Justin Hardee is an interesting cog in the New York Jets’ roster picture
I’m currently working my way through former New York Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff’s new book “Figure It Out: My Thirty-Two-Year Journey While Revolutionizing Pro Football’s Special Teams” – which has got me thinking a lot about special teams over the last week.
Anyone who knows me knows I have a soft spot for special team players. Most don’t get the recognition they deserve, and a lot of people underappreciate the importance of a good special teams unit. We pay attention to the kickers and punters, but rarely to anyone else.
In Rick Gosselin’s end-of-year special teams rankings for the 2021 season (largely considered to be the last word on special teams) the Jets were placed 13th, which was a sizeable jump from the year prior when they were ranked 26th.
I like the Gosselin ranking because it is exhaustive; teams are ranked in 22 different categories. So, it’s not just about the field goals made and the distance a punter gains (although that plays a part). It takes everything into consideration, ranging from kick coverage, to penalties, to blocked kicks and blocked kicks allowed.
Prior to the 2021 NFL season, the Jets signed star special teamer Justin Hardee, a player renowned in New Orleans for being a leader in the locker room and one of the best gunners in the NFL. The Jets were so high on him that they signed him to a three-year, $6.75 million contract, which is a good amount for a player who offers very little on defense. Hardee has played in a total of 120 defensive snaps over the first five years of his career and only appeared on 2 defensive plays for the Jets in 2021.
Joe Douglas structured the contract so that the Jets could exit it after one year. All of the guarantees ($1 million) were paid in 2021, so if the Jets decided to cut him either this year or next year then there would be $0 counted against the cap as dead money…some of that classic Joe Douglas flexibility that I’ve previously written about.
As the Gosselin rankings would indicate, the Jets enjoyed a relatively strong 2021 season in terms of coverage units, although their kickoff coverage was considerably better than their punt coverage. The Jets led the league by allowing 17.8 yards per kickoff return and didn’t allow a single touchdown return all season. However, the Jets were one of only five teams to allow 10+ yards on average per punt return, so that was one area that held them back from breaking into the top 10 of the rankings.
Hardee’s season was a little up and down. He was the obvious leader of the unit, and there is something to say for that. It’s a characteristic that just can’t be measured in any traditional sense but it’s vitally important. He also led the team with 10 special teams tackles which were five more than the next man up, Del’Shawn Phillips. Those 10 tackles tied him for 13th in the NFL, 5 behind the leader J.T. Gray who ironically was signed to replace Hardee in New Orleans.
However, based on Pro Football Focus’s rankings, Hardee ranked as the 105th-best special teamer in football last season out of 546 qualifiers, earning a 74.5 special teams grade. While solid, it doesn’t shout “pay me $2 million a season”.
The issues for Hardee came in two areas. He led the Jets in both penalties (5) and missed tackles (5) on special teams. The argument could be made that he’s a gunner so missed tackles are part and parcel of the position, but his 5 missed tackles were tied for third-most in the league. His 5 penalties were tied for the second-most in the league.
Those two areas need to be tidied up. Giving up yardage at any point is dangerous, but giving up yardage on special teams is a big no-no.
This brings us to the question at hand: How secure is Hardee’s roster spot if the team can release him without any penalty?
I think Hardee is relatively secure unless the Jets need that money for, say, a George Fant contract extension. According to Over The Cap, the Jets have $8.9 million left in cap space for the 2022 season, and while that’s the eighth-lowest number in the NFL, it should be enough to tie up Fant considering he’s already counting $11.1 million against that number.
But, we also know that Joe Douglas likes to frontload contracts to aid long-term flexibility, and if all these draft picks work out the way the Jets want them to, they’re going to need long-term flexibility.
Overall, I think Hardee is safe. His leadership alone is worth a lot to this young team, and some of the penalties were bogus calls.
Those five missed tackles are also a bit of an aberration. Before the 2021 season, he never had more than 2 missed tackles in a season, and back in 2020, he had just a single one. In fact, his combined total of missed tackles over the first four years of his career (4) is lower than his 2021 number. So there is reason to expect that number to revert to the norm, much like Corey Davis’s drop percentage.
I’m all in favour of keeping Hardee for this year, but if the Jets absolutely have to open up cap space for whatever reason, he’s an interesting name to watch.