The special teams unit is the third pillar of the game of football but it’s not always looked at as an equal of offense and defense.
Having said that, it does still carry a ton of weight when coaches and general managers are attempting to cut down to a 53-man roster. Can a player also contribute on special teams? If so, how many different ST areas can they make an impact on?
All of those answers add to a bubble candidate’s overall value in a toss-up situation and the New York Jets are currently undergoing a massive makeover in this department — meaning spots are up for grabs.
While addressing the media on June 10, 2021, special teams coordinator Brant Boyer told reporters that “there’s so much up in the air right now with every position.”
As the longest-tenured Jets coach on the staff, Boyer also noted all the ST contributors from the past couple of years that are no longer with the team. He referenced Frankie Luvu, Matthias Farley and Tarell Basham by name when speaking on the “core” departures.
This opens the door for fresh Jets’ faces to prove themselves to Boyer and Robert Saleh.
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Narrowing Down the 53
I just want to give every fan a quick grasp of the contenders at special teams. Based on the current 90-man roster, here is a breakdown of projected space.
Then you also have to consider that there are four special teams only players on the 90-man roster right now (Sam Ficken, Chris Naggar, Braden Mann and long-snapper Thomas Hennessey). Mann and Hennessey will occupy two spots on the Jets 53-man roster, plus some form of placekicker, leaving 50 spots to work with.
I know technically offensive line plays on ST, but we won’t include them in this exercise since their duties don’t really change all that much. Quarterbacks are also out. Other than a nose tackle, every other positional group has the ability to try out for various roles in Boyer’s unit.
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Battles at Returner
In 2020, slot receiver Braxton Berrios was the only man to return a punt, while the kick return duties were all over the map. Cornerback Corey Ballentine ended up leading the field with 12 returns for a 26.2 average with wide receiver Josh Malone second on the roster in volume at seven returns.
Ty Johnson, Ashtyn Davis, La’Mical Perine, Vyncint Smith and Jamison Crowder all gave the kickoff role a go at some point in the year.
This season newcomers will enter the fold, including rookies Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter. Boyer touted both of these first-year players for their work ethic during OTAs. The third supplemental option at returner is wide receiver Keelan Cole.
Allen featured Cole as a name to watch in this regard, mentioning his “nine career punt returns” and his “91-yard return that went for a touchdown last season.” The reporter also pointed out that the former Jacksonville Jaguar “also has had eight kickoff returns for a 27-yard average throughout his career.”
Most of the Jets players above are near-guarantees for roster spots in 2021. The main returners that could be battling for their lives are Berrios, Ballentine, Malone, Vyncint Smith and Perine.
Gunners, Jammers & the Kickoff
Everyone not involved at returner will be vying for roles as a gunner, jammer, or a job either tackling or blocking on kickoffs.
Gunners and jammers line up against each other on the wings of a punt return, and their main responsibility is to either beat the blocker or fend off the would-be tackler. Gunners also attempt to pin teams inside their own 20 when the return-man chooses to let the ball bounce.
There’s only one person at these positions that may be locked in ahead of training camp, gunner Justin Hardee who was stolen away from the New Orleans Saints.
Boyer admitted that he was “ecstatic” to bring in a leader like Hardee, calling him the “biggest thing they needed” in this ST room this offseason. The special teams ace is known to be one of the best gunners in the NFL, an area the Jets struggled at in 2020. Boyer told the media he tried out “13 different gunners last year.”
Here are some players in no particular order that could be in the mix at gunner and jammer.
The other special teams’ tacklers and blockers on kick returns and punts could be anyone at this point. The only player with real experience under Boyer is tight end Daniel Brown, but his ST rating was poor in 2020.
Some of the notable names to watch are linebackers like Jamien Sherwood and Camilo Eifler who excelled on special teams in college. Expect other rookies like Hamsah Nasirildeen, Brendon White and Hamilcar Rashed Jr. to try and make an impact here as well.
Other roster bubble players that could try out for special teams include Bryce Huff, Jabari Zuniga, Kyle Phillips, Kenny Yeboah, Ryan Griffin, Trevon Wesco, Noah Dawkins, Del’Shawn Phillips, Blake Cashman, Matt Cole, Manasseh Bailey, D.J. Montgomery, Jeff Smith, Lawrence Cager and more.
As you can see, Boyer’s selections could become make or break for a plethora of roster spots in 2021. Who said special teams isn’t important?
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