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Is the Jets Special Teams Making a Comeback?

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Special teams has been a weakness for the Jets recently, but could the unit be returning to relevancy?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New York Jets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Among many other things, one of the constant struggles for the Jets in recent years that has gone overlooked is the special teams unit. By Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, the Jets special teams have ranked 32nd and 25th over the past two seasons. Below is a look at the unit’s production (or lack thereof) measured by DVOA over those two years. Zero is considered average.

Are the players the Jets have brought in capable of turning this unit around?

RETURN GAME

An electric return game, both on kickoffs and punts, has been missing for quite a while in Florham Park. They haven’t ranked in the top ten in either kick or punt return average since ranking 6th in kick return average in 2012, which is also the last year they’ve taken a kick back for a score. The last time they ranked top ten in punt return average was 2008.

It’s a wide open competition for the returner spots, but the leading candidates seemed to be Frankie Hammond and Lucky Whitehead before Whitehead suffered an injury. The 27 year old Hammond spent two years with the Chiefs from 2014-15, and was very successful in his limited return opportunities. He returned 29 punts for an average of 10.9 yards and also took two kickoffs back for 37 yards each. In the win over Tennessee, he had the game’s longest kick return (38 yards) and punt return (12 yards) while showcasing some slick shiftiness with the ball. He seems to be at the forefront of the race at this point.

With Whitehead out, other players will certainly have an opportunity to compete for the job as well. Jalin Marshall and Elijah McGuire have both gotten looks at returner and have past experience. This race is wide open, but the good thing is there seems to be a good amount of speed, youth, and return experience on the roster that creates some confidence the Jets can find someone who will have success in the role.

KICKING GAME

Nick Folk finished his seven year Jets stint with an 82.2% field goal percentage and only two missed extra points, both in 2017. Over his past four seasons, among kickers with at least 50 attempts, Folk ranked a solid 14th of 35 in field goal percentage. There’s room for an upgrade over Folk, but even more for a potential downgrade.

Competing to replace him will be former Cardinal Chandler Catanzaro and the sophomore from Duke, Ross Martin. Catanzaro had an up and down three year stint in Arizona, with his FG% ranging from 90% in his best season to 75% in his worst while missing nine extra points. By all accounts, he has had a very rough camp and botched a chance to impress in the Titans game when he missed a 55-yarder.

Martin has reportedly had a great camp and is on track to take the job if he can convert once he gets his chances in the preseason. Martin was neck and neck with Folk in practice last year, but blew his shot when he missed two field goals and an extra point in the preseason. For what it’s worth, he was elite in his college career, as his 83.9% career field goal percentage is currently ranked 18th in NCAA history and 5th in ACC history.

PUNTING GAME

Apparently, the Jets have trusted the fate and future of the organization upon the young feet of the Aussie Lachlan Edwards, as with no competition aboard it seems he is their franchise punter. However, Edwards’ body of work is not good. Football Outsiders sorts each team’s special teams into five units; field goal/extra point, punting, kickoffs, punt returns, and kick returns. By their formula, among the 160 special teams units in the NFL, none was worse than the Jets’ punt team, and Edwards deserves a lot of the blame.

The seventh round selection posted a net average of 37.3 yards last season, ranking him dead last out of thirty qualifiers. His distance average of 43.1 ranked 28th. He dropped 32% of his 75 punts inside the 20 yard line, which also ranked near the bottom of the league (average is around 36%, elite around 50%). He did do a decent job forcing fair catches, getting them 29% of the time, ranking 13th out of 34 punters with at least 30 punts.

Edwards didn’t have a great game against the Titans. His ten punts went for an average of 41.9 yards and a net average of 37.8, both very close to his averages last season. He only landed 20% inside the 20 and had an ugly 14 yard (yes, 14) shank.

This is an interesting case. The Jets invested a draft pick in Edwards, so they’ll definitely give him a shot of stepping up his game. It is surprising they haven’t brought in competition given his struggles. However, it won’t be surprising at all if they bring some in mid-season if he doesn’t improve.

COVERAGE

Kick and punt coverage hasn’t been great for the Jets either. In 2016 they ranked 20th in punt return average against and 24th in kick return average against.

They do seem poised to improve here, however. This is a young team that will naturally have more speed than in the past. They showed a commitment to finding coverage contributors in the offseason in a few ways. They re-signed Josh Martin, who tied for sixth in the league in special teams tackles in 2016, and also brought in a few rookies both through the draft and undrafted free agency with a good special teams reputation, such as Dylan Donahue.

The Tennessee game was a good start. The Titans’ 6 punt returns went for an average of just 3.5 yards. The youth on this unit, coupled with a second year for coordinator Brant Boyer, have me believing this unit specifically has the most potential to see significant improvement.

Do you think the Jets special teams is trending in the right direction?