The Jets got one spectacular season from their special teams unit last season. The group spearheaded by coordinator Brant Boyer led the NFL in special teams DVOA – or defense-adjusted value over average, an all-encompassing stat that adjusts production by various factors to truly capture value.
A huge part of the 2018 Jets special teams having such a great season was the productivity of the return units. The Jets led the NFL with an average of 13.0 yards per punt return, and placed third in the league with an average of 26.9 yards per kick return.
Leading those return units was veteran playmaker Andre Roberts. In his age-30 season, Roberts set a new career-highs in punt return average, leading the league with a mark of 14.1 yards per return. He earned his first career nods to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team.
Roberts hit free agency following the expiration of his one-year contract, and the Jets elected not to re-sign their star return man. Thus, the competition for the right to take Roberts’ place has been burning hotly in Florham Park.
With the Jets set to take on the Giants this Thursday in their preseason opener, here is a look at the players you should keep an eye on in the returner competition.
The Jets gave Crowder a three-year, $28.5 million deal in free agency this past March, adding the former Redskins speedster to their receiving core as the new starting weapon out of the slot.
Crowder’s main role is going to be as a wide receiver with the starting offense, but he does bring return experience to the table.
In his Redskins career, Crowder returned 87 punts for 682 yards and one touchdown.
However, Crowder ultimately struggled to provide consistent reliability at the position. Among the 36 active players with at least 50 career punt returns, Crowder’s average of 7.8 yards per punt return ranks 33rd.
Crowder has also struggled with the most important aspect of punt returning – ball security. He has muffed or fumbled seven punts over the course of his career.
Five of those loose balls came in the 2017 season, when Crowder also averaged a measly 6.3 yards per punt return. Those struggles with ball security and producitivty led to him losing punt returning duties for the Redskins in 2018, after holding the job over each of his first three seasons in the league.
Ideally, teams would prefer not to rely on an offensive or defensive starter to handle return duties. The injury risk is too great. However, in some cases, such as in Kansas City with the Chiefs and Tyreek Hill, a starting player is dangerous enough as a returner to be worth taking that risk.
Based on his career production, it doesn’t seem like Crowder is that kind of player. The Jets are surely hoping somebody else can take their claim to the role, but if all else fails, at least they know Crowder brings experience to the table. That can be valuable in the return game – young returners often struggle, which the Jets have seen firsthand in recent memory with players such as Devin Smith and Jalin Marshall.
Dortch went undrafted in 2019 due to his tiny frame (5-foot-7, 173 pounds), but he was very productive during his career at Wake Forest.
As a wide receiver, Dortch caught 142 passes for 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns in 20 college games over two seasons.
He broke out in the return game during his second season. As a redshirt sophomore in 2018, Dortch returned 25 punts for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He was one of only five players in all of college football to score two punt return touchdowns, while his average of 11.0 yards per return ranked sixth in the ACC and 18th in the country.
The 26-year old Jones went undrafted in 2018 out of West Georgia, having a cup of tea with the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Mississippi native is now at the forefront of the returner race with the Jets. He’s got a nice resumé for the role. Jones posted a 4.35 forty-yard dash time at his pro day. In his senior season at West Georgia, he returned 28 punts for 293 yards and a touchdown, averaging 10.5 yards per return.
White has been making all sorts of noise at Jets camp. He’s been in the mix at returner, but has generated a lot of noise at wide receiver as well.
The 25-year old wide receiver went undrafted out of Arizona State in 2017. He played in three games for the Ravens last year, handling return duties. He averaged 8.3 yards per return across nine punt returns, and 22.5 yards per return across six kick returns. Both numbers are more-or-less average.
Like Jones and Dortch, White was an electric returner in college. In his final season at Arizona State (2016), White returned 20 punts for 254 yards and one touchdown, mustering a robust average of 12.7 yards per return that ranked second in the Pac-12 and 10th in the nation.
Holmes is an interesting story. A native of Townsville, Queensland, Australia, Holmes was an accomplished rugby player in his home country. This year, he made the switch over to football, where he’s been playing running back and looking to crack the Jets roster a returner.
Without a doubt, it’s going to be exciting to watch Holmes carry that rugby style over the kick returning game. On Thursday night against the Giants, the football world can see Holmes under the lights for the first time.