The New York Jets’ special teams improvements will vital in taking their first steps toward their leadership’s vision.
When an NFL team comes off a two-win season and adds a second digit to its playoff drought, a macabre gift is offered in the form of an offseason where almost any move made will push the organization in the right direction.
Even if the New York Jets weren’t coming a season considered garish even by their own star-crossed standards, they certainly had one of most productive offseasons in the NFL.
The hiring of Robert Saleh brought rave reviews domestically and abroad. The end of April saw them find their newest franchise quarterback (Zach Wilson) and finish creating what could be one of the deepest receiving corps in the league (draftee Elijah Moore joining veteran newcomers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole). Defensively, they stocked up on veterans of 4-3 sets that Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich are projected to implement.
While the playoffs still sit out of reach for the Jets, trapped with a divisional juggernaut and established AFC contenders, there’s no doubt they’ve improved on paper on both offense and defense. They’re packed with newcomers that are going to help them improve both immediately (Tevin Coleman/Jarrad Davis) and in the long term (Davis and Carl Lawson, each a signer of a three-year deal).
But the true difference after this offseason could well be on display on the Jets’ special teams.
It feels like an eternity since the Jets were able to breathe easy about their specialists, even though it’s only been two full seasons since they sent both their kicker (Jason Myers) and primary returner (Andre Roberts) to the Pro Bowl. The turnover in the kicker’s spot has been particularly troubling: since Myers absconded to Seattle after his all-star season, six different kickers have appeared in the Jets’ role in either a regular season or exhibition contest.
It’s not just the kicking game where the Jets have struggled. Last season, they ranked 25th and 27th in opposing kick and punt return respectively and alternated between Corey Ballentine and Braxton Berrios as their own kickoff man.
New head coach Robert Saleh made it clear from the get-go that special teams adjustments would be part of his ongoing renovations, even if he wouldn’t take an immediate hands-on role. To that end, he retained longtime special teams coordinator Brant Boyer on his staff after an extensive research process. Boyer has now survived the purges of Todd Bowles and Adam Gase’s respective staffs as he enters his sixth season on the green staff.
“So many people have called on his (Boyer’s) behalf,” Saleh said per team reporter Ethan Greenberg. “He’s held in such high regard.”
General manager Joe Douglas has concurred, demonstrating his dedication by drafting punter Braden Mann with the final pick of his original draft in 2020.
The kicking solution isn’t fully solved, with incumbent Sam Ficken battling with undrafted free agent Chris Naggar. While Naggar might not have had the notoriety of first-year prospects like Evan McPherson or Jose Borregales, but he did lead the AAC in conversation rate (94 percent) and points during his final year at Southern Methodist.
“(We’re) very excited about him, giving him a chance,” Saleh said about Naggar, per Max Goodman of Sports Illustrated. “(We’re going) to give him the opportunity to come here and compete for that job. That’s a real deal and it’s gonna be fun to watch.”
That’s the type of reliability the Jets need in the kicker spot, especially with an offense still lingering in its development stages. With new quarterback Zach Wilson in tow, the maturation process will probably start all over again (though Wilson has a far stronger arsenal to work with in his first year than Sam Darnold probably ever did). What’s going to be huge in boosting a young offense’s confidence is if they can end drives that reach opposing territory with any points whatsoever.
They nearly had that in Ficken last season, as the Penn State-based veteran hit his first nine field goal attempts (five alone in an October prime time game against Denver) before sustaining an injury that forced the Jets to turn to Sergio Castillo and Chase McLaughlin at several points.
Likewise, the Jets need to shore up their return game with Roberts long gone. Darnold’s rookie season was barely blessed, but he did have the relative stability of Roberts, currently a Houston Texan, setting him up with solid starting field position.
If anyone knows about strong starting field position, it’s one of Boyer’s new positional assistants in Leon Washington. Sure, the prescience of Washington, a 2006 New York draftee, may make Jets fans feel old, but that’s a minuscule price to pay for having his expertise on the roster. Washington has spent four of the past five seasons
Upon his arrival to the Jets’ staff, Washington expressed a desire to carry on in the footsteps of his own special teams as a player, the long-tenured Mike Westhoff.
“You think about the history of the Jets. They were always known for special teams going back to Mike,” Washington, the Jets’ all-time leader in kick return touchdowns, said in another team. “Brant does a great job. He’s in that Mike Westhoff mold. He can really get guys to play hard for him.”
Among those looking to follow in Washington’s footsteps may be Moore, who filled in on both receiving and punt return duties in a solid fashion at Mississippi. Another offensive choice from Cleveland’s draft, as North Carolina rusher Michael Carter spoke about the idea of handling kickoffs with Jack Bell on the team website.
“I’ve been returning kicks all my life,” Carter said. “I did in college last two years. I don’t know what the future has in store, but I’m sure the Jets have a good plan for me.”
The Jets’ free agency offerings seem to indicate that they’re interested in the smaller, less-heralded aspects of special teams as well. Their coverage issues often set opponents up in strong situations and several touchdowns were perhaps saved by Mann, who earned four tackles last season. Sure, it’s always great to see the team’s reaction when the punter earns a takedown, but the fun wears off when the opposing offense needs a mere 40 yards for six points. This offseason has seen them take steps to combat that problem, wisely allocating their excessive offseason capital toward those goals.
Justin Hardee, well known for his coverage exploits, was signed from New Orleans, while sixth-round choice Hamsah Nasirildeen has been seen by some as a steal for his potential to provide strong specialist coverage. Post-draft endeavors saw them take undrafted rookie Jordyn Peters from Auburn. The safety became well known for becoming a new kind of backfield prescience, blocking four punts during his time as a Tiger.
— BLITZALYTICS (@Blitzalytics) April 19, 2021
One can certainly argue that the NFL appears to be chopping at the impact special teams have on the game: longer extra points encourage two-point conversions, the kickoff gets moved up by a few yards more often.
But if the Jets ignore their special teams exploits, Robert Saleh’s “All Gas, No Brake” mantra is going to go for naught and lose its meaning. So far, the Jets are doing what they can to prevent that reality.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags