Jets' Robby Anderson catches fire: Harbinger or late salary drive?

In 60 games played for the Jets, wide receiver Robby Anderson has 202 catches for 3,009 yards and 19 touchdowns. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Before the NFL trade deadline, the New York Jets listened to offers and were prepared to move Robby Anderson -- the talented, but inconsistent wide receiver.

There was a feeling in New York's organization that Anderson was too soft, a sloppy route runner and one dimensional. There was apprehension about the Jets signing him to a long-term contract, which is why they dangled him at the deadline.

The Jets were ready to say goodbye, but now it sounds like coach Adam Gase is opposed to running a "go" route.

"I've seen [him] really make some huge strides this last month, and I've seen him do some different things that he wasn't necessarily doing earlier in the season consistently," said Gase, calling Anderson's emergence one of the positives to the Jets' 5-9 season. "He's really made some huge strides for us and I think that he's a guy that's really popped off on tape."

The future of the pending free agent, who faces the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) in what could be his final home game, is one of the key personnel decisions for the Joe Douglas-led front office. The Jets don't have a good track record when it comes to re-investing in their own players (Muhammad Wilkerson, anyone?), but they can't let past mistakes dictate current and future strategy. They must evaluate Anderson on his merits as well as the current receiver market.

Know this: Anderson, 26, will command north of $11 million per year. He's in this position because of a late-season surge that has turned his bitterly disappointing start to the 2019 season into a distant memory. Everybody knows the numbers -- 22 catches, 370 yards and two touchdowns in the past four games, compared to 25, 359 and two in the first 10.

"I can't really tell you why," said Anderson, trying to explain the turnaround. "The season might not always start like you expect, but you have the ability to end it like you hope."

Actually, it's not that hard to figure it out. We're not talking about the riddle of sphinx here. Simply put, Anderson has become more aggressive when the ball is in the air. He is making contested catches, the so-called 50-50 balls. In fact, he's winning 50% of them.

In Weeks 12 through 15, he caught six of 12 targets for 83 yards on tight-window throws, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. A tight-window throw is when the separation between the receiver and nearest defender is less than 1 yard when the pass arrives. Anderson is well above the league-wide catch rate (31.5%) over this span.

In Weeks 1 through 11, Anderson caught one of 13 targets for 10 yards -- a 7.7% catch rate on tight-window throws.

Is that telling or what?

The Jets' decision-makers must determine why this is happening. Is Anderson finally getting comfortable in Gase's offense, or is this a late-season salary drive?

Anderson has a tendency to get hot late in the season after sleepwalking through the first couple of months. This is his fourth offensive system in four years, so the constant change probably factored into the slow starts. Maybe he needs time to figure it out. If that's the case, they have to feel encouraged about what he could accomplish next season in the same system.

That he will be 27 in 2020, just entering his prime years, also appeals to the Jets, who haven't developed many homegrown players worthy of long-term deals. He also has a two-year history with quarterback Sam Darnold, who has thrown twice as many touchdowns (10) to Anderson than any other player.

"I think we've done a lot better job -- or I've done a lot better job -- of staying on time and in rhythm with him," said Darnold, explaining Anderson's spike in production.

Now let's examine the flip side: Anderson isn't a true WR1 (no 1,000-yard seasons, not dominant in the red zone) and he has a history of off-the-field issues. Two arrests resulted in several felony charges, but the only thing that stuck was misdemeanor reckless driving. Nearly two years have passed since his last arrest, an indication he has matured. But what happens when he becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams?

Another factor is the soft free-agent market at the position. Beyond Dallas Cowboys star Amari Cooper, it's slim pickings. If the Jets let Anderson walk, they will have to replace him via trade (not ideal) or tap into a receiver-heavy draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks six receivers, led by Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, among his top 20 prospects for the 2020 draft.

The Jets are interested in re-upping Anderson, but at what price? There are those who believe Anderson will demand Allen Robinson money ($14 million per year) or even Sammy Watkins money ($16 million APY). This might surprise you, but Anderson's four-year stats compare favorably with those of Robinson and Watkins.

Robinson (2014-17): 202 receptions, 2,848 yards and 22 touchdowns. That resulted in a three-year, $42 million contract from the Chicago Bears, who gave him $18 million guaranteed at signing in 2018.

Watkins (2014-17): 192 receptions, 3,052 yards and 25 touchdowns. The Kansas City Chiefs gave him a three-year, $48 million deal, including a $30 million guarantee in 2018.

Anderson (2016-19): 202 receptions, 3,009 yards and 19 touchdowns. And counting.

If the Jets venture into Robinson's financial neighborhood, it would be a strong commitment that essentially anoints Anderson as the Jets' WR1 -- a dramatic flip from where they stood at the trade deadline in late October. If they don't sign Anderson before he hits the open market in March, he will be a goner.

Douglas didn't want to pay 2015 first-round pick Leonard Williams and sent him packing to the New York Giants at the trade deadline. If he lets Anderson walk, it will make the rebuilding that much harder.