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The NY Jets special teams unit was elite thanks to 5 unsung heroes

Hamsah Nasirildeen, NY Jets, PFF Grade, Contract, Draft, FSU
Hamsah Nasirildeen, New York Jets, Getty Images

Hamsah Nasirildeen is one of five underrated New York Jets who powered a high-octane special teams unit

Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer has done it again. For the third time in four years, the New York Jets had one of the best special teams units in football.

According to analytics website Football Outsiders, the 2021 Jets ranked second-best in the NFL when it came to special teams DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), trailing only the Baltimore Ravens. Boyer led the Jets to first in 2018 and fourth in 2019, though his unit had a down year in 2020, ranking 29th.

The DVOA stat measures a team’s efficiency in the five facets of special teams – field goal/extra point kicking, punting, kickoffs, punt returns, and kickoff returns. New York excelled in four of those five facets. Here are the Jets’ rankings in each category:

  • Kickoff returns: 1st
  • Punt returns: 5th
  • Kickoffs/kickoff coverage: 7th
  • Punting/punt coverage: 7th
  • Field goals/extra points: 27th

New York suffered from woeful placekicking by Matt Ammendola and Alex Kessman before Eddy Pineiro finished the season with five solid games. Everywhere else, though, the Jets were pretty darn good.

The Jets led the NFL in yards per kickoff return (27.4) and placed second in yards per punt return (12.1). On the opposite side of the special teams coin, the Jets tied for the fewest yards allowed per kickoff return (17.8) and placed 12th in net yards per punt (41.5).

These five unsung heroes were the leaders behind New York’s special teams prowess.

Hamsah Nasirildeen

Rookie linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen could only earn 60 defensive snaps over 12 games in his debut season – 49 of those came in his first two games before he was benched – but he proved himself to be a valuable piece on special teams.

Nasirildeen placed fourth on the Jets with 224 total special teams snaps and contributed in various ways. He was efficient in kick coverage, recording five tackles (3 on punts, 2 on kickoffs) while missing only one tackle. For reference, the NFL average tackle-to-missed tackle ratio on special teams in 2021 was 2.8-to-1.

The Florida State product also made noise as a blocker for the Jets’ electric kickoff return unit.

I rewatched all 14 of the Jets’ kickoff returns that reached the 30-yard line and credited assists to blockers who helped make those returns happen. Nasirildeen collected six assists, ranking second on the team behind a player we will get to later in this article.

It’s also worth noting that Nasirildeen did not commit a single penalty on special teams.

At Pro Football Focus, Nasirildeen earned a special teams grade of 77.5, which ranked 73rd out of 558 qualified special teams players (100+ special teams snaps) around the league. That places him at the 87th percentile.

Del’Shawn Phillips

Backup linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips was a quiet mainstay for the Jets this season. He joined Javelin Guidry, Bryce Hall, Thomas Hennessy, Morgan Moses, Nathan Shepherd, and Greg Van Roten as the only players to appear in all 17 of the team’s games.

Phillips anchored Boyer’s unit, leading the Jets with 372 special teams snaps. That ranked as the eighth-most special teams snaps by any player in the league.

The former Falcon was a force in coverage. Phillips collected 11 special teams tackles (7 on punts, 4 on kickoffs) while missing just one tackle.

Like Nasirildeen, Phillips stood out as a blocker. I credited him with five blocking assists on quality kickoff returns, ranking third-best on the team.

Phillips also refrained from committing any penalties. Only two players in the league logged more special teams snaps without committing a penalty (Detroit’s Anthony Pittman and Baltimore’s Chris Board).

PFF scored Phillips with a special teams grade of 90.5, which ranked sixth-best in the NFL out of 558 qualifiers.

Daniel Brown

Tight end Daniel Brown may be a lowly offensive player, but he is useful on special teams. Brown ranked third on the Jets with 230 special teams snaps.

Much of Brown’s impact went unnoticed. He only made two tackles (1 punt, 1 kickoff) and also missed one.

It’s as a blocker where Brown really shined.

I credited Brown with five blocking assists on quality kickoff returns, tying him with Phillips and Trevon Wesco for third on the team. When you turn on the film, Brown’s blocks stand out as particularly impactful. He creates a lot of movement as a blocker in that phase of the game (even if that ability does not translate to the offensive side of the ball).

Despite only making two tackles, Brown earned a PFF special teams grade of 74.5, placing at the league’s 81st percentile.

Justin Hardee

The Jets signed Justin Hardee specifically for his top-tier special teams skills. Expectations were high for the former Saint.

While Hardee committed a lot of glaring errors that popped off the television screen, Hardee produced a ton of positive plays that more than made up for his mistakes.

First, we’ll start with the bad. Hardee had team-highs of five missed special teams tackles and five special teams penalties. Those things cannot happen. It was a huge surprise to see Hardee struggle in those areas, as over his first three regular seasons in the NFL, Hardee averaged just 2.3 penalties and 1.0 missed tackle per year.

However, Hardee was still a machine when it came to making a positive impact in all facets of special teams.

Hardee led the Jets with 12 special teams tackles (7 punt, 5 kickoff), which tied him for the 12th-most in the NFL.

Not only did Hardee make a lot of tackles, but those tackles tended to be tremendous.

Four of Hardee’s seven tackles on punts held the returner to six yards or less, including a stop for no gain and a stop for a one-yard loss. All five of Hardee’s tackles on kickoffs held the returner to fewer than 20 yards.

Hardee tied for the team lead with two downed punts, with those punts going for 57 and 59 yards.

Most fans know Hardee best for his skills as a gunner, but he is a tremendous blocker, too.

I credited Hardee with nine blocking assists on quality kickoff returns, which led the team and was three more than any other player.

New York Jets special teams kickoff return blocking assists Justin Hardee stats

Despite all of his mistakes, Hardee still earned a 74.5 special teams grade at PFF (identical to Brown’s), which goes to show just how good of a special teams player he is. It would have been a Pro Bowl-caliber year if he kept the mistakes down to his previous career levels.

Hardee ranked second on the Jets with 367 total special teams snaps, trailing Phillips by only five snaps despite missing one game. He played 84% of the available special teams snaps in the games he played, which led the team.

Braxton Berrios

Contrary to the title of this piece, Braxton Berrios is hardly an “unsung” hero – the man was named an All-Pro kickoff returner – but an article about the Jets’ special teams unit simply would not be complete if we did not mention the fan-favorite himself.

Berrios ranked second among qualifiers in yards per kickoff return (30.4) and second in yards per punt return (13.4).

In the kickoff return game, Berrios is best known for his 79-yarder to open the Jets’ Week 13 game against the Eagles and his 102-yard touchdown against the Jaguars in Week 16. However, his consistency as a kickoff returner also stands out. Berrios surpassed the 25-yard line on 17 of his 28 returns (60.7%).

Berrios was not quite as explosive on punt returns – his longest return was 28 yards and his second-longest was 18 yards – but he was consistent. He produced a return better than the 2021 NFL average (8.8 yards) on 12 of his 15 punt returns (80.0%).

Ball security is another area where Berrios offers a positive impact in the return game. Berrios did not muff any punts this year. His total of 39 punts fielded without a muff stood as the most in the league. He fielded 34 punts without a single muff in 2020.

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2 years ago

This is really good stuff. I am glad that Ham and Phillips are producing on ST, that was unnoticed to me. I wonder about Hardee, is he worth keeping or can they find a safety in the draft that can give them what Hardee does and potentially contribute to the defense? My feeling is the only job he has is ST so his missed tackles outweigh anything else. He can’t do that. Was the rest of his game SO good that he has to stick around as a one dimensional player?

2 years ago

Special content , from a very special writer. Outstanding. Explains a few roster decisions. If Daniel Brown could just block in-line , just a little, he would have a job for the next 5 years

2 years ago
Reply to  JetOrange

You’re right but I think I could get past him haha. I think they will overhaul the TE group this off-season. They have the opportunity to draft a playmaking TE which they should take advantage of, the “cast off” route isn’t going to help Zach.

2 years ago
Reply to  Jets71

The consensus seems to be sign a FA Tight End, and draft at least one. I am overly optimistic about the signing of Lawrence Cager, a true long shot , converting from WR to TE. First, it signals that JD is looking under every rock to rebuild the TE room, and second, that this staff maybe open to a Receiving Tight End. The player has to fit the needs of the Offense, but always looking for big plays. It’s hard to fit Kenny Yeboah May have bought himself some additional time by his decent performance on ST