- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- Dustin Keller may have the perfect amount of fame. It's a realization he's come to after hitting events from the ESPYS to Broadway shows with his quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The New York Jets tight end can still get the good tables at restaurants, but he can walk down the city's sidewalk in relative anonymity on a perfect fall day during the bye week.
If the Jets win the Super Bowl?
"Forget it," Keller said with a smile, "I won't go outside with Sanchez anymore."
The quarterback might get most of the glory if the Jets are able to actualize those championship goals, but Keller has quietly been amassing some pretty impressive numbers as the Jets head into the bye with a 5-1 record.
He has 24 catches for 343 yards. That's an average of 14.3 yards a catch, with five touchdowns as well. He's fifth among NFL tight ends for yardage, and second only to San Diego's Antonio Gates in scoring at his position. Keller injured his wrist against Denver on Sunday; he had an MRI and says it's a little sore but not anything that will keep him out of action.
Part of the reason for his emergence this season is no doubt his connection with Sanchez. Keller is the quarterback's favorite target this season after bonding at Jets West, the camp Sanchez hosted in the offseason. Braylon Edwards is a close second with 21 catches for 343 yards.
"[Keller] was one of the first ones to come out to California to throw," Sanchez said. "He was the first one to book his flight. As soon as I talked to him about it [he said], 'I'm there. What do you need?' That work we got in the offseason was huge. Now, he's just trying to fine tune it."
Perhaps more important, the Purdue first-rounder who couldn't block has turned into a true tight end. It has allowed the coaching staff to keep Keller in the game, even when he isn't a target. If you track his plays, Keller is on the field in every situation, and rarely gets a play off this season.
"That's different from the past couple years," Keller said. "That's really because of the blocking. Now they feel a lot more comfortable with me being in there in all these different plays so I don't have to come off the field anymore. That was the goal, to become a complete tight end."
Keller needed time to figure out the best way to use his hands when blocking. He hadn't needed the skill as much at Purdue, where he'd started as a wide receiver. But his size -- he is 6-foot-2 and 248 -- ultimately dictated that he convert to tight end.
"I'm not as big as any of the guys I face," Keller said, "so I have to have better technique than anyone else. Technique is more important than anything else when it comes to blocking."
Now in his third season with the Jets, Keller is coming into his own. He is spending the bye week vacationing in ... New York City. He'll be checking out restaurants, plays like "Lombardi" and live comedy, anticipating a possible permanent move from the New Jersey suburbs.
Keller, 26, has been helped by a strong supporting cast, including his brothers. In a recent Sports Illustrated story about college athletes taking money from agents, Keller was pointed out as a player who paid his own way to visit agents -- playing it straight the whole way.
Sanchez has a network of support similar to Keller's, just one of the things these two have in common. The other is an incredibly prankish sense of humor: Last week, Sanchez sent out a Photoshopped picture via Twitter of Keller with a monster-sized head.
For his part, Keller said he gave Sanchez a hard time for getting himself a second-row seat at the ESPYS while his teammates were back in Section 107.
But even if he could've gotten into the front row, Keller isn't so sure he'd like the tradeoff when it came to upping his celebrity.
"I have all I need -- no more, no less. People are cool, say hi and walk on," Keller said. "When I'm out with Sanchez you have to worry about making Page 6."
He is taking Jets coach Rex Ryan's advice and getting away from it all. Keller will have a week to soak up the atmosphere of Manhattan, but then it's back to the grind.
"[Ryan] told us all to get away from the game, relax with your family but be ready to come back and play good football," Keller said, "because there's a lot of the season left."
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