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Why did the Jets’ return game fall flat in 2022?

Jacksonville Jaguars v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

To look at the raw numbers, Braxton Berrios didn’t do a bad job in the return game in 2022. He finished ninth in the NFL in kickoff return average and would have been third in punt return average if he didn’t fall one return short of qualifying for that category.

It was obvious, though, that he was a lot less effective than he was in his 2021 all-pro season. His punt return average dropped from 13.4 yards per return to 11.4 and his kickoff return average fell from over 30 to just 23.1.

The fact he ended up as high in the rankings as he did was pretty remarkable considering the fact that his longest punt return was only 22 yards and his longest kick-off return was only 32 yards.

(For the record: He did officially have a 42-yard kick-off return, but that was actually on a free kick that was punted to him on the play after a safety).

Last year, we wrote about Berrios’ special teams performance and how the blocking on the return unit helped him achieve his career year.

Let’s revisit those comments.

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.

Clearly the blocking in 2022 wasn’t anywhere near as good because Berrios was unable to break as many long returns and reviewing that list of names that had made positive contributions in that area last year perhaps suggests why.

Bawden missed the whole 2022 season with an injury, Wesco and Phillips were released in final cuts and Yeboah and Nasirildeen played just 17 games between them as they each spent most of the year on the practice squad.

The only one who was back in a full-time role was Hardee and a review of all returns in the 2022 season determines that Hardee once again had the most positive blocking contributions on the return units.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ty Johnson was in second place, although he also had the most negative blocking contributions on the kickoff return unit. (A negative contribution would usually constitute letting someone beat or get off your block to potentially make a tackle).

Other than Hardee and Johnson, the only players with multiple positive blocking contributions were CJ Uzomah, Jamien Sherwood and Jermaine Johnson with Sherwood being the only one of the three that didn’t also have multiple negatives.

The other players with multiple negative contributions while blocking on the return units were Tyler Conklin, Bryce Huff and Ashtyn Davis.

On punt returns, the vice positions were also a constant problem. Whenever teams were punting from near midfield the Jets just basically conceded that they weren’t even going to attempt a return because they left the starters out there on defense and DJ Reed and Sauce Gardner routinely let the gunners blow by them so Berrios had to take a fair catch.

However, even when the main vices (usually Brandin Echols and Tony Adams) were in, they were also beaten more often than not. Echols, who otherwise had an outstanding year on special teams, was the main offender.

Again, this is an area where the player who arguably looked the best when used in this role (Jason Pinnock) was released in final cuts. Hardee has also been better in this role but the Jets didn’t use him there very often. Jeff Smith was generally pretty good when playing this role though.

Berrios - who led the NFL in fair catches for the third time in the past four seasons - is a safe pair of hands and capable of breaking an initial tackle, but to break long returns, he needs good blocking ahead of him and didn’t get that in 2022.

While the Jets were somewhat unlucky to have their best special teams blocker Bawden go down for the season, they made no effort to replace him and then released a few other guys who had done good jobs on the return units in 2021. Overlooking this nullified an area that had been an important weapon in some of the Jets’ more competitive 2021 performances.

Of course, in isolation, it’s difficult to justify that some of these players deserved a roster spot given their lack of contributions on defense or offense. Clearly they were never going to find a spot for Wesco after signing two tight ends and drafting another, but Phillips was an important contributor last year (in coverage and as a back-up as well as on returns) and the Jets got burned when they tried to sneak him through waivers and onto the practice squad.

Presumably the Jets will bring Berrios back in 2023, although they can make a cap saving by letting him go. If they do, they need to realize that he isn’t going to be as effective as they’d like unless the blockers on the return units do a much better job. It seems clear that this needs to factor into some of their personnel decisions in the offseason.