This time last year we were asking if special teams even needed to be a priority for the Jets during the 2023 draft. Apparently, it wasn’t - and it was even less of a priority during final cuts as several key contributors including Jason Pinnock and Del’Shawn Phillips didn’t make the final roster.
This came back to bite the Jets as they gave up two punt return touchdowns which were arguably the difference between them ending up 7-10 and finishing the season with a winning record.
Will the Jets look to find some contributors in this year’s draft? And which prospects that could interest them have the potential to add value in that area? Let’s look at some of the more interesting names.
The kicking game was addressed during the offseason but Greg Zuerlein and Thomas Morstead are both in their mid-to-late thirties so it’s not impossible the Jets could bring in a guy to groom as the potential heir apparent on the practice squad.
Michigan’s Jake Moody is considered the most likely kicker to be drafted, but the Jets don’t have to spend a draft pick to land this kind of player. If Maryland’s Chad Ryland or NC State’s Christopher Dunn goes undrafted, perhaps the Jets would bring them in. Ryland was perfect from inside 40 yards last season and Dunn missed just one field goal all year.
Likewise, Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer is widely considered the most draftable punter but Michigan’s Brad Robbins or Adam Korsak from Rutgers could be available as undrafted free agents. Korsak showed potential during the Senior Bowl by landing a punt down at the one-yard line, but also showed some inconsistency with a bad shank in the same game. He could be a developmental project.
It seems sacrilegious to imagine a future without Thomas Hennessy as the long snapper, but if the Jets want to bring in a younger alternative, this year’s top names are Austin Mock from Liberty and Alex Ward from UCF.
Moving onto the return game, we discussed recently whether the Jets needed to add a return specialist. They have since signed Mecole Hardman although perhaps his role on offense will make him too important for a full-time special teams role.
If they do opt to try and add a rookie, one name that has been widely discussed due to his shiftiness with the ball in his hands is Houston’s Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. However, although he returned a punt for a score last year, he hasn’t had much experience or success as a return man apart from this, so there may be better alternatives.
Two draftable skill position players with return experience are wide receiver Jayden Reed from Michigan State and running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Alabama. Reed had two punt return touchdowns in 2021. Gibbs didn’t have much return game success after transferring to Alabama last year, but put up good numbers in the previous two seasons while at Georgia Tech. Texas A&M running back Devon Achane is another option. He had kickoff return touchdowns in each of the last two seasons.
Later on, two diminutive options are SDSU’s Jordan Byrd and TCU’s Derius Davis. Davis had five punt return touchdowns and a kickoff return touchdown in his career and a spectacular 15 yards average per punt return. Byrd had a kickoff return touchdown in each of the past three seasons and the first punt return touchdown of his career this year. Davis ran a 4.36 at the scouting combine to boost his stock but Byrd’s underwhelming 4.52 at his pro day might hurt him.
The Jets have two solid punt gunners in Justin Hardee and Brandin Echols, although Hardee is entering the final year of his contract and Echols’ doesn’t really have a strong grip on a defensive role. One of the best gunners from this year’s class is South Carolina cornerback Darius Rush who had six tackles as a gunner last year, despite only being used in that role part time.
Linebackers with good special teams film and production include Daiyan Henley from Washington State, DeMarvion Overshown from Texas and Jonathan Sutherland from Penn State. Safety Sydney Brown has good all-round abilities too.
LSU edge BJ Ojulari, who had a visit with the Jets, showed some special teams promise with five tackles in 2021 and small school prospect Malik Hamm from Lafayette blocked four kicks in his career, including three in 2022. The 246-pound defensive end hurt his chances of getting drafted by running a 5.06 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
Finally, another small school sleeper, North Dakota State cornerback Destin Talbert, was productive with 11 tackles in kick coverage over the past two seasons and also returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
With Brant Boyer returning for an eighth season as the Jets’ special teams coordinator there’s no excuse for the Jets to make the same mistake they did last year and leave themselves short-handed in this oft-overlooked area. Hopefully there are several names available that could help.