Jets lose special teams ace Justin Hardee to Browns with new kickoff rules looming

Jets lose special teams ace Justin Hardee to Browns with new kickoff rules looming

The Jets will attempt the NFL’s new kickoffs without their best coverage specialist.

Justin Hardee reaching out for Pro Bowl votes, upset about current standings

Justin Hardee, who was a 2022 Pro Bowl selection in the second of his three seasons with the Jets, signed a free-agent contract Tuesday with the Browns. The two-time captain is returning to his native Cleveland.

Hardee was among the league leaders over the last three seasons with 998 special teams snaps, excelling on punt and kickoff coverage to where he often drew double-team blocks.

He practices at cornerback, too, though he only logged one defensive snap during his Jets career.

The NFL adopted an XFL-style kickoff rule last week that is meant to increase the number of returns while still emphasizing player safety by minimizing running-start full-speed collisions.

Kickoff fair catches have been eliminated, and any ball that lands between the 20-yard line and the goal line must be returned unless it rolls into the end zone.

Hardee’s love for his hometown is no secret.

After the Browns beat the Jets in Cleveland late last season, Hardee told his former Jets teammate and then-Browns quarterback Joe Flacco, “This is my city, man. Bring my city a ’ship [championship],” as seen on “Inside the NFL.”

The Jets finished No. 3 last season in the highly respected Rick Gosselin’s annual composite NFL special teams rankings. As much as that was due to the excellence of kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Thomas Moorstead, Hardee was the anchor on the league’s stingiest kickoff coverage unit (15.4 yards allowed per return).

On the punt team, Brandin Echols and Irv Charles — who filled when Hardee missed six games last season due to a hamstring injury — figure to be next in line as gunners.

The Browns are the fourth team in eight seasons for Hardee, who originally made his name as an undrafted rookie with the Saints, after he was cut by the Texans.

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