FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Kellen Winslow Jr. always believed he'd be where he is now.
Even when he was sitting at home a few months ago, anxiously waiting for a phone call from an NFL team - any team, really - that would give him another chance.
"It was very hard,'' the New York Jets tight end said Tuesday. "Besides my motorcycle accident (in 2005), it was the toughest part of my career. And it was unnecessary.''
Winslow played in just one game last year - one catch for New England - after being a late-summer cut by Seattle, a situation at which he is still bitter. He had a solid training camp with the Seahawks, but was released just before the season. Winslow said the move was over money, and he reportedly didn't want to restructure his contract.
"That's just the way they do things over there, I guess,'' he said. "But I'm back, and it's good to be back. I'm happy to be back.''
The Jets offered him a tryout in minicamp in June, signed him a few days later and he could end up being one of the smartest signings of the season - as long as he can stay healthy.
The former Pro Bowl tight end had a terrific debut Sunday, catching a team-leading seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in the 18-17 win over Tampa Bay while also serving as a dependable option for rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
"When it's clutch time and it's time to make a play, that's what I live for, man,'' Winslow said. "That's what it's all about. I don't want to let these guys down, and vice versa.''
Winslow is only two years removed from catching 75 passes for Tampa Bay in 2011, but a balky and surgically repaired right knee and the fact he turned 30 this summer might have scared off some teams. Sensing he'd get very little playing time, he asked for his release last season after that one game with the Patriots, who he'll face Thursday night.
"It was just wrong timing,'' he said, adding he enjoyed his brief time in New England. "Rob Gronkowski was there, Wes Welker was there and Aaron Hernandez was coming back real soon from injury, and it was just wrong timing.
"Right team, wrong timing.''
He's certainly hoping the Jets are the right team at the right time.
After allowing Dustin Keller to leave as a free agent, the Jets were thin. During his three-day tryout, Winslow impressed Rex Ryan, flashing some of the skills that made him one of the league's best young tight ends during his first few seasons in Cleveland.
"As soon as the name pops out, you're intrigued,'' Ryan said. "But then when you get here, you realize, `Hey, this guy still has great receiving skills.' He's smart, and he's `a warrior,' to quote himself. That's kind of his mentality, there's no question.
"Is he as good as he once was? Maybe not, but he's pretty darn good.''
Jeff Cumberland is still listed as the team's starter, and Konrad Reuland is a solid blocking tight end, but Winslow provides an invaluable amount of experience whenever. He has caught 445 career passes, including 24 touchdowns, and is a guy the raw Smith will be able to look for.
Just as he did late in the game Sunday, when he connected with Winslow on a 25-yard pass that helped set up the winning field goal.
"Kellen is great, not only from a leadership standpoint, which is something I think he brings to the table every single week, but a physical standpoint,'' Smith said. "He's one of those tight ends who constantly gets open. He can be a safety valve for me. He communicates well, he's extremely smart, he knows defenses. He's just a wily vet.
"It's good to have a guy like that on your side.''
Reuland has been impressed by Winslow's football acumen, something he thinks people might overlook. His ability to read defenses has been something Reuland has tried to pick Winslow's brain about, as well as how he "puts his own little twist on a lot of routes and blocking techniques.''
The one thing, though, that has stood out most to Reuland has been Winslow's desire to be what he once was.
"He's hungry,'' Reuland said. "He's got a chip on his shoulder. He's one hell of a competitor. Really, he's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. He took last year as 32 teams passed on him.''
Winslow acknowledged that it's just one game, and he has plenty more work to do. The Jets have been routinely given him "rest days'' to make sure he doesn't overdo things in practice.
But he's already on his way to showing 31 other teams that maybe they should have picked up the phone this offseason. Make no mistake, all the doubters still drive Winslow.
"I think I need to be like that,'' he said. "Knowing myself, I have to be that way. It motivates me when guys think they're better than me. It's fun.
"It's all just competition, and I like that.''