Since cutdown day, the Jets have added a few players to their practice squad. Now that such players can be elevated to the active roster, it’s worth familiarizing ourselves with them because they could see action with the Jets at any time. Today we’re going to take an in-depth look at wide receiver and return specialist Diontae Spencer.
The 30-year old is listed at 5’8” and 170 pounds. He was undrafted out of McNeese State in 2014 and didn’t make his NFL debut until 2019 having instead been an all-star in the CFL. He has only caught 10 passes with the Broncos over the past three seasons, but has made a good impact as a return man.
Spencer was not a highly sought-after high school recruit and ended up going to McNeese State where he played on the football team for four years and also ran track.
In his first two seasons, Spencer caught just 20 passes and averaged just 8.6 yards per punt return. However, he did rush for 230 yards and two scores. His role expanded in his junior year and he caught 31 passes for 413 yards and two scores, adding another 162 yards and a score on the ground and returning two punts for 46 yards.
His senior year was a breakout for Spencer, as he caught 50 passes for 835 yards and nine scores. He also rushed for 55 yards and a score and had three touchdown returns on special teams. He averaged 29 yards per kickoff return but less than eight per punt return.
Despite his big senior year and a good pro day workout, Spencer didn’t get signed as an undrafted free agent, instead attending the Bears rookie camp on a tryout basis. He wasn’t signed by Chicago, but did get picked up by the Rams a few weeks later. However, he was released before training camp.
Spencer instead decided to play in the CFL, spending two years with the Toronto Argonauts and two with the Ottawa Redblacks. He caught 107 passes in two years with the Argos, but took his game to the next level with the Redblacks as he had a thousand-yard season in 2018 and three touchdown returns in his two years with them. Spencer was named as a CFL all-star and set an all-time record with 496 all-purpose yards in one game.
After the season, Spencer returned to the NFL, signing a futures deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made an impression in preseason as he averaged 15 yards per punt return and broke runs of 19 and 29 yards. Some Steelers fans were disappointed when he was released in final cuts and claimed by the Broncos.
He spent three years in Denver and was named as a pro bowl alternate as a return man after averaging 29 yards per kickoff return in his first year. He then had his first NFL touchdown on an 83-yard return and averaged 16 yards per punt return in 2020. His numbers were disappointing last year though.
Spencer was without a team for training camp and preseason but the Jets added him to their practice squad on Tuesday.
Now let’s take a look at what Spencer brings to the table, divided into categories.
Spencer is undersized, but ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day and also has a 40-yard vertical. His agility numbers and bench press were below average though. The speed and acceleration shows up on film, but he may start to lose a step as he enters his thirties.
Spencer has played both on the outside and in the slot, although his size makes him more suited to working in the middle of the field.
He’s been used on jet sweeps and end arounds regularly during his career. He rushed for 447 yards and four touchdowns in college and 107 yards in Canada. At the NFL level, he has rushed six times for 25 yards in regular season action and twice for 48 yards in preseason. He also threw a 46-yard touchdown pass in college and was credited with two tackles and a pass breakup on defense.
Spencer was a big-play threat in college, but obviously that was against low-level opposition. He also had plenty of big plays in Canada as well.
At the NFL level, without the advantage of getting a running start as you do in the CFL, and against better opposition, he hasn’t had any downfield success on three deep targets. On this play, he went deep against Denzel Ward and couldn’t get any separation, although the play was nearly successful as Ward slipped.
At the NFL level, Spencer has mostly been used on screen passes, but has shown some route running ability in Canada and in practice. His technique is solid, with smooth releases, good acceleration and decent change of direction abilities.
Here’s one good example of Spencer getting a step on his man during regular season action.
Spencer had a 67 percent catch rate in the CFL but this has dropped to 56 at the NFL level. He has shown some abilities to make diving catches and show concentration on tipped passes. He has a small catch radius but an above average hand size.
At the NFL level, Spencer has only had a few drops, including this one on a play where the defender should perhaps have been flagged for an illegal hit.
Spencer actually had some success as a red zone threat prior to making it to the NFL, especially in his senior year at McNeese State where he had nine touchdowns and with Ottawa where he had 13 in his two seasons.
The CFL has much bigger end zones than the NFL, enabling someone like Spencer to get free in space. That’s not quite as easy at the NFL level.
The Steelers were derided for throwing to him in this situation rather than a bigger target, because the throw would need to be perfect to have a chance to get completed.
After the catch
With his experience as a return man, Spencer has good vision and elusiveness in the open field but hasn’t had many chances to display it on offense at the NFL level. Here’s one play where he slipped a tackle to get to the marker.
Spencer has had a couple of fumbles at the NFL level, one on a rush and another on this short pass.
As he is small, Spencer’s main contributions in the running game are usually as a decoy via jet sweep action. However, he shows some good hustle to make a downfield block here.
As a smaller player, Spencer isn’t known for his physicality but does give an effort to fight for yardage at the end of a run.
He showed impressive toughness to hang onto the ball despite the big hit from the defender on this play.
Spencer has plenty of experience of returning both punts and kickoffs. He’s always been a big play threat, although his numbers have been underwhelming at times, including last season.
On kickoffs, his acceleration and ability to identify a clean running lane are solid, but his numbers have been inconsistent.
As a punt returner, he is elusive enough to slip the first tackler and then has good burst to turn it upfield.
Spencer’s ball security hasn’t always been ideal. He had a crucial fumble in the 2018 Grey Cup and has muffed five punts in three years with the Broncos.
Other than his return role, Spencer hasn’t really contributed on special teams but did line up as a gunner for one snap with the Broncos.
Instincts and Intelligence
As a return man, Spencer shows good vision and instincts in the open field. He’s also shown some ability to find open areas in coverage.
Spencer is a fun character and popular teammate, who has obviously showed impressive resolve to get to the NFL level and contribute.
One concern from his time in Denver was that Vic Fangio said he had been told not to field punts inside the 10-yard line but kept doing it anyway. Whether this is a sign of insubordination or just a lack of awareness, it’s a habit he needs to get out of.
Spencer has mostly avoided serious injuries in his career so far. He had a shoulder injury in 2020 and a chest injury in 2021. However, he’s also missed a few games on Covid-19 reserve and as a healthy scratch.
If Spencer ends up on the roster, he could probably handle any of Braxton Berrios or Elijah Moore’s assignments, or just get plays in special packages. However, the reason they signed him is probably more to provide cover for Berrios in the return game.
Former teammates of Spencer’s from earlier in his career include Will Parks, Lamarcus Joyner, Joe Flacco and Connor McGovern.
The Jets have obviously signed Spencer as cover for Berrios, either in the case of an injury or if Berrios ends up with a bigger role on offense so they no longer want to risk him on special teams.
The fact they signed him to the practice squad and got rid of a promising young player in Calvin Jackson speaks volumes about where the organization feel they are in their rebuild right now. To prioritize an experienced player over a developmental project is a win-now move that suggests the team is comfortable with their short-to-medium term future at that position.