Saints at Jets - All Eyes On New York's Special Teams

Can the New York Jets' special teams unit bounce back?
Michael Nania
Fri, August 23, 1:17 PM EDT

The New York Jets are getting set for their regular season dress rehearsal, as their starting offensive and defensive are poised to play at least a half of this Saturday’s contest against the New Orleans Saints at MetLife Stadium.

While playing time for the starting offense and defense tends to increase quite a bit in the third preseason game, not much changes for the other, oft-forgotten unit – the special teams.

Coming off of a year in which their special teams group was tremendous, the Jets have hosted competitive battles at nearly every position on the unit.

Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer has a lot to pay attention to this Saturday. Here are some of the major battles that he will be focused on.

 

Can Taylor Bertolet rebound?

Kicker Taylor Bertolet struggled mightily in his return to the Jets last week, missing a pair of extra points against the Falcons.

However, the team has not added any competition to the kicking position since that game. Bertolet has remained the only kicker on the roster, and it appears he will be handling all of the kicking duties once again.

Bertolet has been given a second chance to seize this position. Can he showcase perfection and move a step closer to being the Jets’ Week 1 kicker?

The kicking market is dry right now, but some intriguing names could become available once teams starting making cuts towards the end of the preseason. At that point, the Jets may begin to start searching for a fresh pair of legs to bring in.

If Bertolet is going to hold off any potential new competitors, he needs a perfect performance against the Saints this Saturday night.

It’s not just important for Bertolet, but for the Jets as well. The kicker position has been a disaster for them this offseason, between both Bertolet and the now-retired Chandler Catanzaro. They need to find an answer here, and soon.

 

What is going on at the punter position?

The Jets’ handling of the punter spot has been somewhat odd. Incumbent starter Lachlan Edwards, a native of Australia, has held the spot since being drafted in 2016. While he has not been elite, Edwards has slowly improved his all-around game, and has generally been an average-level punter for the Jets.

Regardless, the Jets decided to add competition in the form of Matt Darr, who played for the Bills last season and previously played under Adam Gase with the Dolphins.

It would make sense if the Jets were challenging Edwards with a high-quality punter, but Darr has generally been worse than Edwards. In 2018, Darr ranked last in net punting average among punters with at least 20 attempts. In 2017, he failed to even make a roster.

This competition becomes even more interesting when you consider that the Jets have not done anything at the special teams spot where their need is most dire – kicker. Why is Edwards, a decent player, getting competition while there is none at the much more questionable kicker position?

Edwards has also done a solid job for the Jets in an unheralded facet of the game – holding. Three kickers have passed through New York while Edwards has been the holder, and all three (Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro, and Jason Myers) have had unusually solid seasons with him as their holder.

You might laugh, but consistency at holder can be a valuable asset. Just take a look at Matt Darr. In 2018, Bills kicker Steven Hauschka had made all of his extra points and 16 of his 17 field goal attempts (94 percent) over the first eleven games of the season. Then, punter/holder Corey Bojorquez saw his season end due to a shoulder injury. Darr took over the holding duties over the rest of the season, and Hauschka’s performance fell off of a cliff. Over five games with Darr, Hauschka made only six of 11 field goal attempts (55 percent) while missing his only extra point of the year.

Darr was the first punter to play against Atlanta, and reportedly has been getting first-team reps in practice. Considering that Darr and Edwards have performed similarly in the preseason, and that in practice, Edwards has reportedly been better, it is very interesting that the Jets have been giving Darr so many chances.

Nevertheless, it’s the performance under the lights that matters most. The punting competition appears to be a heated one in Florham Park, New Jersey. Will Edwards, the Aussie holding maestro, hold on to his spot? Or will Darr, he of the Adam Gase connection, steal the throne?

 

What can Albert McClellan and Stephone Anthony do?

In the wake of Avery Williamson’s season-ending injury, Jets general manager Joe Douglas turned around and added linebacker Albert McClellan.

McClellan is a familiar face to Douglas, who was with the Ravens front office when they signed the linebacker as an undrafted free agent out of Marshall in 2011.

While the addition of McClellan did not generate a whole lot of fanfare, it has the potential to be looked back on as a late-offseason steal by Douglas.

The eight-year veteran brings a lot of positive traits to the table. First of all, he provides the locker room with a ton of experience. He has played in a total of 114 regular season and playoff games in the NFL, the third-most games played of any player on the Jets roster behind only Steve McLendon (126) and Ryan Kalil (156).

Additionally, McClellan has racked up a lot of successful postseason experience over his career, split between Baltimore and New England. McClellan has two Super Bowl rings, winning Super Bowl XLVII with the Ravens and Super Bowl LIII with the Patriots last year. He has participated in a total of nine playoff victories, most among any current Jet.

In addition to his experience, McClellan has simply proven to be one of the best special teams players in the NFL. He has played the entirety of his career to date under two head coaches who are known to value special teams more than most – John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick. And McClellan did not disappoint either.

McClellan has been a big-time playmaker on special teams. Over the course of his career, while playing on a kickoff or punt coverage unit, McClellan has racked up three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, and two blocked kicks. Both of the blocked kicks came in one game last season, against Adam Gase’s Dolphins.

Since 2015, McClellan has made 33 tackles on special teams while missing only three, a highly impressive 11-to-one ratio.

In 2018, McClellan was the highest-graded special teams player in the league at PFF (minimum 200 special teams snaps).

Additionally, McClellan is a highly versatile special teams piece. He has played routinely on five of the six special teams units, with the exception of the kick block team.

McClellan was not the only piece added into the fray for Brant Boyer. Joe Douglas also brought in Stephone Anthony, yet another linebacker who mainly contributes on special teams.

Anthony is not quite the decorated special teams ace that McClellan is, but he has generally been a solid player in the game’s unheralded third phase. He is yet another “Adam Gase Guy,” as he played the last two seasons under Gase in Miami.

Neither McClellan nor Anthony are locks to make the team, but it seems likely at least one will make it. I think McClellan is too good a special teams player to lose this battle, but we cannot sleep on the value of Anthony’s connection to Gase (as we are seeing with Darr). New coaches love to have guys that they are comfortable with to help ease into a new situation, as we are seeing plenty with Gase.

The Jets had the best special teams unit in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). As Brant Boyer looks to lead them back to the mountaintop this season, he will soon have to make some tough decisions regarding his personnel. The next couple of preseason games are going to be a crucial part of constructing the special teams unit that will take the field against the Buffalo Bills in just over two weeks’ time.

Don’t sleep on the special teams unit – there are plenty of raging battles to be found here. Who will separate themselves from the pack when the Saints come marching into MetLife Stadium?

 

By Michael Nania

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