The Jets face a decision in the coming weeks about what to do in respect of wide receiver Braxton Berrios. The free agent is coming off a breakout year where he set career highs in receptions, receiving yards and total touchdowns while also being named as an all-pro in his return specialist role.
Following a productive second half of the season, the projections for Berrios’ next contract have almost doubled compared with what the Jets might have expected to have to pay about halfway through the year.
For any team that decides to offer Berrios a big money deal, the decision is likely to come down to how productive they believe he can be in a full-time role. With the Jets, he was in and out of the rotation over the past few years but has generally produced well when given snaps and targets. Would there be diminishing returns in a full-time role though?
Also, are the Jets - who already have Corey Davis on a big-money deal and Elijah Moore showing signs of being a breakout star, in addition to fan pressure to add more pass catchers in the draft or free agency - the best team for Berrios to maximize his opportunities and live up to his deal with?
While this is the main factor teams will be considering, his prowess as a kick returner is a key factor too. That adds at least a few million per year onto his value in the open market.
From the Jets’ perspective, if they don’t bring back Berrios, they’re not just losing a productive receiver that has developed good chemistry with Zach Wilson. It will also leave them with a hole in their return game. So, how can they assign value to these contributions when factoring this into whether they can afford to let him walk?
Berrios’ numbers last season speak for themselves. He was named as an all-pro after being second in the league in kick return average - and would also have been second in punt return average had he returned enough punts to qualify.
For much of the season, he did this damage without breaking any long returns, showing excellent consistency in getting modest yardage the majority of the time both on punts and kickoffs. However, he put to bed suggestions that he’s not a big play threat in the return game down the stretch with a touchdown return on a kick-off, another 80-yard kickoff return to set up a touchdown and a season-high 28-yard punt return.
Berrios had also been among the league leaders for punt return average in 2019, although his numbers dropped off slightly in 2020. The 2021 season was his first as a full-time kickoff returner and he soon got the hang of it.
His ball security as a punt returner should also not be underestimated. He generally makes good decisions and has only muffed one punt in his NFL and collegiate career combined.
It’s worth looking back at recent Jets history at the kick returner positions to see how that informs the Jets’ decision of how to value these contributions.
Back in 2018, the Jets signed Andre Roberts and he eventually went to the pro bowl after a great season. The team was heavily criticized for letting him walk after the year.
Although Berrios eventually developed into an adequate replacement for Roberts, it took him a few years to get to that point and he wasn’t even returning kickoffs at all until this year. While the Jets may feel they can find and develop a young replacement again, can they afford for a probable immediate downgrade while they groom Berrios’ successor?
Going a little further back, the Jets did have a run of success in the late 2000’s and beyond. Leon Washington, Brad Smith and Joe McKnight all had good success in return roles, as it didn’t seem to matter too much who was back there because the special teams were a well-coached unit which created running lanes with good blocking and well-schemed returns.
That brings us to this year, where Berrios was undoubtedly very good but did benefit from excellent blocking at times. Tevin Coleman - who had never returned kickoffs before - also had some success though. In fact, until Berrios’ two long returns in December, Coleman was averaging more yards per kickoff return than he was and threatening to take the job from him. With that said, other players like Keelan Cole and Ty Johnson did not enjoy much return game success when given chances.
Brant Boyer is entering his seventh year as the Jets’ special teams coordinator and, although there will have been a lot of personnel turnover during that time, the system has hopefully developed to the point where he can have more success plugging people into a group that mostly already knows what they are doing.
We charted every kick and punt return last year and the most consistent blockers in terms of making impact blocks without mistakes were Justin Hardee, who will be back as the special teams captain next year and Nick Bawden - who achieved that in just half a season. Bawden is a free agent so may not return, but he was excellent on the kickoff return unit which might (and arguably should) sway the Jets towards keeping him.
Others who made consistent contributions were Del’Shawn Phillips, Kenny Yeboah, Trevon Wesco and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Again in each case, you can’t be certain that these players will be back next year, but hopefully a few of them will be.
It’s notable that Yeboah is there because, again, he didn’t play many games and isn’t really known for his blocking. Effort like that will get noticed by the coaching staff and could improve his chances of sticking in 2022. It’s also notable that his fellow tight ends Daniel Brown and Ryan Griffin had more negative than positive contributions in the return game.
On punts, the Jets got inconsistent play from their vices, which prevented Berrios from returning as many as they would have liked. Hardee and Jason Pinnock seemed to fare better at this than everyone else but were often employed in different roles. Everyone else struggled apart from some positive flashes from Javelin Guidry and Rachad Wildgoose. Notably, Michael Carter II consistently seemed to struggle in this role despite being used a lot.
The Jets need to come to a decision about how easily replaceable Berrios is in each of the return roles. If they decide that this will create a major hole then that may factor in to how much they’ll be prepared to pay to retain him, in addition to how they appraise his potential as a full-time receiver.
If Berrios leaves, though, that may be a sign that the team has confidence a replacement could step in and replicate his production in the return game. This won’t be easy to find, though. Before Roberts, the Jets had gone several years without a reliable option in either role and don’t currently have an obvious replacement in-house.