As we head towards the draft, most of the focus will be on the early rounds as usual. However, can the Jets find some added value in the later rounds by targeting some players who have shown they can make good contributions on special teams? Let’s look at some examples...
As ever, a few of the skill position players that might be available on day two have experience in the return game that could bring added value, especially early on in their career.
Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk from Utah has plenty of experience returning both kicks and punts last season. He ran back one punt for a score and led the Pac-12 in kick return average.
TCU wide receiver Jalen Reagor had two punt returns for touchdowns last season, although questions about his hands extend to any special teams role because he also had three muffs.
Memphis utility man Antonio Gibson is another kick return option, although he doesn’t have any experience on punts. The Jets might be happy with Braxton Berrios in that role anyway.
Other kickoff return options include Virginia’s Joe Reed, Raymond Calais from Louisiana-Lafayette and John Hightower from Boise State. Calais, a running back, posted good stats during the season and then had a touchdown return in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
A late round sleeper could be New Mexico State running back Jason Huntley. Although he had disappointing numbers in 2019, he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns in 2017 and 2018.
Both the kicker and punter role are up for grabs for the Jets with Sam Ficken set to compete with Brett Maher for the kicker role and Ian Berryman the only punter under contract right now.
Heading into the 2019 season, Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship was regarded as the top placekicker prospect but the shine has gone off him a bit because he missed six field goals including a couple of clutch kicks.
Tyler Bass from Georgia Southern is now rated higher than Blankenship by some experts. Less-heralded prospects include Sam Sloman from Miami (Ohio) who made four out of five from beyond 50 yards last season. The most accurate kicker in the nation was Jonathan Song from TCU, who only missed one of 24 field goals. However, he didn’t attempt one from beyond 50 all year.
Braden Mann from Texas A&M is regarded by many as the top punter prospect but he did outkick his coverage from time to time, as evidenced by the fact he made seven tackles himself last year. Arizona State’s Michael Turk - who is related to former Jets punters Matt and Ben Turk - did a much better job of limiting return yardage.
The long snapper role is presumably safe in the hands of Thomas Hennessy, whose brother - Temple center Matt Hennessy - could also be a draft option. However, Tony Pauline from DraftAnalyst recently said he spoke to a team representative who said they have three long snappers with draftable grades. Most draft analysts, including Mel Kiper, have Iowa State’s Steve Wirtel as the top option.
Some top prospects showed good capabilities in kick coverage early on in their career, including Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III and Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. However, if you’re drafting either in the first round, then you probably would want them to start rather than play on teams.
Some lesser prospects who have been productive in kick coverage include Wake Forest corner Essang Bassey and Fresno State edge defender Mykal Walker. Reed has also been productive in kick coverage as well as contributing as a kick returner.
Maryland safety Antoine Brooks could contribute well as a gunner, as could Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool, whom NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah identified as one of the best gunners in the entire draft.
USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is a player many have linked to the Jets because he was one of Sam Darnold’s receivers in 2017. Pittman could bring some special teams value because he has a knack for blocking punts, which he did three times in his college career. He also returned another punt for a touchdown.
Arkansas State wide receiver Omar Bayless is another player who has shown the ability to block punts. He blocked two last season.
In terms of blocking field goals, Defensive End Jason Strowbridge from North Carolina had four in his career and Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson had two last season, including one in the last minute to preserve a 29-27 win over the previously-unbeaten North Texas.
It’s always a good idea to target players that are capable of making special teams contributions, either in the draft or as undrafted free agents. The Jets have done this over the past few years with players like Lachlan Edwards, Trenton Cannon, Greg Dortch and Blake Cashman, albeit with mixed results. We’ll see if they have better luck this year.