When projecting final cuts, many discount the value NFL coaching staffs put on a player’s special teams contribution.
That’s the reason New York Jets bubble candidates like Daniel Brown and Blake Cashman always seemed to survive cutdown day in recent years and one or two unexpected players will probably sneak on the roster again in 2022. It happens every training camp and for good reason.
Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer is the only member of the coaching staff that was with the organization before Robert Saleh took over and his tenure actually goes back to Todd Bowles. Although the Jets’ field goal kickers have rarely been reliable, Boyer consistently places well in areas like kick return and coverage, as well as punt return and coverage.
Including the kicker statistics — which lowered the overall score significantly — the Jets ranked 13th in the NFL in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams breakdown for the 2021 campaign and credit these five contributors for their part in that accomplishment.
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Top 5 Special Teamers in 2021
Using Pro Football Focus premium, here were the Jets’ top-five impact players on special teams a season ago.
5. Justin Hardee, primary gunner and all-around contributor/captain.
The only season-long special teams captain in 2021 was Hardee, who was poached from the New Orleans Saints for his prowess as a gunner on punt coverage. Of course, the ST ace is also utilized on various units including kick return, kick coverage, punt return and field goal block.
I’m cheating slightly here because technically, Hardee finished outside of the Jets’ top five last year in what was a down season for him. Having said that, his team-leading 10 special teams tackles and 367 total snaps show his overall value, and considering he was acquired for this specific task, he definitely belongs on this list.
PFF graded Hardee at 74.5 in 2021, a steep drop from his 90.3 marks in 2020. He was also charged with five penalties, leading some to question whether or not he’s living up to his $2.035 million cap hit.
4. Trevon Wesco, kick return blocker and punt return coverage.
Easily one of the best pure blockers on the Jets, the tight end/fullback Wesco cleans up on special teams. He was especially vital on kick returns in 2021, clearing holes for returners like Braxton Berrios and Tevin Coleman among others.
Wesco doubles as a tackler/blocker on punts as well but does not play when the opposition punts the ball, nor does he factor as a tackler on kickoffs. His final ST contribution was on the field goal kicking unit as an extra blocker, earning him a 79.9 last season.
3. Kai Nacua, punt and kick return coverage, kick return blocker.
The former San Francisco 49ers safety only appeared in three games but he stuck around over the offseason because of his ability on special teams. PFF credited him with an 80.0 overall.
Nacua was a mainstay on punt and kick return coverage but he also helped out as a blocker on both return units. All-Pro returner Berrios sprung a 102-yard kick return touchdown during the first game that Nacua blocked for the Jets.
With how crowded things are in the secondary, it’s really hard to see Nacua making the active roster but he could garner interest from Gang Green as a practice squad candidate with quality experience on special teams.
2. Kenny Yeboah, kick return blocker and punt return block/coverage.
Another tight end joins the top five. Special teams could be huge for the conversation at TE because if the Jets do elect to keep a fourth player at the position, it will likely come down to Boyer’s recommendation.
Yeboah also chips in as a blocker on kick returns, like Wesco, with his most snaps in that department. The former UDFA’s second-most snaps came in punt return coverage with minor contributions in other areas, but his largest impact during his rookie campaign may have been as a free rusher trying to block the opposition on punts.
Yeboah did get a hand on one punt against the Houston Texans, and that likely contributed to a stellar 86.7 grade as a rookie on PFF.
1. Del’Shawn Phillips, all-around stud.
Many Jets fans may not even know the name Del’Shawn Phillips but the reserve linebacker was the franchise’s number one special teams ace in 2021. Although defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich had a hand in bringing the backup over from Atlanta, he latched on more in Boyer’s unit.
With a team-leading 372 snaps and an elite 90.5 rating, Phillips was an all-around stud on special teams, factoring in many different areas — kick return (blocker), kick coverage (tackler), field goal block (rusher), punt return (blocker/rusher), punt coverage (blocker/tackler).
Appearing in all 17 games, Phillips logged five special teams tackles and had his best three outings Week 14 against the Saints, Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, and Week 5 against his old team — the Falcons.
Don’t be surprised if he sneaks on the roster as a depth linebacker and Boyer favorite.
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Honorable Mentions Good & Bad
It goes without saying that Berrios will make the 2022 roster as an All-Pro returner and top-four wide receiver. PFF grades returners separately and awarded the star a team-leading 70.4 punt return grade.
Surprisingly, Berrios was second to the veteran, Coleman, on kick returns at 73.3 (Coleman earned 74.6). There is a growing belief that ex-Niners RB will win the third ball carrier role behind Breece Hall and Michael Carter but his kick return ability only adds to that notion.
One absent name that everyone usually mentions when talking about Jets special teamers is wide receiver Jeff Smith. Competing with Denzel Mims the past couple of offseasons for a reserve role, Smith has generally been given the leg up due to his potential as a gunner opposite Hardee but his grades were actually pretty poor in 2021.
Smith played exactly 60 snaps for Boyer last year — split evenly in kick return coverage and as a gunner — and earned a 46.3. The only two lower scores on the roster were kicker Matt Ammendola and Carter (the running back), for what it’s worth.
It’s fair to mention that Smith has also been outplaying Mims as a receiver this spring but if these analytics are accurate, the Jets may want to look elsewhere at the gunner position.