Jets Lose Key Pro Bowl Free Agent to Browns: Report

Justin Hardee

Getty The Jets are losing Justin Hardee to the Browns

The New York Jets offseason has been headlined by big names signing in free agency, but the team is losing a key special teams leader in Justin Hardee, who has signed with a different team.

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport posted to X on Tuesday, April 2 that the Cleveland Browns had signed Hardee to a new deal.

Hardee originally played high school in the Cleveland area, so the deal allows the 30-year-old special teams ace to come back home and carve out a role with a new team.

As for the Jets, they’ll have to find a new leader to help out on special teams in 2024.

Justin Hardee’s Unique NFL Path

While Hardee has never been a star player, his unique NFL career has allowed him to stay around the league. He is now entering his eighth NFL season thanks to his new deal with the Browns.

Hardee was a 3-star recruit coming out of Glenville High School in Cleveland. His scholarship offers consisted mostly of MAC schools like Toldeo, Akron, and Bowling Green. Instead, Hardee took his only Power Five offer, committing to play for the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Despite playing corner in the NFL, Hardee was a wide receiver for five years with Illinois. His production was minimal during his college career, catching just 72 passes for 841 yards and a single touchdown in 38 games.

Hardee made the position switch as an undrafted free agent. After not making the final 53-man roster for the Houston Texans, he landed with the New Orleans Saints practice squad. He ended up becoming a key special teams player for the Saints, playing with the team for four seasons.

After a solid stint with the Saints that included NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in 2017, Hardee joined the Jets in 2021. His consistent role on special teams earned him Pro Bowl honors in 2022, while also being named a team captain.

Now, Hardee will look to continue playing a key role on special teams while coming back home to play for the Browns.

The Jets Have Had Strong Special Teams

Losing a player like Hardee may not seem like a big loss. However, the 30-year-old has played a huge part in the team’s special teams success over the years.

According to FTN, the Jets had the fifth-best special teams by DVOA in 2023. That ranking dipped in 2022 during Hardee’s Pro Bowl season, but it was even higher in 2021. That season, the Jets had the second-best special teams by DVOA, slotted just behind the Baltimore Ravens.

The Jets are hoping that Hardee’s departure doesn’t have a big impact on their special teams. At the same time, they’re hoping that key acquisitions on both offense and defense can make up for some of the potential regression on that side of the ball.

New contributors like Haason Reddick, Tyron Smith, and Mike Williams could make the offense and defense so much better that special teams may no longer be required to keep the Jets competitive in games in 2024.

If that happens, then the Jets could be legitimate Super Bowl contenders next season, regardless of how the special teams unit performs.

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