Njoku's numbers, but if you talk to people at Miami, they'll tell you he can do more than Njoku," one AFC scout said of Herndon. "He's a better blocker, and he's more of a natural mover. He's a talented football player, and he should continue to develop as a receiver."

Barring injury, Herndon should be a factor down the stretch, which begins Sunday against the first-place New England Patriots (7-3). He saw an uptick in his playing time in the two games before the bye -- 64 percent in each game -- and there's no reason that shouldn't continue. The season is all but lost, so it makes sense to look at the young players.

If deployed properly, Herndon is a tough cover because he isn't a traditional, in-line tight end. In fact, most of his production (11 catches and two touchdowns) has come out of the slot.

Quarterback Sam Darnold called Herndon a "great route runner," and he should know because they started developing a rapport as far back as the spring. The two rookies roomed together in training camp and spent some of their spare time discussing X's and O's. Now if Darnold (foot strain) can get healthy and reconnected with Herndon, maybe they can create some positive vibes before the Jets' disappointing season fades away.

"I just think the offense slowed down for him,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said of Herndon. “From a mental standpoint, he’s playing faster because he can see everything that’s coming, and his abilities are starting to take over without him thinking.”

From a mental standpoint, Herndon has one of the toughest jobs because he lines up in so many spots: tight end, fullback, slot and split out. The tight-end position is more complex than it was back in the day. Still, he's improving and gaining confidence.

"With each game, it's starting to come to me, more and more," he said. "But I'm not letting that stop me from continuing to grow."

You might say he refused to be stopped by the fickle finger (or two fingers) of fate.