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Free agents that can solve the New York Jets’ greatest weaknesses (Part 3)

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20: Chicago Bears wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (84) looks on in action during a game between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants on September 20, 2020 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL.
(Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here are the top free agents that have the ability to solve the New York Jets’ biggest problems from the 2020 season.

In our last breakdown, we took a look at the state of the New York Jets‘ edge position, which is one of the most crucial positions in football. Today, we turn our attention to the opposite end of the spectrum. We’ll be taking a look at some of the Jets’ greatest weaknesses in the game’s oft-overlooked third phase – special teams.

Few things bring me more joy than giving this beautiful and vastly underrated facet of football the attention it rightfully deserves.

Solving the Jets’ greatest weaknesses

Weakness: Punt coverage

Braden Mann‘s rookie season was a tumultuous one, filled with flashes of elite talent but also a few too many shanks. He has the leg strength, touch, and hang time to become a yearly top-notch punter, but he still needs to bring everything together and master the art of consistency.

While Mann had a rocky year individually, his struggles were magnified by an abysmal season from the punt coverage unit. The Jets allowed 11.7 yards per punt return, sixth-worst in the NFL. If not for three ridiculously good open-field tackles by Mann, they would have allowed far more yardage and possibly up to three touchdowns.

Altogether, the punting unit’s productivity was nowhere near where Brant Boyer and the Jets hoped it would be after they spent a sixth-round pick on Mann to boost a unit that was already great the year before. The Jets dropped from fourth in punting DVOA in 2019 (+10.1%) to 30th in 2020 (-12.8%).

Mann finished 27th out of 30 qualifiers with an average of 37.2 net yards per punt, but he ranked 13th in hang time (4.39 seconds), 19th in Pro Football Focus’ punting grade (64.4), and 20th in fair catch rate (24.4%). This large disparity between Mann’s individual statistics and his net average – which is a team stat – suggests that the unit’s overall struggles had more to do with the coverage unit than Mann himself.

Solutions: George Odum, Cody Davis, Nick Bellore, Miles Killebrew, Edmond Robinson

If the Jets want to ensure the improvement of their punt coverage unit, there are some great coverage men on the free-agent market for them to consider pursuing.

Colts safety George Odum led the NFL with 21 special teams tackles in 2020, earning a special teams grade of 90.9 at PFF that ranked second-best in football among qualifiers. The Jets have a history of adding former Colts defensive backs and special teamers (Pierre Desir, Quincy Nelson, Thomas Hennessy, Matthias Farley among others) since hiring Rex Hogan as their assistant general manager in 2019, who served as Indianapolis’ vice president of player personnel from 2017-18, so Odum could be someone to keep an eye on. He’s a restricted free agent.

PFF’s top-graded player on special teams was New England’s Cody Davis, who earned a 91.4 grade as he made nine tackles, missed just one tackle, and blocked a field goal. An eight-year veteran who played his first five seasons with the Rams and his next two with the Jaguars, the soon-to-be 32-year-old safety has posted a special teams grade of 70.0+ in all but one of his seasons. Davis, like the next three players listed here, is an unrestricted free agent.

Former Jets linebacker Nick Bellore, who will soon turn 32 years old and is entering his 11th season, has found his niche in the NFL as a special teams ace. Bellore tied for third in the league with 14 special teams tackles for the Seahawks this past season, posting a 90.2 special teams grade that tied him for seventh-best. He can also play a little bit of fullback. Since 2018, Bellore has played 195 snaps at fullback over 34 games (4.4 per game) for the Seahawks and Lions.

Detroit’s Miles Killebrew tied for 10th in the league with 12 special teams tackles and also tied for 12th with an 86.1 special teams grade. He ranked fourth with 15 tackles in 2019. A fourth-round pick out of Southern Utah in 2016, the strong safety will turn 28 in May. Killebrew isn’t a burner, possessing 4.65 speed, but he’s athletic for his large frame, standing at six-foot-two and 217 pounds but still posting a 63rd-percentile three-cone time (6.93) and an 81st-percentile vertical jump (38 inches).

Edmond Robinson of the Falcons tied Killebrew with 12 special teams tackles, while his 79.1 special teams grade put him at the 88th percentile among qualifiers. He also played 46 defensive snaps at linebacker under Jeff Ulbrich this past season, so he has a notable Jets connection. Robinson actually had a cup of coffee with the Jets in 2017, playing one game after being claimed in early September.

Weakness: Field goal and extra point kicking

Over the past two seasons, the Jets’ kickers have scored 163 points out of a possible 219, a 74.4% rate that is the worst in the NFL over that span. Their 71.4 field goal percentage ranks 31st while their extra point percentage of 84.3 is the worst.

Solutions: Younghoe Koo, Daniel Carlson, Cairo Santos, Nick Folk, Ryan Succop, Cody Parkey

The following free agent kickers had a field goal percentage above the league average (84.6%) in 2020:

  • Younghoe Koo (ATL), age 27 (UFA): 95% FG, 92% PAT (NFL average: 93%)
  • Daniel Carlson (LV), age 26 (RFA): 94% FG, 96% PAT
  • Cairo Santos (CHI), age 30 (UFA): 94% FG, 97% PAT
  • Nick Folk (NE), age 37 (UFA): 93% FG, 91% PAT
  • Ryan Succop (TB), age 35 (UFA): 90% FG, 91% PAT
  • Cody Parkey (CLE), age 29 (UFA): 86% FG, 91% PAT

*- age on December 31, 2021

Former Jet and reigning Bengals kicker Randy Bullock (32 years old in December) is also worth mentioning. He only made 80.8% of his field goals, but he had a tougher job than most kickers as his average attempt distance of 40.3 yards ranked 10th-highest among qualifiers, hurting his overall percentage. He was also excellent on extra points as he placed eighth-best with a 96.0% conversion rate in that department.

He’s going to be 37 years old later this year, but don’t overlook Matt Prater. His 75.0 field goal percentage in 2020 is a bit misleading, as his average attempt distance of 43.0 yards was second-highest among qualifiers. Prater canned 6-of-10 attempts from 50+ yards out, with the six makes ranking as the fifth-most.

Check out our complete free agent kicker breakdown for a look at each player’s average attempt distance, career percentages by distance range, career kickoff productivity, and career ranks among active players.

Weakness: Kickoff returning

The Jets’ kickoff return game has tumbled downhill since the Andre Roberts glory days of 2018. Since leading the NFL with a kickoff return DVOA of +13.6% in 2018, sending Roberts to the Pro Bowl in the process, the Jets ranked 12th with a middling +0.6% DVOA in 2019 before stooping to 22nd with a -4.0% DVOA in 2020.

Cycling through seven different returners who handled multiple kickoffs, the Jets ranked 28th in the NFL with an average of 19.8 yards per kickoff return. Impending free agent Corey Ballentine led the team with 12 returns, averaging a solid 26.2 yards per return with a long of 66 yards against the Seahawks. He surpassed the 25-yard line on four of his 12 returns (33.3%).

As a team, the Jets surpassed the 25-yard line of 13 of their 38 (34.2%) legitimate kickoff returns (counting out squibs and onside kicks).

If the Jets want to look for a proven returner to try and inject some juice into this unit, there is a star-studded lineup of options that could hit the open market.

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