Reports indicate the Jets opted to release Braxton Berrios last week following an underwhelming 2022 season from the 2021 all-pro return man. This move creates some cap space but leaves the Jets without a return specialist.
Let’s consider whether the Jets have any good candidate to take on the kickoff and punt return roles on their roster or will they need to bring someone in via the draft or free agency?
Easily the Jets’ most experienced return man is Diontae Spencer, who spent parts of last year on the practice squad and then signed a futures deal after the season.
The diminutive Spencer was productive in college and a CFL all-star in Canada before joining the Broncos in 2019 and being named a pro bowl alternate. He then averaged 16 yards per punt return in 2020, with an 83-yard touchdown.
While his 2021 numbers were underwhelming and he didn’t see action last year, the 30-year old was someone the Jets would likely have turned to if Berrios got hurt last year, so maybe they will have confidence in him to handle these duties. He did have five muffs in three years in Denver though, and his punt return numbers have been a lot more consistent than his kickoff return numbers.
Knight was a terrific kickoff return man in college as he had three touchdowns while averaging 27 yards per return in 2020 and 34 yards per return in 2021.
It looked like he might have a shot at the kickoff return role if the Jets planned to give Berrios more offensive reps but this never materialized despite some good work in preseason, including a 52 yard runback.
Knight also fielded one kickoff and returned it 18 yards in the regular season. He does not have experience on punts.
When the Jets first drafted Davis, he was expected to have a big role on special teams and was a contender to be the team’s kickoff returner after he had a 26 yards per return average in his junior year in college. That included an 89-yard return.
The Jets gave him a shot at this role at the NFL level in his rookie year, but that was 2020 when there was no preseason to road-test him, so when he tried to hurdle someone on his second ever return and was upended and almost lost a fumble, the Jets aborted the experiment.
Davis had no experience fielding punts until his senior year of college when he was called upon briefly as an emergency replacement for the injured punt returner and actually did quite well.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to Davis potentially getting another chance to try and get in the return game mix is that he’s in serious danger of being a cap casualty anyway.
Elijah Moore/Garrett Wilson
We’ve grouped these players together because they’ll be expected to be major contributors on offense which presumably rules them out from any possibility of being used in anything other than an emergency role on special teams. They were back fielding punts in practice last summer though.
Both had similar numbers on punt returns in college too, as Wilson averaged just six yards per return and Moore was less than five. Despite this, each had some spectacular highlights and broke an occasional big return, so it was a boom/bust scenario with either of them back there; a mixture of big play potential and questionable decision making. Each had multiple muffs in that role, too.
Of the two, Moore is by far the more likely to settle into a lesser role on offense that could see the Jets looking to get value out of him on special teams instead. He also has some kick return experience, which Wilson does not, although again his numbers were underwhelming in that role.
Much like Davis, some felt Carter had a shot at earning a return role in his rookie year, but the fact the Jets didn’t use him in that role had more to do with him establishing himself as an offensive contributor.
However, with his role reduced last season, perhaps Carter is someone the Jets could look to add back into the return game mix. He averaged 24.5 yards per return in 2019 with a long of 75 but his college numbers were otherwise underwhelming. He then had just three returns for 43 yards in preseason action with the Jets.
Carter again lacks any experience as a punt return option.
There are a few other players with return experience who could be involved in an open competition but are probably long-shots to earn the role.
- Malik Taylor, who signed a futures deal, averages 19 yards per kickoff return at the NFL level. He had one year in college with a 31.7 yards per return average and a long of 54.
- Craig James, who also signed a futures deal, has some punt return experience in college and briefly in preseason action at the NFL level. He averaged 8.7 yards per return in 2014 and 8.4 in 2017 but somehow had 14 returns for minus-10 yards in the two intervening years.
- Michael Carter II had some kickoff return experience in college but wasn’t very productive. He averaged 20 yards per return with a long of 31 in 2020.
- Brandin Echols returned kickoffs at the junior college level and had two touchdown returns in his final year of high school.
- Ty Johnson is out of contract, but if the Jets brought him back he could be a kickoff return candidate. He’s returned 14 kickoffs in regular season action at the NFL level, including 11 with the Jets, but his numbers have been disappointing.
If forced to pick from the current crop of available return options, Knight on kickoffs and Spencer on punts might be the best options based on their body of work to date. However, someone else could easily rise in an open competition.
To answer the question posed in the headline, though, the Jets surely need to bring someone in during the offseason, if only to compete with these guys.