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Looking for potential special teams contributors in the 2021 NFL Draft

Miami v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Every year, it’s interesting to look for possible draft picks or undrafted rookies that could be special teams contributors at the NFL level. Whether it’s to find a late developer, a prospect whose overall contributions could make them more valuable or someone who can be an elite difference-maker in this oft-overlooked area, teams often uncover some good value by targeting such players, especially late on.

In the early rounds, there will always be prospects who played well on special teams at the college level, although if the pick works out then these players are likely to be key contributors on offense or defense and therefore may not end up playing much on special teams. That’s what happened with Darrelle Revis, for example, as he was also regarded as a deadly punt returner in addition to being a shutdown corner when the Jets drafted him, but never used in that capacity.

In this year’s class, the likes of Travis Etienne, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Kadarius Toney could all be return game contributors and players like Jeremiah Owusu-Komamoah, Trevon Moehrig and Patrick Surtain have produced in kick coverage in the past. You can bet that all these players see their special teams reps limited if they establish themselves as key defensive or offensive performers, though.

Let’s work our way through some examples of players that should be available a little later on to see if we can uncover some potential bargains.

Kickers and Punters

It seems highly unlikely the Jets would seek to add a punter having just drafted Braden Mann last year, unless it was just an undrafted guy that could be a camp leg. The top punter in this year’s class seems to be Cincinnati’s James Smith.

At the kicker position, however, bringing in a rookie seems more likely - although as of right now, the Jets don’t have a seventh round pick. Neither Sam Ficken nor Chase McLaughlin inspires much confidence so bringing in a top rookie could be a good move.

Jose Borregales from Miami had his best season as a senior, as he made 20 of 22 field goals. On the other hand, the two other top prospects had a bit of a down year in 2020. Florida’s Evan McPherson missed five of 22 field goals after only having four misses in 36 attempts in his first two years and Riley Patterson from Memphis - who led all 2021 propsects with five 50+ yard field goals in 2019 - was only 3-of-7 from that range in 2020.

Return Specialists

At the moment, Corey Ballentine and Braxton Berrios are the Jets’ incumbent kickoff and punt returners, respectively. Ballentine did okay following a midseason move, while Berrios was ineffective having been solid in 2019. Neither would seem 100 percent secure within these roles, especially with Berrios perhaps having designs on a bigger offensive role as he enters his contract year.

Boise State’s Avery Williams could be the biggest catch here. He had three total touchdown returns in 2020 as he averaged 27 yards per kickoff return and 14 yards per punt return. The slot corner doesn’t have much of a reputation for his defensive play, so would probably be targeted with a view to a special teams-only role.

Two other good options are wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge from Western Michigan and running back Kene Nwangwu from Iowa State. In each case, they offer playmaking potential on offense too, so could be eased into a special packages role alongside their responsibilities as a primary returner with a view towards developing into being a starter in the longer term.

Eskridge averaged 25 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown in 2020, while Nwangwu averaged 29 yards despite not breaking one for a touchdown and was seventh in the nation in kickoff return yardage.

Long Snappers

The Jets presumably are still happy with Thomas Hennessy, who remains under contract for three more years. However, if they wanted to move on, the top long snapper prospects seem to be Thomas Fletcher from Alabama and Camaron Cheeseman from Michigan.

All-round contributors

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage is a great example of a special teams prospect who proved to be a late developer. Gage probably would’ve gone undrafted but for the fact he was also an excellent gunner, so the Falcons took him in the sixth round and he racked up eight tackles for them as a rookie, while barely playing on offense.

However, having locked down that role to secure his roster spot, he made the most of opportunities to play on offense and developed into a strong offensive weapon too. Gage caught 72 passes last season, in just his third year.

The reason for bringing up Gage is that he came from LSU, who have a prospect that profiles similarly this year. Racey McMath only caught 33 career passes, but perhaps had the potential to do more if he wasn’t behind some elite prospects. Like Gage, he showed up as a punt gunner instead and could be drafted on the basis of his potential within that role, but also with the hope he’ll be a late developer like his fellow Tiger.

Another player who might have some real potential as a punt gunner is FSU’s Tamorrion Terry, who was a thousand yard receiver in 2019 but saw his stock fall after an injury plagued 2020 campaign. Terry played just five games as a full-time punt gunner in 2018, but he racked up six tackles in those games, so he could be a good option to try out in such a role for a more extended period with some bounceback potential as an offensive threat.

Iowa State wide receiver Landen Akers is another unheralded prospect with just 38 career catches. However, teams might see potential in him as a gunner after he racked up 21 special teams tackles in the past two seasons.

Of course, the Jets already added Justin Hardee so they already should be much stronger at this spot. It would be good to bring in someone to pair him with though.

Other prospects who’ve been productive in kick coverage, albeit mainly on kickoffs, are Virginia Tech safety Divine Deablo and Appalachian State cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles. Deablo has played some snaps as a gunner on punts, but also on the line in punt protection.

Finally, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson may not have lived up to his full potential at FSU, but he did lead the nation with three blocked kicks last year. This is also an area where Williams can contribute in addition to his return abilities, as he’s blocked five kicks or punts in his career, including a few that led to touchdowns.

Williams hasn’t contributed much in terms of covering kicks, but if the Jets were to bring him along under Hardee, then that could perhaps be an area where he might also develop.