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.

Three lessons the New York Jets can learn from their Islander friends

The New York Jets have been staples of the Islanders’ postseason tour on Long Island. Perhaps they can learn a thing or two along the way.

In following the New York Islanders’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, the New York Jets have traded in green and white for blue and orange. They’ve engaged in (Bud) light debauchery and have gone viral in the process as the Islanders are halfway through their quest for a fifth Stanley Cup hoist.

The next step of the journey begins on Sunday afternoon when the Islanders battle the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena (3 p.m. ET, NBC). Nassau Coliseum will host the third, fourth, and (if necessary) sixth games of the series, and it’s very likely that members of the Jets will attempt to take their usual seats for those contests. 

Is it possible that, in their fun, they might actually learn a thing or two along the way?

Class is in session, courtesy of ESM…

Have Depth Stars

On Long Island: Save for Mathew Barzal (appearances in the last two exhibitions), the Islanders are not a team of perennial All-Stars. John Tavares’ absconding for Toronto was supposed to be their downfall, but they’ve responded with playoff series victories in three consecutive seasons while the Maple Leafs have been relegated to opening round exits.

The Islanders are a team that has gotten by with a group of gritty, skilled players whose union has worked wonders. Nothing showcases their depth and consistency better than the grouping of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin, a trio of bottom-six forward staples since 2014. Nicknamed the “Identity Line”, NYI head coach Barry Trotz says that the group sets the tone for what they’re trying to accomplish on the ice.

“They give you impact. When they are playing the right way, they give you a little of that bite that you want,” Trotz said after a dominant January 2019 over Tampa, per Cory Wright of NewYorkIslanders.com. “They give you sort of that determination and speed on the puck and sort of an Islander identity. If there’s a line that’s sort of an identity line, well that’s the best way to describe them better than a fourth line because they give us an identity.”

In Florham Park: The Jets tried to go the big-spending route over the last few seasons, but marquee signings have not panned out. Right now, they’re actively paying Le’Veon Bell and Trumaine Johnson to keep their distance, for example.

Blessed with one of the highest offseason budgets in the NFL, it would’ve been easy for the Jets to fall to temptation and spend big money on a blockbuster talent (i.e. J.J. Watt). But once it became clear that the big names wanted to move on to contenders, the Jets bolstered their depth so more parts of the depth chart provide production and security.

This offseason has still seen some big contracts bestowed…Carl Lawson and Corey Davis are a combined $26 million cap hit…but many others signings have been about providing depth. They’re not the flashiest arrivals by any stretch, not the type of names that one can put on a parking lot light pole’s banner, but they’re the type of depth options the Jets needed at this point in time.

Jarrad Davis is a redemption-seeking first-round pick whose success in the 4-3 sets of the Florida Gators could come up big. At receiver, Davis is one of several names with the potential to become a No. 1 target. Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder return from last year’s team, while Elijah Moore was drafted in the second round. Uncertainty lingers at tight end and in the secondary, but the Jets’ thriftiness could pay big dividends, as undrafted free agents Kenny Yeboah and Isaiah Dunn could come up big.

Make Sure Special Teams are Special

On Long Island: Since Trotz took over in 2018, the Islanders have improved by leaps and bounds in almost every major statistical category with the exception of their power play. New York ranked 20th in the final regulars season rankings with a man advantage, though they were the only team in the NHL that did not allow any shorthanded goals.

The Islanders, however, rose to the occasion on the penalty kill, coming home sixth in the category over the regular season. Doing it in the postseason has been a work in progress…they’ve killed off only 61.5 percent of their infractions…but the power play came to life in spectacular fashion in Monday’s Game 5 showdown in Boston. Facing a Bruins squad that led the league with an 86 percent kill rate during the regular season, the Islanders scored three power play goals that forever changed the course of the series. Barzal scored on a chance in the first period, while Kyle Palmieri and Jordan Eberle earned extra-man tallies in the second.

The power play success not only provided the difference in the goal category but more or less shifted the entire course of the game. Taking advantage of the opportunities allowed the Islanders to not only withstand a late Boston rush, but they were able to earn a momentum-shifting victory on a night where they were outshot 44-19.

In Florham Park: There’s major hope for the Jets entering the 2021 season, even if reaching the playoff is still a tall task for the time being. But there’s no doubt that they’re still developing, still a work in progress, particularly on an offensive end that’s debuting a new quarterback and receiving corps. Thus, special teams must be addressed.

Confidence for a developing offense can be built by getting points on as many drives that end in opposing territory as possible. That comes through reliable field goal kicking, an area where the Jets have fallen woefully short since Jason Myers left for Seattle. Chris Naggar has been brought in to compete with incumbent Sam Ficken for that role. General manager Joe Douglas has shown that he’s not afraid to use valuable assets to address special teams. He used the last pick of his first draft to pick up punter Braden Mann and has tried to fill in the Jets’ Andre Roberts-sized void at returned through additions in the 2021 draft (i.e. Michael Carter).

Perhaps the most telling sign of Jets management’s willingness to bolster the special unit came through the retaining of coordinator Brant Boyer, who has now survived the purges of both Todd Bowles and Adam Gase’s doomed staffs.

It All Starts at the Head

On Long Island: Again, no one expected the Islanders to be in his position three years ago. This, after all, was a team that just lost the face of its franchise, perhaps the one thing it had going for it since the immortal early 1980s.

The hire of Trotz in 2018, however, may go down as one of the most fateful moves in franchise history.

Trotz had already developed a reputation as a strong nurterer of young talent and helping woebegone franchises find their path. He put the Nashville Predators on the NHL map as the franchise’s original head coach (serving 16 seasons at the helm after their 1998 inception). He then moved on to Washington, where he helped the Capitals removed the playoff monkey from their backs. Only under Trotz has Alex Ovechkin been able to reach hockey Nirvana in the Stanley Cup Final.

Once Trotz was voted out of Capitol Hill due to a contract dispute, the Islanders pounced and have been reaping in the benefits ever since. Under Trotz, the Islanders have won playoff rounds in three consecutive seasons for the first time since their quartet of Cup hoists (1980-83). Trotz’s status as a players’ coach that is nonetheless willing to hold his guys accountable has been a delightful contrast to the recent slew of also-rans. Doug Weight’s animated style, for example, was refreshing when he first took the reins but it quickly ran its course.

Trotz credits his success to looking at his status as a head coach as not a position of superiority, but one that leads to a partnership with his players.

“I look at coaching, my time, as I’m in a partnership with the players,” Trotz told Mollie Walker of the New York Post in March. “We’re in a partnership to win hockey games. The other partnership is to make you the best version of yourself, whatever that version is.”

In Florham Park: There’s no doubt that, despite the nine-win ledger, that the Jets had some talent on their roster over the last two seasons, better known as the Adam Gase era. Look no further than the names the Jets gave up on before him: Robby Anderson, Avery Williamson, Le’Veon Bell, and Steve McLendon accounted for only part of the list. But help has arrived in the form of Robert Saleh,  whose hiring has been universally praised.

The difference between the arrivals of Saleh and Gase are best contrasted by player reaction to the news. While Gase’s landing was met with mostly indifference…and whatever honeymoon there was quickly ended when he won a power struggle against Mike Maccagnan…Saleh’s arrival has been praised by players both domestically and abroad. It’s created an energy field in Florham Park not seen since, arguably, the Rex Ryan days.

“You have to give him an unusual amount of credit, and I don’t think he’s getting enough credit not only here but in the league, in general,” former Saleh pupil Richard Sherman said of his potential as a head coach in December, per the Associated Press. “He’s able to rally men. He’s a leader of men and that goes a long way.”

As the Gase era showcased all too well, talent means nothing when the right man isn’t in charge. Though vital downs have yet to be played, it’s safe to say the Jets feel that they have found the perfect curator and developer in Saleh.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The New York Jets must consider special teams at the NFL Draft

The New York Jets have to consider using their expanded draft stash on special teams solutions, which will put a developing offense at ease.

Special teams conspiracy theorists could probably claim that the NFL’s latest innovations and trends are trying to get rid of the third phase of the game entirely.

When extra points got too automatic, the league tacked on 15 yards to them, leading to increased tries for two points. Whereas the point-after-touchdown was moved back, kickoffs were moved up. Some felt their travels to the 35-yard-line (as well as a “reward” for a touchback being access to the 25) were the first step in having the kickoff go the way of the single-bar facemask. The increasingly prevalent analytics departments also weren’t helping matters, as evidence continues to mount that it makes more sense to go for it on fourth down in lieu of kicking or punting.

But special teams undoubtedly hold a place in the modern game. For a team that is situated with an offense that struggles to enter the end zone on a consistent basis, having a proven kicker is a perfect safety blanket. If defeat must be admitted, the least you can do is arm yourself with a good punter.

Hence, the New York Jets must spend this draft session, at least the latter portions, on special teams assistance.

New York Jets
NASHVILLE, TN – APRIL 25: The video board shows that the New York Jets have turned in their pick during the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft on April 25, 2019, at the Draft Main Stage on Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville, TN. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Jets obviously have aspirations of becoming frequent end zone visitors. They moved up in the draft to find a franchise quarterback. Free agency currency has been dealt to a star running back and blocker to clear the way for him. But until the team can find the end zone on a regular basis, having reliable specialists are absolutely vital. Considering the fact that Robby Anderson (by far their most reliable receiver since 2015) sought bluer pastures in Carolina, regular six-point possessions are easier said than done.

The long-term long snapper spot was readily fulfilled last season. Thomas Hennessy has played four incident-free years thus far and is destined for four more through 2024. But there are several needs that must be fulfilled as the Jets’ latest rebuild continues.

Over the past two seasons (the first of hopefully many overseen by Sam Darnold), the Jets have kicked 63 field goals, a number tied for seventh in the NFL. The surplus was tolerable when Jason Myers was booting triples from all over the field (17-of-19 from at least 40 yards out), but the Marist alum has moved on to Seattle. Since then, four different kickers have dressed in a green uniform, the most recent of which is Sam Ficken.

Those we believe that special teams are meaningless to the Jets…who, granted, still have holes to fill…surely missed their opening weekend tilt against the Buffalo Bills. The Jets’ heartbreaking 17-16 loss was made all the more painful by a missed field goal and extra point from first-game participant Kaare Vedvik. Ficken surfaced shortly after, but was hardly reliable with a 70 percent success rate (19-of-27).

The Jets did bring in a new kicker shortly after the season’s end. Alas, it was Brett Maher, one of only two qualified names below Ficken for conversion rate (20-of-30, 67 percent). Simply put, the Jets need competition, barring a miraculous scoring outbreak next season.

It’s understandable why the Jets didn’t upgrade in free agency. The most reliable names (Mason Crosby, Ka’imi Fairbairn, Dan Bailey) re-signed with their prior squads. Greg Zuerlein was coming off a career-worst season, while Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Succop were working off injuries.

The Jets are blessed with a deep draft in several of their need positions. Kicker is one of them.

2020’s kicker slot is highlighted by the bespectacled wonder that is Rodrigo Blankenship of Georgia. The former Bulldog may be more of an Athens staple than the hedges and Uga combined. Save for Georgia’s unfortunate collapse in the 2018 National Championship Game, Blankenship might’ve earned everything a kicker could achieve at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. He capped things off with the 2019 Lou Groza Award but his name also appears in the slots reserved for the kicker of the longest field goal in Rose Bowl history and the all-time leading leg scorer in SEC history. Blankenship also has an appearance in the 2019 ESPN Body Issue and a rap track to his name, certainly a unique accomplishment amongst his peers.

Also among the draft options is the perfectly named Jet Toner out of Stanford. Toner’s distance needs work, and he’s coming off a leg injury, but he completed all 101 of his extra points and went 14-of-15 in his last full season. Small-school option Tyler Bass (Georgia Southern) struggled in his senior season but impressed during the Senior Bowl preparation in Mobile. With the Jets afforded an eighth draft pick, particularly their final one in the sixth obtained from Kansas City through the Darron Lee transaction, they can afford to use capital on a kicker spot.

Somewhat murkier is the Jets’ dilemma at punter. It seems like an avoidable spot, but the fact remains that current free agent Lac Edwards led the league in punts with 87. That does come with a Luke Falk-sized asterisk (25 of Edwards’ boots alone came during Darnold’s three-game absence), but the Jets can’t afford to be negligent. If they fail to bring Edwards back, an SEC trio of Braden Mann (Texas A&M), Tommy Townsend (Florida), and Joseph Charlton (South Carolina) could fill in the gap.

The Jets can also fulfill their special needs earlier in the draft. After enjoying the antics of Andre Roberts’ first Pro Bowl season, their average kick return plummeted to 22nd in football after enjoying a third-place finish last season. While the team enjoyed some late traction in the punt return game with Vyncint Smith, it wouldn’t hurt to full multiple needs within the first two days. Virginia’s Joe Reed led the ACC in kick return average twice and also can work as a sizable slot receiver (6’0, 224 lbs.). Jalen Reagor and K.J. Hamler could each go in the second-round and can contribute in more ways that one.

Enough tired memes and jokes have been made at the specialists’ expense. Enough Jets fans are also, perhaps, still traumatized by the second-round selection of Mike Nugent during 2005’s proceedings (especially when Vincent Jackson and Frank Gore went not so long after).

But if the Jets want to end their endless cycle of misery, or at least start to put a dent into it, extra draft capital should go toward the third phase of football. The new Jets brass has already shown that they’re willing to do things differently, especially when it comes to the offensive line. Logic at least hints you can find an undrafted rookie in the scrap pile (i.e. Fairbairn to the Texans in 2016), but the Jets have played by the laws of football logic long enough.

These draft diamonds in the rough, practitioners of football’s third phase, could help provide the spark that burns the perception of “Same Old Jets” down.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

 

 

New York Jets Special Teams’ Coach Brant Boyer is a Miracle Worker

New York Jets, Jason Myers

New York Jets Special Teams coach Brant Boyer may be the best in the NFL.

The Jets hired Brant Boyer to be their special teams’ coach in 2016. It was his first coordinator job in the NFL. He had spent four years with the Colts as the assistant special teams’ coach but had no other coaching experience.

It was a surprise hire, but nobody thought much of it. Special teams don’t really matter in the NFL is a prevailing thought amongst most fans. The Jets and their fans are different though.

They know what it’s like to have an elite special team coach, and how that can change the game. Mike Westhoff is a legendary special teams coach who was with the Jets for 12 seasons. He helped change the culture during his time with the team.

He lived through three coaching changes but retired in 2012 during Rex Ryan‘s tenure. that was the first year of the Jets long playoff drought.

After Westhoff, the Jets went through three special teams’ coaches in three years. In 2016 Boyer became the fourth special teams coordinator in four years. He was tasked with fixing a broken unit. Since Westhoff left the Jets ranked 10th, 16th, and 25th the following three years.

A far cry from the glory days of Westhoff’s unit. When Boyer was brought in for 2016 the Jets lacked so much on special teams. His first move was to fight to get a punter in the draft. He somehow convinced the Jets to draft Australian punter out of Sam Houston State Lac Edwards.

A move that has turned out to be phenomenal. Under Boyer’s guidance, Lac Edwards has developed into a top 10 punter in the NFL. He is also statistically the best punter in New York Jets history. In 2019  Edwards is fifth in the NFL in net punt yards and fourth in punts pinned inside the 20.

Even more impressive is his work with kickers. He has made every kicker he’s worked with over-perform their career averages. Including getting a scrap heap pickup in Jason Myers to second-team all-pro.

After the disaster that was finding a kicker and returner for the 2019 season, Boyer deserves credit. It’s easy to be the top team in special teams DVOA when you have an all-pro kicker and returner in 2018 as Boyer did.

However, it’s another to rank third in special teams DVOA despite losing those players. Not only that, but the guys brought in have equaled or outperformed his former all-pros.

In 2019 Jason Myers has hit just 73.7% of his field goals and 93.1% of his extra points. Meanwhile, the Jets kicker Sam Ficken has hit 70% of field goals and 100% of field goals. Ficken has also not missed a kick of less than 53 yards this year, while Myers is just 81% from inside 50 yards.

As for returners Jets punt returner Braxton Berrios is averaging 7.4 yards per punt return compared to Andre Roberts 6.9 yards in Buffalo this year. On the kick return front, Andre Roberts is averaging 28.4 yards per return, compared to the Jets primary kick returner Vyncint Smith who is averaging 37.8 yards.

It’s time that Brant Boyer got his due. He’s been overlooked for far too long. This man is one of if not the best special teams coach in the NFL.

Did the New York Jets make a major mistake letting Jason Myers walk in FA?

New York Jets, Jason Myers

The New York Jets may regret letting Jason Myers go:

Last season featured one of the most underrated success stories. Jason Myers was brought over from the Jaguars in free agency and it became one of the best moves in the former front office regime’s tenure. Myers was an above-average kicker throughout the beginning of his career.

Having a debut season with 26/30 FGs made and an 86.7 FG %. Then he followed his debut campaign up with a 27/34 season where he had a 79.4 FG%. In his final year in Jacksonville, he only played in 6 games but still finished with 11/15 and a 73.3 FG%. There was clearly potential there and upon losing Chandler Catanzaro in free agency, the Jets took a shot on Jason Myers. 

Myers ended up making his first pro bowl and emerging as one of the best kickers in the game. He finished the year with 33/36 FGs made and a 91.7 FG%. Myers assuringly guaranteed himself an extension with the Jets. Part of the reason Mike Maccagnan got fired was due to the inadvisable decision to let Jason walk in free agency, electing to sign a lesser option.  Myers found a home in Seattle and Chandler Catanzaro rejoined the Jets. 

Now as training camp kicks off Catanzaro has reportedly struggled and in Seahawks camp, Myers has reportedly continued to flash his skills. Unless Catanzaro can knock the rust off and produce a solid season, many will continue to be mad at Mike Maccagnan from losing one of the best young kickers in the game and severely hurting the Jets special teams unit.