New York Jets offseason recap 2021: Special Teams

A New York Jets kicking competition is set to commence under the watch of the seemingly immortal coordinator Brant Boyer.

Following the conclusion of minicamp activities, the NFL offseason is officially over. The next time the New York Jets convene in Florham Park, they’ll be getting ready for preseason and regular season action for the 2021 campaign. 

With the offseason in the rearview mirror, ESM looks back on the green offseason that was, position-by-position. Our look back on the offseason comes to an end by wrapping up with special teams…

New York Jets, Jason Myers
Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

How It Started

Much has been made about the constant turnover in the Jets’ franchise quarterback role. But compared to what’s happened in the kicker’s role, that role is among the stable in football.

Since Jason Myers’ historic 2018 campaign…and after the Jets let him abscond to Seattle without much resistance…six different kickers (three alone during the 2019 preseason) have tried and failed to pick up where he left off. Lacking a reliable kicker for two straight seasons is always unacceptable, but missing one during a would-be franchise quarterback developmental years is gridiron doomsday.

Sam Ficken, to his credit, was refreshingly close to ending the trend. His three-point attempts were the one thing that was going right for the Jets over the opening portions of their 2020 season, converting each of his first nine attempts (five alone coming in a nationally televised showdown against Denver). But a groin injury suffered in October derailed his season, forcing the Jets to turn to CFL/XFL veteran Sergio Castillo before staging a meaningless finale with Chase McLaughlin.

Sixth-round pick Braden Mann was one of the busiest men in football last season. He was called upon to punt it away a league-high 82 times, but his 43.9 average was 28th in football. While the Jets would like to see him move up the stat ledger (though, ideally, he won’t be on the field as often this season), Mann did manage to go somewhat viral for some touchdown saving tackles.

In the return game, receiver Braxton Berrios has been reliable on punts. Over the last two seasons, Berrios is one of six returners (min. 30 attempts) to average at least 10 yards (fifth-best at 10.5). On kicks, Giants draft pick and cornerback Corey Ballentine was a pleasant surprise as a late arrival, averaging over 26 yards per return over the last six weeks.

Long snapper Thomas Hennessy lived up to the four-year extension he earned in the midst of the 2019 season and completed another incident-free season.

jets, michael carter

How It’s Going

Never mind cockroaches; when the apocalypse comes, Brant Boyer might be the last living thing to stick it out. The special teams coordinator was the sole survivor of the post-Adam Gase coaching purge, having also survived the erasure of Todd Bowles’ army.

“So many people called on his his behalf,” head coach Robert Saleh said of Boyer in January, per team reporter Ethan Greenberg. “He’s held in such high regard.”

The Jets spent this offseason delivering Boyer some welcome back gifts. He was particularly excited about the arrival of cornerback Justin Hardee, who became one of the NFL’s most respected gunners in New Orleans. Hardee was added on a three year deal and will certainly help a punt return unit that allowed over 11 yards a return last season, the sixth-worst mark in the league. In comparison, Hardee’s Saints allowed less than three.

“I was ecstatic on that one,” Boyer said in video from the Jets. “We played 13 different gunners last year, so it was a real struggle.” Boyer was also pleased about the leadership role Hardee took in the specialists’ room. “He’s been fantastic, and what he’s done is he’s taken over a leadership role in the room, and that’s what the biggest thing we needed in our room especially losing a bunch of our core guys and things like that.”

“We just need somebody to emerge at that other gunner, so they can’t double (Hardee) every time…we’ll see what happens, which I fully expect someone will do.”

The answer to Boyer’s quandary could lie within the latter rounds of the draft. Defensive project and sixth round pick Hamsah Nasirildeen was an elite gunner during his freshman year at Florida State (seven tackles in special teams coverage) while Brandin Echols served in specialist duties during his JUCO days.

In the return game, Berrios should be retained on punts, while Ballentine could face competition on kickoffs from running backs Michael Carter (24.5 average in his junior year at North Carolina) and Ty Johnson (27.2 in his senior year at Maryland).

Ficken was waived in December but was retained on a future deal. He’ll face competition from undrafted rookie Chris Naggar (AAC Special Teams Player of the Year at Southern Methodist) to retain his role. New York Jets, Sam Ficken

Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Are They Better Off?

As the Jets try to return to relevancy, they can’t overlook their special teams group. They’re preparing to embark on yet another quarterback development adventure with Zach Wilson as the lead protagonist and special teams can make an immediate difference in terms of helping him earn wins and losses.

When the new quarterback reaches opposing territory, a reliable kicker can ensure such drives end with points, building his confidence. If Mann takes a step forward and Hardee lives up to his sterling gunner reputation, the opponent can start in dire straits, and make the defense’s job a lot easier.

Much like his work on the offensive line, it’s good to see that general manager Joe Douglas is willing to valuable offseason capital on special teams, though it’s time for the arrivals to start rewarding his faith on the field. Adding elite, proven names in the arena like Hardee and Carter losses the pressure.

Final Offseason Grade: B-

How do you think the Jets’ special teams contribute to their resurgence? Follow Geoff Magliocchetti on Twitter @GeoffJMags and keep the conversation going.

The New York Jets’ most vital improvements may be on special teams

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.

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