There are three main options for the New York Jets to play as a return specialist, each with pros and cons
New York Jets captain C.J. Mosley had a wry message for the team’s rookies: “Make sure you’re ready to play special teams.” As much as it seems like thankless advice, it can be the golden ticket for young NFL players to make their way onto rosters. Just ask Irvin Charles, the receiver who spent all of 2022 on the Jets’ practice squad before earning a spot on the 2023 active roster due to being, in Robert Saleh’s words, an “absolute wolf” on special teams.
Another Jets rookie has special teams ability to thank for his roster spot, as well. Xavier Gipson came into training camp facing an uphill battle to make the roster, as the Jets had Mecole Hardman, Randall Cobb, and even Allen Lazard to eat up slot snaps. He had one ace up his sleeve: his ability in the return game.
Now he’s made the roster, and his return ability may be the primary reason why. The twitch he demonstrated with the ball in his hands against the Giants was also a factor, but his skillset in that area is somewhat redundant with Mecole Hardman’s. It’s really the return game that got him through.
For all of Gipson’s ability, there are also some concerns about putting him back there. Nevertheless, the Jets’ other options for return specialists have questions of their own.
Who should be the Jets’ primary returner in 2023?
Kickoff vs. punt returns
Returning kicks and punts are two separate skills. It’s easier to track a kickoff, whereas tracking a punt requires quicker reaction time. Additionally, punt returners need short-area quickness and change-of-direction skills. Kickoff returners accelerate before they’re contacted and have more time to set up their blocks.
It will be interesting to see what happens with kickoffs around the NFL this year. In 2022, 60.7% of non-onside kickoffs resulted in a touchback. With the new fair catch rule, it remains to be seen whether teams will kick the ball out of the end zone, kick it high and short to test whether the returner will call for a fair catch, or kick it on the ground to force a return.
That adds another wrinkle to the level of fundamentals needed from the kick returner. Letting a ball bounce into the end zone or making a fair catch on a kickoff is different from being forced to field a bouncing kickoff.
Returning punts is not easy. Besides tracking the ball through a range of weather conditions, figuring out whether to call for a fair catch, return the punt, and or let it bounce over their head while either waving for a fair catch and/or blocking the gunner is difficult. Then there are the fears of every team on a punt return: muffs and fumbles.
Technically, the difference between a muffed and fumbled punt is whether there was possession first; a muffed punt cannot be advanced by the kicking team, while a fumble can be. Practically, the terms are used interchangeably. Skill-wise, preventing a muff is about proper tracking and positioning, whereas not fumbling is about keeping two hands on the ball in traffic and tucking it properly.
With the number of touchbacks on kick returns, the punt returner is considered more important.
Jets’ return options
On punt returns, the Jets can use Hardman, Gipson, or Cobb. Hardman has 62 career punt returns in the NFL while Cobb has 98. Gipson returned 35 punts in college.
Gipson had only six kickoff return attempts in college, while Hardman has 40 in the NFL and Cobb has 76. However, Cobb has returned only four kicks in his last 10 seasons; 72 of those returns came in his first two seasons.
In his career, Hardman averages 23.2 yards per kickoff return on 40 attempts with one touchdown and one muff. The bulk of his kickoff returns came in his rookie season when he had 27 kick returns, a 26.1 average, and both the score and muff.
Hardman has seen more consistent work as a punt returner. He has 62 returns at a 9.0 average with 26 fair catches, one touchdown, and three muffed punts. His best season as a punt returner was in 2021 when he averaged 12.1 yards per return on 13 attempts with a long of 31. His career-long is 67 yards.
Cobb was a fairly good kick returner in his first two seasons, averaging 27.7 and 25.4 yards per return, respectively, including a 108-yard touchdown return in 2011. Still, he hasn’t been a kick returner in years, so it’s not really an option for him.
As a punt returner, Cobb averages 9.2 yards per attempt with two touchdowns. He hasn’t had more than seven returns or 20 total fielded punts in a season since 2014. He has 10 career muffed punts.
In college, Gipson didn’t do much as a kick returner, averaging 17.7 yards per return on six attempts with a long of 36. He was an electric punt returner, though, averaging 15.5 yards per return on 35 attempts with a long of 85. He also had 31 fair catches, a whopping four punt return touchdowns, and two muffed punts.
In the preseason, Gipson got some time as both a kick and punt returner. On three kickoff returns, he averaged 28 yards per return with a long of 45. He posted 13.4 yards per punt return on five attempts with a long of 31, five fair catches, and one muffed punt.
Gipson undoubtedly has the highest ceiling for explosive returns, especially as a punt returner. His four touchdowns in college on just 35 attempts are almost ridiculous. For reference, in Devin Hester’s best NFL season as a punt returner, he had four return touchdowns on 42 attempts.
Even on kick returns, Gipson has the highest upside, as he showed in the preseason with his 45-yard return.
Still, there are several other factors besides upside to consider when choosing a returner, including the risks of a muffed punt and injuries.
In 2022, muffed punts recovered by the punting team had an EPA (Expected Points Added) average of -5.21. Compare that to the EPA for other detrimental plays for the possessing team.
- Lost offensive fumble: -4.88
- Interception: -4.38
- Missed field goal: -3.08
- Failed fourth-down conversion: -2.94
- Failed two-point conversion: -0.95
In other words, on average, a muffed punt that is lost is the single costliest play a team with or about to receive possession can make. This is unsurprising given the fact that a muffed punt usually occurs in the team’s own territory, giving the opposing team a better chance to score.
Of course, not every muffed punt is recovered by the punting team. In 2022, only 34.8% of muffed punts were recovered by the opposition. Still, the risks of a muffed punt are pretty great.
Jets’ punt returners
Is the upside of an explosive return worth the risk of a muff or fumble? Seeing Gipson muff a punt in the preseason, perhaps it’s worth pumping the brakes on him as the returner.
The numbers, though, tell a different story. Here are the muffed punt rates for the three players. For statistical purposes, the term “muff” in this context refers to either a dropped punt or a fumble on the punt return.
- Gipson (college and preseason): 76 fielded punts (40 returns, 36 fair catches), 3 muffed punts, 1 muff per 25.3 fielded punts
- Hardman (2019-22): 88 fielded punts (62 punt returns, 26 fair catches), 3 muffed punts, 1 muff per 29.3 fielded punts
- Cobb (2011-22): 175 fielded punts (98 punt returns, 77 fair catches), 10 muffs, 1 muff per 17.5 fielded punts
Despite the perception that Cobb is the most surehanded option of the three, he has actually been by far the most prone to muffed punts. The lack of explosiveness and risk of muffed punts should rule out Cobb as an option.
That leaves Hardman vs. Gipson. Hardman has been more surehanded in the NFL thus far, but Gipson seemingly offers a lot more upside.
Although Gipson and Hardman are both very fast and shifty, Gipson has shown more evidence of using those skills to become a good returner.
The second safety element is the risk of injury. Teams do not like to use their top offensive or defensive players as returners for that reason.
When Hardman was going to be the fourth receiver, it was reasonable to assume that he would be the punt returner. Now that Corey Davis retired, though, Hardman is the No. 3 receiver by default. That makes it more risky to put him out there.
Gipson, meanwhile, is likely the fifth receiver on the depth chart. Though he showed considerable twitch with the ball in his hands, his offensive skill set is virtually identical to Hardman’s as a YAC and gadget player. Perhaps Gipson can develop into Hardman’s replacement for 2024, but for now, he is unlikely to see a significant offensive role. Therefore, he is an ideal returner.
Risks of Gipson
How risky is Gipson as a punt returner, really, compared to other punt returners? How does his one muff per 25.3 fielded punts stack up?
In 2022, among 33 punt returners with at least 20 returns, five had no muffs. Among the remaining 28, the average muff rate was one per 26.5 fielded punts. Gipson’s 25.3 mark would have ranked 15th out of 28, or just about the average for a qualified punt returner. This doesn’t include those returners who never fumbled, though.
Taken the other way, Gipson muffed 3.9% of his fielded punts. The average among those 33 returners was 4.63%. Still, Gipson’s 3.9% rate would have ranked 19th out of the 33 returners (45th percentile). That’s roughly average, although not as surehanded as you’d like from a punt returner. Still, given Gipson’s upside, his current numbers are tolerable.
Just to compare Hardman’s numbers, he would have ranked 13th with a muff every 29.3 fielded punts (compared to Gipson’s 15th) and 18th with a 3.4% muff rate (compared to Gipson’s 18th). Hardman and Gipson are pretty similar in terms of surehandedness relative to the rest of the NFL.
Drop-off in the NFL
Unlike other positions, returning kicks and punts in the NFL is not all that different from doing so in college. Catching a kick or punt is the same, making the risk of muffing a punt the same. Perhaps the coverage will be better, but the chances of fumbling would not seem to be any higher.
Therefore, although Gipson is a rookie, I would not expect a sudden onslaught because of his inexperience in the NFL. His combined 76 fielded punts constitute a decent sample size, so his rates should remain similar.
The answer seems pretty clear: Gipson should be the Jets’ returner.
Although his muffs are a concern, they’re not as bad as they may have seemed after he muffed a punt in the preseason. On the flip side, he has tremendous potential as a returner and can significantly turn field position in the Jets’ favor.