Brant Boyer has turned the New York Jets special teams into a juggernaut. There’s no reason to believe that will change in 2020.
The New York Jets‘ special teams have been elite the last two seasons. In 2018, the team had two All-Pros and finished first in special teams DVOA. The Jets then allowed kicker Jason Myers and returner Andre Roberts to leave in free agency.
Many fans didn’t believe it would be possible for the special teams unit to recover. Brant Boyer’s unit proved them wrong. They weren’t as good in 2019, but they were still elite, finishing fourth in DVOA.
Boyer will deal with less turnover in 2020. He’ll have a kicker battle and a new punter, but otherwise, the unit remains the same. There’s no reason to believe the Jets’ best unit won’t remain among the best in the NFL in the coming season.
The kicking game is the weakest part of the Jets special teams unit by far. Sam Ficken was one of the worst kickers in the NFL in 2019 and he returns for 2020. Brett Maher will join Ficken in training camp to create a kicking competition.
As bad as the Jets kicking situation is, Brant Boyer will almost certainly find a way to make it better. Boyer is entering his fifth year with the Jets and in every season he’s had a new kicker, and every year that kicker improves in green.
Nick Folk hit 87.1% of his field goals in 2016, that’s 5.8% better than his 2015 numbers. In 2017, Chandler Catanzaro hit 83.3% of his field goals, that’s 8.3% better than his 2016 percentage. In 2018, Jason Myers hit 91.7% of his field goals, 18.4% better than in 2017.
Sam Ficken is a special case. Before coming to the Jets, Ficken had attempted just six field goals. He was 50% on those six kicks. He hit 70.4% in 2019. That means he hit 20.4% over his career average.
Ficken’s competition for 2020, Brett Maher, is a reclamation project. Maher was good in his rookie year in 2018, hitting 80.6% of his field goals, and making two field goals from 60-plus yards. He regressed big time in 2019. He made just 66.7% of his field goals and his numbers from beyond 40 yards plummeted.
In 2018, Maher hit 13 of 18 from 40-plus yards—72.2%—that’s well above league average. That came with an incredible six of seven from 50-plus yards—85.7%—that was among the best in the NFL. However, in 2019, Maher’s number dropped to five of 13 from 40-plus yards—38.5%. Though he did still hit four of eight from 50-plus yards—50%—that’s just below league average.
Maher is also well known for being the only kicker in NFL history to hit three kicks from 60-plus yards. If Brant Boyer can help him to return to his 2018 form or outperform it, the Jets could have another Jason Myers situation on their hands.
The Jets punting unit is difficult to pin down. Lac Edwards doesn’t have a job right now due to his average leg and his inability to pin opponents inside the 20. However, the Jets finished 14th and fourth in the punt coverage DVOA in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Why is that?
It’s because Edwards had great hang time. Edwards finished 15th in both punt average and 12th in net average. That change came due to his 4.3-yard difference, which was above league average. Edwards and the Jets didn’t have a single punt blocked or returned for a touchdown in either of the last two years.
Where Edwards really struggled was his directional punting. Edwards was excellent at avoiding touchbacks, he had just three in 2019, but that’s only part of the battle. He only managed to pin 28 punts inside the 20. His 32.2% pin rate was the worst in the NFL among starting punters.
Luckily for the Jets, they have a new guy in town who excels where Edwards failed. Sixth-round pick Braden Mann will have one of the strongest legs in the NFL when takes the field in 2020. He set a number of NCAA distance records in 2018 that prove he has power behind his leg. Even in a down year in 2019 he still averaged about two yards more per punt than Edwards did.
That leg strength comes with better precision. He pinned opponents inside the 20 45.6% of the time in 2019. That would have ranked seventh in the NFL. He did that with just a 7% touchback rate, which would have ranked fifth among the punters who finished top seven in pin rate.
Mann has the chance to become one of the elite punters in the NFL. Working with one of the best special teams coaches and punt coverage units in the NFL will only help that.
The Jets shine in the return game. Andre Roberts was an All-Pro in 2018, but he wasn’t missed in 2019. Braxton Berrios and Vyncint Smith filled the Jets return roles and then some.
Berrios’ 11.4 yards per punt return was second in the NFL in 2019 (at least 20 returns). Smith’s 29.9 yards per kick return was also second in the NFL (at least 10 returns).
Those numbers are impressive, but they can be misleading. Berrios was not the second-best returner in the NFL in 2019. He didn’t have return touchdown and his long return was just over 20 yards, one of the worst longs by a returner in the NFL.
What made Berrios special in 2019 was his consistency. When he returned a punt, the Jets knew they were gaining positive yardage out of it. He wasn’t going to change the game with his return or flip momentum, he was simply going to do his job better than everyone almost everyone else on a play-by-play basis.
Will that be enough for him to hold onto his job in 2020? Yes, it likely will. The Jets didn’t add any players with punt return experience who would replace him.
Vyncint Smith has a sample size issue. It’s true that he was excellent returning kicks in 2020 when given the chance. However, he only returned 10 kicks. He only returned kicks in back-to-back games once, weeks 10 and 11. He only returned multiple kicks in two games in 2019.
Unlike Berrios, Smith is going to see a ton of competition at kick returner. A number of wide receivers, including UDFA George Campbell, are going to compete for that spot. It’s entirely possible that Smith’s dominance was just a product of a small sample size. The New York Jets are going to put it to the test, but without preseason games or a limited number of them, that might be difficult.