Usually at this time of year, we’ll break down some options in the draft that can contribute on special teams. However, heading into the 2022 draft, it’s a viable question to ask whether the Jets even need to prioritize this aspect.
Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer is returning for his seventh season, making him longer-tenured than any of the Jets players.
Last season, more than any other, Boyer’s schemes really started to take hold. Return specialist Braxton Berrios was named as an all-pro and instilling Justin Hardee as a special teams captain had a positive effect on multiple units.
The Jets let one core special teamer leave during the offseason with Blake Cashman departing via trade to Houston. However, the emergence of Del’Shawn Phillips and some encouraging signs from Hamsah Nasirildeen in his rookie season perhaps mean they don’t have to rush to replace him.
The kicking game seems set too. Punter Braden Mann has had an underwhelming first two years, but the team will be confident he’s heading in the right direction following his performance over the second half of the season. The Jets brought in Greg Zuerlein and re-signed Eddy Pineiro so they have two viable veterans battling it out for the kicker role.
Berrios re-signed on a two-year deal and the team might opt to reduce his return duties if his offensive role continues to be significant as it was during the second half of last season. However, they won’t be in any rush to move on from him after his outstanding performance down the stretch.
If you’re drafting a player who might start off on the bench, then it makes sense to find one who can bring extra value through their special teams contributions. However, that seems like it will be less of a priority for the Jets in 2022. Nevertheless, let’s consider some of the potential options:
The top kicker and punter are widely considered to be LSU’s Cade York and San Diego State’s Matt Araiza respectively. It might require a late round pick to land one of those, though.
In the return game, Tennessee wide receiver Velus Jones, who ran a 4.31 at the combine, is a good bet to be available on day three. He averaged over 27 yards per kickoff return in 2021 and over 15 yards per punt return in his first year in that role.
Cornerback Marcus Jones, who had nine touchdown returns in his college career, will probably be a mid-round pick. He may lack the size to be much of a defensive contributor though.
If the Jets want to bring in another gunner to pair with, and perhaps be mentored by Hardee, then defensive backs Percy Butler from Louisiana and Drew Hartlaub from Penn State are probably your best bets. Butler had 28 special teams tackles in his career, while Hartlaub - who ran a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day - had six in the last five games of 2021.
Missouri State defensive lineman Eric Johnson brings value in terms of his knack for blocking kicks. He had four in his career. Arnold Ebiketie, a potential day two pass rush option, also blocked two last season.
Finally, tight end/fullback Connor Heyward could bring something to the return game with his blocking ability.
On the whole, though, there is every reason for optimism that the Jets are building one of the best all-round special teams units in the league. For example, Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders both ranked them in second place in the NFL in the 2021 season.
If they can add to that via the draft, that will be beneficial, but ultimately the continuity that retaining Boyer has brought can be aided by retaining most of last year’s top performers in the same roles.