Jets 2021 Position Breakdown: Will special teams upgrades pay off?

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Jets' Braden Mann Justin Hardee, and Sam Ficken treated image
Jets' Braden Mann Justin Hardee, and Sam Ficken treated image

Heading into the 2021 season, the Jets have made a series of moves to improve the state of their roster and overall depth, but are they ready to compete for a playoff spot?

In this series, we’ve been breaking down the depth chart for every Jets position group. This time, we’ll go in-depth on the special teams…

Projected Depth Chart

Punter: Braden Mann
Kicker: Sam Ficken or Chris Naggar
Long snapper: Thomas Hennessy

- Key additions/losses: Acquired free agents Justin Hardee, Sharrod Neasman and Matt Cole. Did not re-sign Harvey Langi, Matthias Farley or Arthur Maulet.

- Top Performer in 2020: Corey Ballentine
averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return with the Jets and had nine special teams tackles, including four in six games as a Jet.

- 2020 ranking via PFF:
25th

What Jets’ special teams units have going for them

The Jets’ special teams were inconsistent last year, although they improved down the stretch. They’ve overhauled some of their key personnel, led by the signing of Hardee who is one of the league’s best punt gunners. The free agent Cole or rookie Michael Carter II could pair effectively with Hardee at the other gunner position. The recent signing of safety Neasman gives the Jets another potential core contributor along with the returning Blake Cashman.

The Jets also brought in some depth players who could win a roster spot with their contributions on special teams such as Del’Shawn Phillips, Hamilcar Rashed, Jordyn Peters and Camilo Eifler. Peters blocked five kicks in college.

The kicking game and return game remain a work in progress, but there is the potential for a good camp competition in each case.

Key concern: Who will return kicks and punts?

Wide receiver Braxton Berrios was one of the league’s top punt returners in 2019, but he was ineffective in 2020 as he ended up fair catching nearly every return opportunity. Several different players got a chance to return kickoffs, but the only one who had any consistent success was Ballentine.

In 2021, the likes of Elijah Moore and Keelan Cole could compete with Berrios to be the punt returner. Cole had a long touchdown return last year in Jacksonville. Candidates to compete with Ballentine as kick returner include Michael Carter and Austin Walter.

Whoever steps into these roles will benefit from the improved personnel special teams coordinator Brant Boyer should have at his disposal in 2021. If the blocking is more consistent, this should make it more likely that they can break some long returns. For example, Hardee and rookie Jason Pinnock are two potential upgrades at the vice position, who can prevent opposing teams’ gunners from getting downfield and forcing Berrios or his replacement to constantly fair catch the ball.

Player who must step up in 2021: Braden Mann

The promising Mann had a disappointing rookie season, but the Jets didn’t bring in any competition for him ahead of the 2021 season. They may bring in a “camp leg” at some point, but it’s clear they expect Mann to deliver on his potential and display more consistency in his second year.

That’s where Hardee and the other upgrades to the coverage units come in. If Hardee is healthy, you can count on him to beat the vice on a regular basis and this will give Mann more confidence to kick deep without being fearful of outkicking his coverage. It would be surprising if Mann’s numbers aren’t significantly improved in 2021 and he has a chance to become an elite punter if he lives up to his potential.

Biggest camp battle: Sam Ficken vs. Chris Naggar

The veteran Ficken somehow survived a second underwhelming season in a row as the Jets re-signed him to a futures deal after the season following an injury-hit 2020 campaign. The team took a quick look at Chase McLaughlin at the end of the year, but opted to release him and surprisingly did nothing else to address the position other than bringing in Naggar as an undrafted rookie.

This position doesn’t seem to be settled yet as each player has reportedly had their ups and downs during offseason practices so far. In the event neither player excels in camp, the Jets may end up scouring the waiver wire for someone to fill this role.

2021 Outlook

Having let several of their key contributors walk, the Jets appear to have made a concerted effort to target players who will bolster their special teams units. That bodes well for Boyer, who had to scramble to find warm bodies last year when the Jets had some injuries.

The kicking game could prove crucial if the Jets are more competitive this year. Expect Boyer to move quickly to address this if the need arises.