Now that the Jets have confirmed that Brant Boyer is returning as special teams coordinator in 2019, it’s widely accepted that the team must set to work in ensuring they bring back the key pieces of a unit that ended the season among the league’s best.
Of course, much of the attention will be on pro bowlers Jason Myers and Andre Roberts, who are both out of contract at the end of the season. However, while those players deserve plenty of credit for the Jets’ special teams success in 2018, there was improvement across the board, so we’re going to look at some of the other contributors.
Back in preseason, sections of the fanbase were frustrated with Boyer’s unit, as Trenton Cannon had some major ball security issues while they experimented with him as a return man. Also, Hunter Sharp of the Giants returned a punt for a touchdown on a play where the lane discipline of a coverage unit that included most of the top Jets special teams contributors was abysmal.
However, Boyer’s unit rebounded and made good contributions in all phases of special teams play over the course of the season.
In some respects, maybe there’s an argument that suggests Boyer can be successful without allocating too many resources to his personnel. After all, three of the eight biggest contributors in terms of special teams snaps per game - Rontez Miles, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Doug Middleton - all missed half of the season. In addition, Josh Martin, who would have been one of the leaders, only played in one regular season game.
On the flipside, the fact that Boyer got contributions from plenty of players who didn’t have a significant role on offense or defense underlines the importance of filling out the reserve roles on the roster with players who are going to contribute, rather than just stashing a player who goes through the motions while they wait for a role on offense or defense.
Let’s review some of the main contributors from last year, grouped in terms of their contractual status:
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
The Jets can bring back any exclusive rights free agent for a non-guaranteed minimum salary, which no other team is permitted to match, so they are likely to bring back everyone in this group, which includes Middleton, Frankie Luvu and Anthony Wint.
Middleton was the Jets’ most productive player in kick coverage on a per-game basis as he was credited with six tackles in seven games. Luvu, on the other hand, played a lot on special teams but failed to make many direct contributions. Wint only played in the last two games, but was on the field for 30 special teams plays and flashed a couple of times.
If they return and end up making the team, Jeremy Clark and Bronson Kaufusi could also play a significant role on special teams going forwards.
Restricted free agents
The only special teams contributor in this group was Eric Tomlinson, who was the Jets’ most consistent blocker on their coverage units. The Jets need a blocking tight end, but could look for someone younger and cheaper than Tomlinson, although he is respected around the league, so don’t be surprised to see him tendered.
Unrestricted free agents
Several of the main contributors are out of contract at the end of the year, although the Jets did re-sign a lot of free agents last year, so perhaps history will repeat itself.
This group is led by Miles, who led the Jets with an average special teams snap count of 25 per game. He was also productive with five tackles in only half a season, although he fell short of last year’s league-leading total. Miles is a leader on special teams who does more than just kick coverage, as his first down run on a fake punt against the Packers showed.
Martin is also a free agent, after missing all but one of the games in the 2018 season due to a couple of concussions. He’s regarded as a top special teamer around the league and, even though the Jets had success without him, he was still practicing with the team at the end of the season, so perhaps they intend to bring him back.
Brandon Copeland was a player whose role on defense and special teams was probably bigger because of Martin’s absence. He didn’t generate many stats, but got downfield well and had a few nice moments, including a key block on Roberts’ opening day touchdown return and another on Miles’ fake punt run.
Neville Hewitt had a productive year as he was second on the team with nine coverage tackles so it seems likely Boyer would want him back. Darryl Roberts, on the other hand, didn’t produce much and had a couple of mistakes or lapses in concentration.
Unlike the rest of these players, special teams barely factor into the decision on Henry Anderson, despite the fact he blocked a couple of kicks. However, if he returns, that’s another string to his bow.
Players still under contract
There’s a handful of special teams regulars still under contract but that doesn’t necessarily
mean they’re certain to be back. However, there does seem to be an obsession within the media of suggesting releasing players for marginal cap cuts the teams doesn’t even need. Such ideas seem to overlook the importance of special teams contributions in a way the team itself has been guilty of in the past.
Terrence Brooks led the team in total special teams snaps and contributed six tackles. He also made the block of the year on the punt return unit:
Pierre-Louis also made contributions as a blocker and in coverage, but he made the most noise on the punt rush unit as he blocked one punt and deflected another.
The fact that he made the roster at all was a major surprise, but Charone Peake showed how having someone with a dedicated special teams role as opposed to a disgruntled reserve just being given something to do can pay off in the long run. Peake did a good job of beating the vice downfield although he tended to be a player who almost, but not quite, made big plays such as on Tarik Cohen’s muff against the Bears or the Bills’ fake punt later in the year.
The team’s best gunner, though, was Cannon, who eventually led the Jets in special teams tackles. He was raw and obviously lacked experience in the role, which led to a few mistakes, but he quickly figured out how to use his speed to make a major impact on the coverage units.
Jordan Jenkins was also among the Jets’ leaders in special teams playing time, but - despite playing over 200 snaps - he didn’t record a single special teams tackle. This seems to be a classic case of a starter who is making up the numbers on special teams.
Finally, Chris Herndon was a weak link on the Jets’ return units all year. He looked lost at times and made mistakes almost on a weekly basis, including a team-high three special teams penalties. On Roberts’ touchdown return against the Packers, the blocking was exemplary across the board, apart from Herndon who didn’t sustain his block which almost led to the return being blown up.
Herndon will obviously be back next year and did show some improvement in his blocking both on offense and special teams over the course of the season. However, perhaps it would make sense to remove him from the special teams and give those assignments to someone else instead so he can concentrate on his offensive contributions.
While some of the personnel deserves credit, Boyer was never really working with a full compliment of players but still managed a complete turnaround from the disappointing special teams performance of 2017.
As for the extent to which they should bring back the contributors listed above, it’s an interesting dilemma because the Jets have certainly had teams in the past that overlooked the importance of their special teams personnel.
However, if Boyer has indeed proven himself to be someone who can put a system in place and that the next man up can slide into a role with minimal disruption if there’s an injury then the special teams unit should be good again next year, regardless of who comes back.
Nevertheless, it’s clear who the most integral pieces on this unit are and the team should continue to build around those players, while also seeking out potential upgrades in the draft and free agency market.