Special teams ace Justin Hardee is a big-time addition for a New York Jets punt coverage unit that desperately needed help.
The New York Jets’ punting unit was an issue in 2020. With a DVOA of -12.8%, the Jets had the third-least effective punting unit in the NFL. Their average of 11.7 yards allowed per punt return ranked sixth-worst – without three amazing touchdown-saving tackles by rookie punter Braden Mann, they might have allowed the worst average in the league.
While Mann’s shaky debut season was a part of the reason for the Jets’ lack of productivity in this area, he was far from the primary issue. Individually, Mann wasn’t too bad, as he ranked 13th out of 30 qualified punters in average hang time (4.39 seconds), 19th in Pro Football Focus’ punting grade (64.4), and 20th in fair catch rate (24.4%). However, he ranked 27th in net yards per punt (37.2) – again, that mark would be even worse (significantly) if not for Mann’s tackling ability.
The disparity between Mann’s individual statistics and the overall output of the punting unit indicates that the Jets’ coverage team was far more responsible for the poor punting production than Mann himself.
Improving the punt coverage team was clearly somewhere on the Jets’ priority list going into the offseason, as they’ve already gotten to work in that endeavor by signing former Saints special teams ace Justin Hardee to a three-year deal.
An undrafted free agent out of Illinois in 2017, the six-foot-one, 200-pound cornerback spent his first NFL offseason with the Texans before being waived during final roster cuts. He was quickly scooped up by the Saints and proceeded to carve out a niche as a key special teams piece in New Orleans over four seasons.
Hardee has appeared regularly on five of the six special teams units, with the only exception being the field goal protection unit (a role reserved for the big guys). As a coverage man for the punt and kickoff teams, he has excelled, racking up 33 career tackles to only five missed tackles (regular season and playoffs). That’s a 6.6-to-1 ratio, more than double the 2020 league average for special teams players (2.9-to-1).
In the 2017 regular season, Hardee’s 87.2 special teams grade at Pro Football Focus ranked fifth-best in the league among 212 players with at least 200 special teams snaps. In 2020, he had another elite season as his 90.4 special teams grade ranked sixth out of 193 qualifiers.
Let’s dig into the film to see how Hardee can help Mann and the Jets’ punting unit return to glory.
Hardee excels at defeating blocks as a gunner. Facing a double-team here, Hardee is initially shoved out of bounds, but he finds a way to defeat both blockers to make the play. Hardee locates a crease to get back in the field of play, shoves the outside man, and slams on the brakes to leave both blockers careening upfield. Freed up, Hardee flattens his angle, works back to the middle, and makes the tackle from the side.
You (and your punt returner) are in trouble if the coach puts you on an island with Hardee one-on-one. Hardee faces a one-on-one on the right sideline against cornerback L’Jarius Sneed here. Sneed shoves Hardee out of bounds, but Hardee uses that to his advantage as he sprints by Sneed before coming back in. Once Hardee has a step on Sneed, he stops on a dime and lets Sneed stumble by, helping him on his way with a shove to the shoulder. Hardee pursues and takes down Mecole Hardman for a one-yard return.
Perhaps the best example of Hardee’s ability to beat blockers, this next play is one of the most dominant reps you will ever see from a gunner. Lined up opposite cornerback Jamel Dean on the right side of the field, Hardee gets off the ball with ridiculous burst and explosion. He swats away Dean’s attempted jam, easily blowing by him as he angle toward the left sideline. Once Hardee clears Dean, he reroutes himself to the returner in the middle of the field. Hardee times his arrival perfectly as he shellacs Jayden Mickens and limits him to a zero-yard return. Beautiful stuff.