It’s time to talk about the special teams aspect of New York Jets-Carolina Panthers
The New York Jets‘ stout defensive line versus the Carolina Panthers’ flimsy offensive line, Carolina’s tremendous weapons versus New York’s inexperienced defenders – all of these matchups have been discussed more than enough already.
It’s time to talk about the special teams battle.
Jets special teams coach Brant Boyer is looking to lead a turnaround after his once-elite unit dipped to 29th in special teams DVOA (a metric from Football Outsiders that captures overall impact) this past season. Boyer had the Jets ranked fourth in the category in 2019 and first in 2018.
Panthers special teams coach Chase Blackburn is entering his fourth season in the position. He is coming off of a 2020 season in which he led the unit to 16th in special teams DVOA after bottoming out at 31st in 2019.
Just as they are even in many areas offensively and defensively, the Jets and Panthers are neck and neck in many areas of special teams as well.
- Jets kicker: Matt Ammendola
- Panthers kicker: Ryan Santoso
The Panthers traded a conditional seventh-round pick for Giants kicker Ryan Santoso and kept him over Joey Slye, cutting the latter after he kicked in all 32 games for the team over the past two seasons. Slye was known for his powerful leg but made only 79% of his field goals and 90% of his extra points as a Panther. He went 1-for-6 on kicks from 50+ yards out in 2020.
Santoso has never kicked a field goal or extra point in an NFL regular season game, although he played in three games as a kickoff specialist for Tennessee in 2019. In the 2021 preseason, he made all five of his extra points and both of his field goals (one from 50+ yards).
New York will also be rolling with an unproven kicker, Oklahoma St. product Matt Ammendola. He made all five of his extra points and all four of his field goals in the 2021 preseason.
Both teams are looking to rebound in a big way at the kicker position after a tumultous 2020. Carolina ranked 22nd in field goal/extra point DVOA off the leg of Slye while New York rank 30th thanks to Sam Ficken and Sergio Castillo.
- Jets punter: Braden Mann
- Panthers punter: Joseph Charlton
A 2020 undrafted free agent out of South Carolina, Joseph Charlton is entering his second season as the Panthers’ punter. He had a solid rookie season as he ranked 12th in yards per punt (46.7) and led the Panthers to 12th in punting DVOA.
The coverage team in front of Charlton is a question mark for Carolina. Last season, the Panthers allowed 10.8 yards per punt return, eighth-worst in the league. They yielded one punt return touchdown.
Jets punter Braden Mann was a sixth-round pick in 2020. He is looking to take a big step forward after a shaky rookie season. Mann showed flashes of elite talent but also loaded up on duds as he ranked 30th with 43.9 yards per punt. In the 2021 preseason, Mann looked much improved as he averaged 47.4 yards per punt and more than doubled the percentage of punts that he dropped inside of the opponent’s 20-yard line (23% in 2020 versus 58% in the 2021 preseason).
Mann’s rookie-year struggles combined with a brutal punt coverage unit landed the Jets at 30th in punting DVOA last season. They likely would have been worse if Mann did not save multiple touchdowns with great tackles. The Jets allowed the sixth-most yards per punt return (11.7).
The addition of former Saints special teams ace Justin Hardee should boost the Jets’ punt coverage significantly. He has a career 6.6-to-1 ratio of tackles to missed tackles on special teams, more than twice as good as the 2020 NFL average (2.9-to-1).
New York retains star long snapper Thomas Hennessy as he enters his fifth season. Hennessy has never launched an egregiously errant snap on a field goal or punt and is also one of the game’s best coverage long snappers for the punt team. His total of nice tackles since 2019 ranks second among long snappers.
Pro Football Focus ranked Hennessy as the NFL’s best long snapper in 2019 and second-best long snapper in 2020.
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- Jets kickoff specialist: Matt Ammendola
- Panthers kickoff specialist: Ryan Santoso
Both teams will rely on their placekicker to handle kickoffs as well.
Ammendola kicked off 12 times in the preseason and averaged a hang time of 4.0 seconds (2020 NFL average: 3.96) while producing seven touchbacks and an average opposing starting field position of the 25.8-yard line.
Santoso kicked off 10 times and and averaged a hang time of 4.02 seconds while producing nine touchbacks and an average opposing starting field position of the 25.1-yard line.
New York allowed 24.8 yards per kickoff return last season, ranking seventh-worst in the NFL. Those returns were ultimately inconsequential, though. They ranked 18th with a kickoff DVOA of -0.1%, meaning their kickoff unit barely affected their chances of winning in any notable positive or negative way.
Carolina ranked seventh-best with only 20.6 yards per kickoff return allowed, although they only faced a league-low seven returns thanks to Slye’s incredible 88% touchback rate.
- Jets punt returner: Braxton Berrios
- Panthers punt returner: Alex Erickson
Carolina is elevating wide receiver Alex Erickson from the practice squad to return punts. He ranks 11th among active players with 135 career punt returns, all coming with the Bengals over the past five seasons.
Erickson has averaged a decent 8.0 yards per punt in his career. That’s below the 2020 NFL average of 8.8. He has never recorded a touchdown or a return for 40+ yards and has muffed seven of his 135 punt returns (5.2%).
The punt return game was an issue for the Panthers last season. They ranked 25th in yards per punt return (25.9).
Braxton Berrios is entering his third season at punt returner. He owns a strong career average of 10.5 yards per return over 31 opportunities and has only muffed one punt (3.2%). Consistency is the name of Berrios’ game as a punt returner – he has mustered up that solid average despite his longest return going for only 26 yards.
- Jets kickoff returner: Braxton Berrios
- Panthers kickoff returner: Chuba Hubbard
Carolina is rolling with rookie running back Chuba Hubbard at kickoff returner. Hubbard averaged 22.1 yards per return over 25 collegiate opportunities (23 of which came in 2018) and picked up 23 yards on his lone return of this year’s preseason.
The Panthers are looking to replicate their solid production in the kickoff return game last season. They ranked seventh with 25.3 yards per kickoff return and eighth in kickoff return DVOA. The load was carried by Pharoh Cooper and former Jets running back Trenton Cannon, the latter of which averaged an impressive 29.8 yards per return.
Berrios will return kickoffs for the Jets as well. He is not as experienced in that facet as he is with punt returns, taking back only 13 kickoffs in his career. His average of 16.5 yards per kickoff return is brutal (2020 NFL average: 22.5).
The Jets struggled with kickoff returns in 2020 as they ranked 24th in kickoff return DVOA and 28th in yards per kickoff return (19.8). They could not find an answer for the position as seven different players returned at least two kickoffs.
Justin Hardee is best known for his coverage skills, but he will help the Jets in this facet as well. His blocking for the kickoff return and punt return teams is excellent. He will create plenty of holes for Berrios to work with.
Blake Cashman has established himself as a good blocker for the kickoff return unit as well.