The New York Jets might need a new returner in 2023
With Braxton Berrios looking like one of the New York Jets’ strongest cut candidates in the 2023 offseason, it’s possible the Jets will be searching for a new kick and punt returner.
Here are five options to keep an eye on.
The Jets have a few in-house options to replace Berrios. The best of them is Zonovan Knight, a 2022 undrafted free agent pickup who came on strong at the running back position late in the season.
Knight was a fantastic kickoff returner in college at North Carolina State. He averaged 30.8 yards per return across 30 kickoff tries, scoring a touchdown on three of those. In 2021, Knight led the NCAA with 34.4 yards per kickoff return while tying for second with two touchdowns.
The Jets saw flashes from Knight as a returner in the 2022 preseason when Knight returned five kickoffs and registered an impressive average of 28.2 yards per return, highlighted by a 52-yarder against Philadelphia and a 38-yarder against Atlanta.
Knight has never returned a punt in college or the NFL, so the Jets would have to work with him in that area if they want him to handle both returning roles. But his resume as a kickoff returner is strong.
Elijah Moore gained experience as a punt returner in college at Ole Miss, returning 27 punts and fair catching another 48 punts. However, the results were not good as Moore averaged only 4.9 yards per return. He also had three muffs (4.6% of opportunities).
Moore returned 12 kickoffs in his freshman year but those only went for an 18.5-yard average and he never returned another kick over the following two seasons.
In the NFL, Moore has returned no punts and one kickoff (a short kick by the Patriots at the very end of the game to milk the clock).
Overall, Moore’s resume as a returner is weak, but he does have experience in both returner roles, and when you look at his skill set, it seems perfect for thriving as a returner. Moore has excellent breakaway speed (4.35 forty), shifty elusiveness (ranked second among WRs in missed tackles forced per reception in 2022), and soft hands (credited with only two dropped passes in NFL career).
Despite the lackluster results in the past, Moore could still have some untapped potential as a returner.
Diontae Spencer spent most of the 2022 season on the Jets’ practice squad and signed a reserve/future contract on January 31 after the season.
Spencer, who is 30 years old and will turn 31 in March, is a seasoned return specialist. He dominated as a returner in the CFL for four years (2015-18), twice being named a CFL All-Star as a returner. Spencer finished his CFL career with 191 punt returns for an 11.3-yard average and 90 kickoff returns for a 22.0-yard average. He scored two punt return touchdowns.
Spencer parlayed his CFL success into three seasons as a return specialist for the Denver Broncos, handling both the punt and kickoff return duties. Over three years (42 games), Spencer returned 68 punts for a 9.8-yard average with one touchdown and returned 47 kickoffs for a 21.4-yard average with no touchdowns.
Keisean Nixon (Free agent)
If the Jets want to clearly affirm their desire to improve the special teams unit after its mostly ugly 2022 season, making a statement by signing Keisean Nixon would be a great way to do it.
Nixon was named a first-team All-Pro for his efforts as a returner with the Packers in 2022. He averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return on a league-high 35 kickoff return tries. Nixon also returned 11 punts and averaged 12.7 yards per return.
Nixon also contributes in all other facets of special teams. Over four career seasons, he has collected 21 special teams tackles while playing for both the kickoff and punt coverage units. Nixon has also contributed as a blocker for the kickoff return and punt return units. In fact, he was never used as a primary returner before 2022, focusing solely on other special teams roles.
Outside of special teams, Nixon plays cornerback.
Derius Davis (NFL Draft)
Derius Davis is a redshirt senior wide receiver from TCU who is preparing for the NFL draft. According to most rankings, he currently projects as a Day 3 pick or undrafted free agent.
Davis was not very productive on offense in his college career but he was an outstanding returner, particularly as a punt returner. He returned 44 punts for a 15.0-yard average with five touchdowns. Davis also returned 52 kickoffs for a 22.0-yard average with one touchdown.
If the Jets want to go the youthful route at the returner position, Davis seems to be the best target available. The Jets should be able to grab him late in the draft or as an undrafted free agent.
Honestly, I think the return stats are more about opportunity than anything. Last season other teams in the league had articles written just like this one that had Braxton Berrios at the top of the list. Fair catches are not the fault of the returner, and return yards are hard to come by when teams are punting from the 40 yard line because the defense gives up 1 or 2 first downs on every drive.
I’d love to know this stat, how many total drives vs. the Jets’ defense, and how many “3 and outs” they got, then compare that to other top defenses. That’s where the field position game is won, It’s not all left up to the return guys and special teams units.
It has to be an in-house option, right? There are other holes without any in-house options, and the resources need to go to them.