6 players competing for NY Jets return specialist job in OTAs

Who are the players competing to be the Jets' returner?
Israel Abanikanda
Israel Abanikanda / Brandon Sloter/GettyImages

Special teams have been called the backbone of NFL rosters. It's a way for overlooked players fighting for their jobs to secure roster spots and still make an impact beyond offense and defense. The NY Jets know this better than almost any team in the NFL.

After years of inconsistent special-teams play, the Jets can finally claim to have one of the best special-teams units in the league due in part to the efforts of special teams coordinator Brant Boyer and standouts such as Greg Zuerlein, Thomas Morstead, and Thomas Hennessy.

But one part of special teams that should be even more important in 2024 is the job of the return man. The NFL's new kickoff rules are expected to increase the value of kick returners, as more and more teams have emphasized the position this offseason.

The Jets officially kicked off their 2024 OTAs last week, and the team had six different players competing for reps at punt returner. Here is a quick look at all six candidates for the job.

Note that the Jets did not participate in kick return drills, so the following six players only took part in punt return drills last week.

Who will be the NY Jets kick and punt returners?

Xavier Gipson

Xavier Gipson is the obvious favorite for the job, seeing as he is the Jets' incumbent return man. Gipson made an immediate impact in his NFL debut last season, helping win a thrilling Week 1 game with a walk-off punt return touchdown in overtime against the Buffalo Bills.

Gipson never quite reached those same heights again, and there were some concerns about his ball security at points. Still, the second-year receiver is seen as the favorite to win the job. He might have some competition, specifically at kick returner, though.

Malachi Corley

For a player who has been revered for his YAC ability as much as Malachi Corley, it's a little surprising that he never had an opportunity to return kicks or punts at Western Kentucky. The Jets are giving him an opportunity to earn that role in the NFL.

Corley seems like a perfect fit for the NFL's new kickoff rules where he can maximize his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. There's more to being a returner than just creation ability, but the Jets are high on his potential to contribute on special teams.

If he impresses, there's no reason Corley can't beat out Gipson for one (or both) of the returner jobs.

Israel Abanikanda

Special teams might be the ticket to Israel Abanikanda making the 53-man roster and earning a role on the team. The Jets drafted two running backs, Braelon Allen and Isaiah Davis, to compete with Abanikanda last month, and as a result, his roster status is in jeopardy.

Abanikanda was given an opportunity to compete for the return man job last summer, but his ball security issues were a problem. He fumbled on one of his two kick return attempts in 2023. Abanikanda needs to prove his fumble concerns are behind him.

Tyler Harrell

The Jets also had a trio of undrafted players returning punts last week, the first of which was former Miami wide receiver Tyler Harrell. Harrell is returning punts for one reason: speed.

Harrell finished his college career with just 26 catches across 32 career games, but his 4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day would've been one of the fastest times in NFL Combine history. The Jets are giving him a chance to showcase that speed on special teams.

Brandon Codrington

Brandon Codrington was one of the select few rookie minicamp invites signed to an official contract by the Jets after the event. He was signed almost exclusively due to his special-teams abilities.

The Jets list Codrington as a defensive back/return specialist on their official roster, and that's essentially the role he played at NC Central in college. He has ample experience as a returner and could even push for a roster spot if he impresses.

Hamze El-Zayat

Another rookie minicamp signee, Hamze El-Zayat is a wide receiver from Dearborn, Michigan (the same hometown as Robert Saleh) who has kick and punt return experience.

El-Zayat was a return specialist and receiver at Eastern Michigan, even taking back a kick 96 yards for a touchdown last season. He's another player who is hoping to earn a roster spot via special teams.

*Note: The Jets signed RB Tarik Cohen on Wednesday. Cohen is expected to compete for the kick/punt return job as well.