Can Brant Boyer lead the NY Jets special teams unit back to its former glory after a disappointing season in 2020?
From 2018-19, the New York Jets had one of the best special teams units in the NFL, led by special teams coordinator Brant Boyer. According to DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, via Football Outsiders), the Jets had the NFL’s second-best special teams unit in 2018 and remained elite in 2019 as they ranked fourth.
The 2020 season marked a fall from glory for Boyer and company. New York ranked 29th in special teams DVOA. Thus, a challenge is in order—one that arrives with the commencement of the 2021 NFL season.
One of the core reasons for that massive tumble was the decline of the punting unit. Previously a terrifying group that caused harsh nightmares for opposing punt returns and special teams coordinators around the league, the once-proud unit devolved into a shell of the juggernaut it once was.
The Jets dropped from fourth-best in punting DVOA in 2019 to third-worst in 2020, marking a poor start to the Braden Mann era. Somewhere down under, Lachlan Edwards must be chuckling.
This unit’s brutal performance had more to do with the punt coverage group’s output than Mann’s. The young punter certainly has a lot of room to grow, but he ranked significantly better on an individual level than the overall punting unit did. Mann earned an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 64.4 that ranked 21st out of 34 qualified punters. That’s not good, but it’s competent enough to where the unit should not have ranked 30th overall.
We’ll touch more on Mann’s strengths and weaknesses later on, but for now, let’s focus on the coverage unit that allowed the sixth-most yards per return in the NFL (11.7) and would have given up substantially more if not for Mann’s world-class tackling talent.
Brown and Farley were two of the worst-performing special teams players in the league. Farley’s PFF special teams grade of 55.0 ranked at the 10th percentile among qualifiers league-wide (193 players with 200+ special teams snaps). Brown’s grade of 50.8 ranked at the second percentile.
Farley is now a member of the Tennessee Titans. Brown remains on the roster.
The Jets had a couple of other extremely subpar players leading their punt coverage unit. Harvey Langi (47 punt coverage snaps, eighth-most on team) had the worst special teams grade in the NFL among players with at least 200 special teams snaps, posting a ghastly grade of 42.7. Tarell Basham (60 punt coverage snaps, sixth-most on team) had a 51.5 special teams grade, ranking at the fourth percentile among players with at least 150 total special teams snaps.
Both players are out the door; Langi rejoined the Patriots while Basham headed south to Dallas.
This is all great news for the future of this unit. Three of its worst players are gone. Brown may not make the roster, either.
Coming in to take some of those vacated snaps is former Saints special teams star Justin Hardee. His 90.4 special teams grade in 2020 ranked sixth out of 193 qualifiers (97th percentile).
Hardee is a true difference-maker as a gunner. He is great at evading blockers off the line of scrimmage to get downfield in a hurry, and as a tackler, he couples good discipline with phenomenal angling to finish plays at a superb rate.
Former Falcons safety Sharrod Neasman is also in town; he is a fairly average special teams player with a career special teams grade of 65.2.
Those two players should be huge upgrades in coverage. Hardee has a career tackle-to-missed tackle ratio of 6.6-to-1 on special teams, which is more than double the 2020 league average on special teams (2.9-to-1). Neasman’s career average is a perfectly average 2.9-to-1.
In 2020, the quartet of Farley, Brown, Basham, and Langi combined for a ratio of 1.4-to-1.
As for Mann, the biggest key for him will be his control. Mann has raw leg talent, possessing the ability to punt with plenty of distance and hang time, but he needs to a better job of working in tandem with the coverage team to prevent favorable return opportunities and minimize the number of return opportunities he allows altogether.
Mann had 46.3% of his punts returned in 2020, ranking eighth-worst.
To make life easier for his teammates, Mann needs to improve in two areas. Number one, he needs to avoid out-kicking his coverage. Punting the ball too far without the hang time to accommodate it gives the returner a lot of room to work with and more time to read the field. It also allows him to build momentum before tacklers arrive.
Great punters know how to find the perfect blend of distance and hang time to where they are pushing the ball as far downfield as they can without giving the opponent a good return opportunity.
Secondly, Mann needs to pin more of his punts against the sideline. Returners have fewer options when they catch the ball along the edge of the field compared to when they catch the ball in the middle of the field.
Fortunately, Mann made notable progress throughout his rookie season both in terms of return prevention and on an overall level.
From Weeks 9-17, Mann knocked his return rate down to 39.5%, a massive improvement over his 52.3% rate from Weeks 1-8. In turn, his overall play was much better. Mann rose from 26th in PFF’s punting grade from Weeks 1-8 (61.2) to 10th from Weeks 9-17 (66.1).
There are some positive signs for this unit, but there are still plenty of question marks considering that it is likely to feature a bevy of rookies and unproven young players.
Including the players mentioned above, seven of the Jets’ top 10 players in special teams snaps from a year ago are gone. That total could increase to eight players if Brown is cut and nine if both Brown and Ryan Griffin are cut.
Considering that the Jets did not add a ton of proven special teams players – Hardee and Neasman are the only highly-experienced additions in that phase – most of those snaps will be taken over by the athletic late-round picks and other fringe players on the team.
Athletic young players have high ceilings on special teams thanks to their physical gifts, but their floors are extremely low. There are actual skills involved in playing special teams. It’s not just a track meet.
Without real special teams skills to complement it – such as discipline, block shedding, angling, lane-filling, tackle finishing, awareness, avoiding penalties, etc. – speed won’t do anything for a special teams player except take him out of the play faster.
Superior speed can be a curse in disguise on special teams (or any part of football, really) if the player does not have the skill to harness it. The faster a player is, the tougher it is for him to alter speeds and control his motion.
Two Jets rookies come into the NFL with a good track record of special teams production to go along with their youth and athleticism: Michael Carter II and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Jamien Sherwood struggled with missed tackles on special teams while Michael Carter, Jason Pinnock, and Brandin Echols played sparingly on special teams but rarely in punt coverage.
Here are the career special teams numbers for a few of the Jets’ rookies:
- Michael Carter II: 75.6 PFF special teams grade, 10.5-to-1 tackle-miss ratio. 448 special teams snaps (93 in punt coverage)
- Hamsah Nasirildeen: 70.5 PFF special teams grade, 3.7-to-1 tackle-miss ratio. 496 special teams snaps (151 in punt coverage)
- Jamien Sherwood: 65.2 PFF special teams grade, 1.2-to-1 tackle-miss ratio. 549 special teams snaps (125 in punt coverage)
- Michael Carter: 223 special teams snaps (7 in punt coverage), 0 tackles or missed tackles
- Jason Pinnock: 198 special teams snaps (1 in punt coverage), 0 tackles or missed tackles
- Brandin Echols: 139 special teams snaps (0 in punt coverage), 0 tackles or missed tackles
Echols and Pinnock’s special teams experience primarily came as rushers for the punt return and field goal block units. They have very limited experience in punt or kickoff coverage.
The majority of Carter’s special teams experience came as a blocker for the kickoff return unit.
Carter II has exciting potential on special teams. He picked up 21 career tackles (and only 2 missed tackles) over just 210 kickoff and punt coverage snaps. That’s one tackle every 10.0 kickoff/punt snaps. For comparison, the 2020 NFL leader in special teams tackles (based on PFF’s tracking, which weeds out low-quality tackles), Seattle’s Cody Barton, had 15 tackles over 154 kickoff/punt snaps – one tackle every 10.3 snaps.
The future of the Jets’ punting unit is looking fairly decent considering the exodus of primary culprits in last year’s issues, the addition of Hardee, and Mann’s possible progression.
It seems likely that this group will improve to some extent, but exactly how much they improve will depend on the performance of the young coverage men.
If the youngsters fail to channel their athleticism and struggle mightily, Mann and Hardee will not be able to pull the unit too far up the leaderboard.
On the other hand, if Boyer can get the kids to play under control and maximize their athleticism, the potential is there for the Jets to reclaim their status as an Earth-shattering punting unit that strikes fear in the hearts of opponents.