One of the craziest games of the 2020 NFL season ended with all 6-foot-6 of Tyler Kroft fully extended to catch his second touchdown of the day and rescue the Bills from a blown 25-point lead.
If that’s all you saw of Kroft with the Bills, you have the wrong idea of how the past two years unfolded. He joined the Jets in search of an opportunity to make more red-zone plays, like when he finished sixth among tight ends with seven touchdown catches for the 2017 Bengals.
Kroft’s first opportunity to show what he can do for the Jets — and make up for a couple drops in practice — comes Saturday night in the preseason opener against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
“I believe I can get back to that level and be better,” Kroft told The Post. ‘’Back then, I was about 245 pounds. Now I’m up near 260, and I’m running better than I’ve ever run.’
Kroft’s encore to his career year (42 catches for 404 yards) was cut short when he broke his left foot in 2018. The injury didn’t stop the Bills from signing him to a three-year, $18.75 million contract — and the contract didn’t stop an injury roller coaster (second break to the foot and a high ankle sprain) that essentially nullified a second straight season in 2019.
“I always preach, ‘You have to be real with yourself,’ ” Kroft said. “I know my first year in Buffalo I didn’t look as good as I should’ve. I was still coming back from everything. Then last year our offense went more towards five-wide and when I was in there it was me blocking. I try to embrace whatever role they give me, but it’s exciting being used more as a true tight end in the passing game here.”
The Bills slashed Kroft’s salary for 2020, and he negotiated to void the contract’s third year so he could reach free agency sooner.
“Rightfully so, they saw my production way down, so they looked at it as I didn’t earn up to what I made the year prior, but they were like, ‘We want you here for three years still,’ ” Kroft said. “I said, ‘I want to prove to you that I can make that back’ ”
Now he can. Twice this season. In an AFC East rivalry. Where Kroft can take what he saw from a pre-superstar Josh Allen and pass it on to rookie Zach Wilson.
“What I was talking to Zach about is not being afraid to let your personality show,” Kroft said. “Josh wears his emotion on his sleeve. I know the pressure is going to be on Zach this year coming to New York and being the No. 2 pick, but I was trying to remind him that it’s the same game you’ve played your whole life. Zach is himself playing loose and having fun. Even though Josh grew with X’s and O’s as a player, I think as his personality showed more, he kept improving as a player.”
With the Jets, Kroft found a wide-open competition, a return to his Northeast roots and familiarity with tight ends coach Ron Middleton, who he worked out for prior to going in the third round of the 2015 draft. Kroft, underwhelming returning starter Chris Herndon, Daniel Brown and Trevon Wesco all have taken first-team reps in training camp.
“He’s much faster than I thought and I always joke around with him about that,” said cornerback Bless Austin, a former Rutgers teammate. “He’s a big dude, but he can move. He’s not only a guy who you put out there when you expect the ball to be in the air. He is somebody who will put his hand in the dirt, his head on somebody’s body and move someone.”
Whoever wins the job could be in for a breakthrough: Owen Daniels and Jordan Cameron made Pro Bowls, and Fred Davis and Jacob Tamme had career years playing in this offensive system.
“After how last year played out, we wanted to make sure I would get used,” Kroft said. “We knew there was an interest, and it just seemed like everything fit perfectly. Especially playing at Rutgers, I’m used to this fan base and know what it’s about, so it’s fun coming back home.”
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