The rare football lull is upon us — summer break — also known as the period in between mandatory minicamp and the start of training camp.
Despite the absence of players, however, there’s still always NFL news circulating the airwaves. Over the past few days, 53-man roster projections have been all the rage and the New York Jets beat produced a couple of intriguing scenarios.
One popular theory even came up in two recent predictions, the potential release of 2021 special teams captain and team leader, Justin Hardee.
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‘Luxury’ or Culture?
The Athletic’s Connor Hughes was in favor of cutting Hardee. He reasoned:
Cutting Hardee won’t make special teams coordinator Brant Boyer happy, but it frees $2.035 million. The Jets had the luxury last year of keeping a player who only plays special teams because of the lack of talent across the roster. That’s no longer the case.
Hughes makes a compelling point. This roster has much more talent on it than last summer so can the Jets afford to keep a “gunner” who does not play on offense or defense?
It really comes down to how much head coach Robert Saleh values leadership — something he has preached since day one on the job. Hardee may not be the biggest man in the locker room but he might have the loudest voice. It’s not uncommon for the special teamer to be at the heart of most behind-the-scenes moments before and after games.
On a young team, that could be enough to earn him another season.
ESPN’s Rich Cimini mentioned the potential of a Hardee release as well but unlike Hughes, the veteran beat reporter elected to keep the recent captain.
He voiced: “Isaiah Dunn, on the bubble, impressed coaches in the spring and could challenge Hardee, who earns his keep on special teams.”
Ironically, Hughes cut both Hardee and Dunn in favor of extra defensive linemen, but the move would obviously free up a roster spot either way. That extra job could go to a seventh cornerback like the 2021 UDFA, or it could mean four safeties find their way to Week 1.
That would all but ensure that veteran Lamarcus Joyner and recent draft picks Jason Pinnock and Ashtyn Davis all make the 53-man roster — barring an injury or a training camp twist. In some scenarios, the spot could even turn into an extra offensive piece.
One thing’s for sure, Joe Douglas and Coach Saleh have more possibilities than ever in 2022, and that only adds to the excitement for fans.
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Time for New Captains
The Jets had five consistent team captains in 2021, none of which had tremendous seasons. Defensive captain C.J. Mosley was the best of the bunch but even he had mixed results leading a 32nd-ranked unit.
As for the others, Foley Fatukasi has since left in free agency and Corey Davis will look to have a bounceback campaign in year two with the franchise. The same goes for Zach Wilson, who was a surprise selection from teammates at 22 years young last September.
That leaves Hardee, the man poached from New Orleans in an effort to establish winning culture and dominant special teams play. The ex-Saint definitely brought leadership but his personal stats were less impressive than expected.
The Jets’ kick return coverage was excellent, ranking second in yards against, but Hardee’s primary department (punt return coverage) was sub-par. Gang Green allowed the ninth-most yards on punt returns in 2021 and the fifth-highest average per return.
Hardee himself was credited with five solo tackles and seven assists on both coverage units (16 appearances). He was also charged with five penalties and five missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus. In the end, his overall special teams grade was very solid (74.5), but nowhere near his elite 90.8 mark for the Saints in 2020.