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Ranking New York Jets’ top kickoff returner options

Malachi Corley, NY Jets, Tarik Cohen, Returner
Malachi Corley, Tarik Cohen, New York Jets, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

The New York Jets need to make the right decision at kickoff returner

With a completely overhauled set of rules, the kickoff is about to make a major comeback in the NFL. Not only will the play escape its recent period of dormancy, but it may become more important than ever. New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh speculated that kickoff returners might touch the ball around 100 times this season.

With that in mind, it’s vital that Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer chooses the right man for the kickoff returner job. While this was a fairly trivial role in the past, it will be substantially more consequential in 2024.

Let’s rank the possible candidates for the job.

11. RB Breece Hall

Breece Hall is obviously not going to be considered for the Jets’ regular kickoff return job, but I think he projects well to the role, so I wouldn’t rule out the Jets placing him there in a desperate situation; maybe if they’re trailing in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. So, I figured he’s worth listing at the bottom.

10. CB Brandon Codrington

The undrafted cornerback from North Carolina Central is one of the Jets’ most experienced return options, as he returned 69 kickoffs and 61 punts in his college career. Brandon Codrington was dominant as a punt returner, averaging 12.9 yards with three touchdowns, including career-highs of 19.6 yards per return and two touchdowns in 2023. However, he wasn’t very successful as a kickoff returner, averaging only 19.7 yards per return. He did score one kickoff return touchdown, although that was back in 2019.

Unfortunately, with a poor Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 3.74, Codrington might not be athletic enough to thrive in the role as a professional.

9. RB Xazavian Valladay

Signed by the Texans as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State in 2023, Xazavian Valladay spent most of the year on the Jets’ practice squad, even being promoted to the active roster for the season finale. He remains on the roster and is seeking to push for the final roster spot at running back.

Valladay doesn’t have much return experience, taking back just two kickoffs in college (and no punts) with none in the NFL. However, he’s a tremendous athlete, boasting a 9.47 RAS, so he’s worth mentioning as a wild card.

8. WR Hamze El-Zayat

An undrafted rookie from Eastern Michigan, Hamze El-Zayat scored a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown last season.

He averaged only 10.9 yards per return on his other eight kickoff opportunities, though. But he was more consistent as a punt returner, averaging 11.1 yards per return across 13 tries, even with a long of just 29 yards.

Athletically, El-Zayat isn’t inspiring, offering a 5.44 RAS and 4.57 forty.

7. WR Marcus Riley

The Florida A&M rookie also scored a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown in 2023.

Marcus Riley was more consistent than El-Zayat on his other kickoff opportunities, still averaging 25.5 yards per return across 10 other returns in 2023. He doesn’t have any punt return experience, though.

Riley’s overall RAS is just 5.43, but he has a solid forty time at 4.44.

6. WR Tyler Harrell

Undrafted out of Miami (FL), Tyler Harrell ranks this high solely because of his blistering speed. Reports on his pro-day times are all over the place, but I’ve seen reports of him running as low as 4.2. The RAS website has him listed at 4.25.

Harrell’s return experience is limited. He only returned eight kickoffs in his college career, going for 22.5 yards a pop with a long of 38. He never returned a punt. Still, with that type of speed, the ceiling is interesting.

5. RB Israel Abanikanda

The Jets gave Israel Abanikanda some looks in his rookie year, as he returned two kickoffs in the regular season (averaging just 19.5 yards). In college, Abanikanda returned 19 kickoffs for an average of 22.8 yards with one touchdown.

With 4.45 speed and a 9.63 RAS, Abanikanda is an intriguing athlete for the kickoff return role, but we just haven’t seen enough of him to know if he has the skills for it. One big concern is his hands. Fumbles were a question mark for Abanikanda coming into the league, as he had four in 2022 at Pitt, and he hasn’t shown improvement in the NFL. Abanikanda had a fumble in the preseason on just 30 touches and then fumbled again in the regular season on just 29 touches.

With heavy competition in the running back room, it would go a long way for Abanikanda’s roster chances if he can show some upside as a returner.

4. RB Tarik Cohen

It’s been six years since Tarik Cohen was a good NFL player and four years since he played at all, so let’s keep our expectations in check. Still, he showed the ceiling of an elite returner in the past, and that will give him a chance on a team that does not have another proven returner.

Cohen’s resume as a kickoff returner isn’t inspiring. His 30 career kickoff returns have averaged just 20.9 yards with a long of 46. It’s as a punt returner where Cohen used to be dangerous, averaging 10.3 yards per return on 96 career chances with one touchdown. He was named an All-Pro punt returner in 2018.

Despite his All-Pro billing, Cohen has severe fumble issues that must be considered. In his 2018 All-Pro season, Cohen had seven fumbles. For his career, he has 13 fumbles in just 51 games.

Since he last appeared in 2020, Cohen has suffered a torn ACL and a torn Achilles. He’ll still be only 29 years old this season, so he might have some gas left in the tank if he can get healthy, but for a 5-foot-6 player whose game was completely built around speed, it’s hard to imagine him being nearly as effective in his late-20s after two major lower-body injuries.

3. WR Xavier Gipson

Xavier Gipson has the leg up in this competition since he won and maintained both return roles in 2023, but the reality is that he wasn’t good in either role.

Gipson returned 22 kickoffs, the second-most in the NFL, and yet, his longest return was only 34 yards – 15 returners had a longer season-best return. He averaged 23.3 yards per return.

As a punt returner, Gipson struggled after his magical Week 1 winner, averaging only 7.9 yards per return outside of that play.

Gipson’s hands are a major concern. Overall, he had five fumbles in his rookie season, with three coming on special teams. Gipson muffed two punts and fumbled away the opening kickoff in Buffalo.

The Jets shouldn’t hand anything to Gipson after how he performed last year. He should be in the same boat as everyone else.

2. RB Isaiah Davis

While Isaiah Davis’ long speed doesn’t jump out at you (4.57), he still posted an 8.86 RAS on the strength of his incredible vertical jump (41 inches) and broad jump (128 inches). This suggests Davis has great short-area explosiveness, which will be a key trait in the new kickoff format.

I think Davis’ athletic profile translates nicely to the new kickoff return format. In my opinion, long speed is going to be slightly diminished compared to the old format. Both teams’ players will not be allowed to move until the ball is touched or hits the ground, so it’s not as much of a necessity for the returner to outrace his opponents down the field. Now, it’s more about trying to methodically weed through the traffic with good vision and quick cutting – the latter of which correlates with Davis’ elite vertical and broad jumps.

It’s going to play out more similarly to a traditional play from scrimmage. Long speed takes over after the returner breaks free to the next level, but to be consistently successful, you need the same fundamentals that are required to be effective at running back, and Davis seems to have those.

Joe Blewett praised Davis’ underrated vision and shiftiness in his film review of the South Dakota State rookie. It’s easy to picture plays like these translating to the new kickoff format.

Davis only returned seven kickoffs in his college career, with all of those coming back in 2020. He was successful in this small sample, averaging 32.6 yards per return with a long of 50.

The cherry on top is that Davis offers a track record of good ball security. Davis had just one fumble in each of the past three seasons, accumulating a total of 626 touches over that span. This gives him a leg up on Gipson and Cohen.

Gipson, Cohen, and Abanikanda have probably received more discussion than Davis as a return option, but given the evidence, I like Davis better than all three of them. We shall see if the Jets give him a shot to win the job.

1. WR Malachi Corley

Who better than the “YAC King” to touch the ball 100 times on a glorified play from scrimmage?

Corley never returned a kickoff in college, and he only had one punt return. As the engine of Western Kentucky’s offense, though, it’s unlikely they would have considered using him in those roles. There’s no reason to think he cannot be a fantastic returner in the NFL until proven otherwise.

Using Corley as a returner is an excellent way for the Jets to maximize his skills with the football in his hands. Over the past two seasons, Corley racked up 1,658 yards after the catch and forced 55 missed tackles. While other parts of his game need development, there is no questioning that he is a flat-out playmaker with the rock, and that should translate tremendously to the new kickoff format.

Corley’s ball security is good, as he had two fumbles on 195 touches over the past two seasons.

As a third-round rookie in an offense where he will have to compete for targets against Garrett Wilson, Mike Williams, Breece Hall, and Tyler Conklin, targets might be hard to come by for Corley this year. If the Jets put him at returner, they’ll ensure he receives plenty of opportunities each week to break one loose.

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Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago

I’m sure there will be two guys back there considering the sort distance and the kickoff is a “live-ball” situation, if it hits the ground that will be a problem. I agree Gipson has to fight for the job but I do have a sense he will improve and would like to see him show it.

Corley does have the profile but with Williams coming off injury, and the limited depth on the roster at this point, I don’t want to see something happen to Corley on a KR. I think one of the kick returners is in the current mix and they will add someone before the end of camp.

Thanks for pumping the breaks on Cohen. He was never a “great” player as I’ve seen written.

Jonathan Richter
1 month ago
Reply to  Jets71

I agree with you that 2 Kick returners makes sense. I would go with Corley and Smith. Neither of them are guys you need to treat with kid gloves. Both will seek out contact, and would just and soon run through a guy as run around him. Yet both are really shifty and know how to avoid tacklers. Excited to see if the NFL has hit on something here. Certainly Kickoffs can’t get any more boring.

Jets71
Jets71
1 month ago

When you say Smith, I’m assuming you mean Davis? I can’t argue with that duo I just worry about injury to a WR.

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