Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with defensive back Justin Hardee.
The 27-year old is listed at 6’1” and 194 pounds and was an undrafted wide receiver out of Illinois in 2017. In four years with the Saints, Hardee has established himself as a quality special teams contributor and converted to defensive back, although he hasn’t played much on defense. He has recorded 47 tackles in his career so far.
Hardee was recruited to Illinois as a two-star receiver prospect and wasn’t thought to have much chance of an NFL future after a four-year career that saw him start 21 games and catch 72 passes for 841 yards and a touchdown.
However, he turned heads at his pro day when he ran a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Texans with whom he caught one pass and dropped another in preseason. He didn’t make their final roster, but impressed the New Orleans Saints with his special teams play as he recorded a couple of tackles in kick coverage in their preseason matchup.
Seeing the potential in him, the Saints signed Hardee to their practice squad and they converted him to cornerback and put him on their active roster a few weeks later. In his rookie year, he played the last 14 games - all on special teams - and racked up nine special teams tackles to establish a role for himself.
In his second season, Hardee continued to be a major special teams contributor and also made some brief appearances on defense. He ended the year with 19 tackles, two passes defensed and an interception.
He continued to be a core special teamer in 2019 and saw action on defense in garbage time in the season finale. Otherwise, he has only played two defensive snaps since 2018. He recorded eight special teams tackles in 10 games in 2020 before ending up on injured reserve.
The Jets signed Hardee to a three-year deal for $6.75 million after the cap-strapped Saints opted not to tender him as a restricted free agent. That contract puts him in among the top specialists in the league.
Now let’s take a look at what Hardee brings to the table, divided into categories.
As noted, Hardee - who has a track background - ran a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash and showcases his athleticism regularly on special teams.
He also posted an impressive 129-inch broad jump and 17 bench press reps at his pro day, but his agility numbers were below average. He has good size and length.
Since moving to defensive back, a position change that was recommended by his defensive backs coach and Jets legend Aaron Glenn, Hardee has primarily played on the outside at cornerback.
It’s immediately obvious that the Jets have mainly brought the Jets on board for his special teams prowess. Although Hardee told the media he still hopes to contribute on defense, he’s probably a long-shot to do so.
In terms of his special teams ability, though, he is a core contributor on all units. In 2019, Hardee was tied for 10th in the league in total special teams snaps, so he will be counted on to make major contributions for the Jets.
Right from his rookie season, Hardee immediately established himself as an elite punt gunner, consistently getting downfield to make plays, even when double-teamed.
What stands out about Hardee, other than his obvious speed, is his technique and desire. He breaks down really well and if he is ever initially blocked out of a play or overruns it, he keeps working relentlessly to the ball. He’ll fight hard to get off blocks or drive his man back.
In total, he’s racked up 32 special teams tackles in his career, also contributing some plays on the kickoff coverage unit.
Hardee has also contributed on the return units as a blocker, including as a vice on the punt return unit. However, he’s had three holding penalties and two illegal block in the back penalties when blocking.
In addition, Hardee has also rushed punts and field goals. He has had one penalty for running into the kicker but scored this touchdown in his rookie season.
Having only been a cornerback for four seasons, Hardee is still somewhat raw and has been picked on quite a bit whenever he’s seen action on defense.
He’s obviously got the speed to run deep with any receiver but has still given up several downfield catches in his career. On this example, the receiver gains a step of separation with his initial release and is stronger than Hardee at the catchpoint to maintain the separation and make the catch.
There were also a few examples of plays where Hardee was playing off coverage and was too far away from the receiver to prevent him from making a catch underneath. This is perhaps because he was concerned about getting beaten off the line.
Hardee, as can perhaps been expected from someone with so little experience, seems to be more reactive than anticipatory in his coverage. On this play he reacts late to the inside break and can’t recover.
Hardee did intercept a pass in 2018, returning it 77 yards before being tackled from behind inside the five yard line. While he made a good play to jump in front of the throw, it came after he was fooled by the initial route combination out of a bunch formation.
With his experience as a receiver, he should be adept at contesting and going after the ball and coming down with interceptions. This also came in handy on this fake punt conversion.
Hardee’s closing speed was pretty good on a couple of tackles, but he was unable to disrupt the catch or jar the ball loose.
It was the tackling ability Hardee demonstrated on special teams that persuaded the Saints to give him a try on defense.
When playing special teams, Hardee is relentless in pursuit, has impressive range and packs a punch. However, he breaks down well and takes good angles so he doesn’t overrun many plays.
He’s never missed more than a few tackles in any season, which is actually quite rare for a top gunner because they often get downfield first while travelling at top speed. In any case, a missed tackle by a gunner or on a kick returner isn’t necessarily a negative play because it will often slow the return man down or enable another player to make the stop.
On defense, Hardee’s role often had him playing off-coverage or in zone. Where he did come up to the line in press coverage, he usually bailed out and rarely attempted to jam the receiver.
Hardee hasn’t had any defensive penalties. However, on this play, he competed well to break up the catch although he located the ball late and easily could have been called for pass interference for making too much contact before the ball arrived.
He displays good physicality on special teams, both in his hitting and when fighting off blockers.
Since he’s played on the boundary, Hardee hasn’t had many chances to contribute against the run. Here’s one rare play he made.
He has also had a couple of missed tackles in the running game during preseason action.
In theory, Hardee’s skill-set could make him an effective blitzer, but the only time the Saints sent him on a rush, he uncharacteristically overran the play.
Hardee’s instincts in coverage are still a bit of a work in progress, as you can see from some of the above plays.
However, he made an impressive read to blow up this wide receiver screen behind the line of scrimmage.
Hardee was voted all-academic Big Ten in his senior year while he was at Illinois.
Like many of the Jets’ recent signings, Hardee is another player who can benefit their culture with his outstanding character and attitude. He has a positive attitude to hard work and exhibits toughness and leadership.
This is apparent both in his preparation and his on-field effort levels. Hardee apparently has closely studied Patriots gunner Matthew Slater’s film and based how he plays on what he observed of the nine-time pro bowler.
In terms of on-field discipline, Hardee has had 10 penalties, although only two - a face mask and a play where he ran out of bounds on a kick - were personal fouls.
Hardee played 56 straight games for the Saints after being added to their active roster in his rookie year, but missed the last six games of last season after being placed on injured reserve with a groin injury.
At the collegiate level, he played every game in four of his five years at Illinois but redshirted the 2015 season after breaking his foot before the season began.
Hardee will presumably be expected to contribute on every special teams unit in the same roles as he has played in the past. In particular, the Jets will hope that his contributions as a primary gunner will single-handedly improve Braden Mann’s influence.
He most likely will not play at all on defense, but if he does, it will most likely be as an outside cornerback unless the team opts to channel his outstanding range into grooming him for a deep safety role.
In New Orleans, he was a teammate of current Jets backup safety Saquan Hampton and recent signing Sheldon Rankins.
Hardee’s signing is an under the radar move but provides them with a top-level player at an oft-overlooked position. The Jets’ special teams suffered from some key losses and early season injuries last year before improving down the stretch after they were able to add a few contributors to Brant Boyer’s unit.
It doesn’t seem likely he’ll contribute on defense but he’s already defied the odds to carve out a niche for himself, so it may be unwise to bet against him. Making a pro bowl as a specialist seems a more attainable ambition than become a regular rotational contributor on defense, though.
The Jets will hope Hardee can become a key contributor on special teams, emulating players like Wallace Wright and Chris Burkett from Jets history and giving the Jets a key edge in the field position battle in 2021 and beyond.