NY Jets lose key Pro Bowler and team captain to Browns

This is a pretty big loss for the Jets

Justin Hardee
Justin Hardee / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The NY Jets were able to retain their standout specialist duo of Thomas Morstead and Greg Zuerlein this offseason, but the team's special-teams unit will still look quite different in 2024.

That's because former Pro Bowler and special-teams captain Justin Hardee officially signed with the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday, ending his three-year tenure with the organization.

Hardee had previously hinted at an impending Jets departure on social media earlier in the offseason, which is why it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he wasn't brought back.

The 30-year-old missed time due to injury in 2023, appearing in 11 games, but his value shouldn't be understated. Hardee is one of the best special-teamers in football and a beloved team captain — he will be missed.

How the NY Jets plan to replace Justin Hardee

The decision to let Hardee walk likely came down to a couple of factors. The first, and most obvious, reason has to do with money. The specific details of Hardee's contract are yet to be released, but even if he signed for the veteran minimum, that's still probably more than the Jets were willing to pay.

Hardee's primary replacement is expected to be Irv Charles, a former undrafted free agent who earned a spot on the team due to his special-teams prowess and helped fill in admirably while Hardee was sidelined last season.

Charles is under contract for just $915,000 in 2024. The veteran minimum for a player with 7+ years of experience (which Hardee has) is $1.65 million next season. There's no scenario in which Hardee could've been signed for less than Charles.

The Jets remain high on Charles' potential and were impressed by his performance last season. Charles led all Jets players with a 90.3 Pro Football Focus special-teams grade in 2023 and finished second on the team with eight special-teams tackles despite playing only 12 games.

The Jets will also return fellow gunner Brandin Echols and Isaiah Oliver, who the team signed last month. Both Echols and Oliver have extensive experience as gunners, which should help mitigate the loss of Hardee.

It'll be up to special teams coordinator Brant Boyer to make up for Hardee's absence in 2024, and Charles is the player they're most likely counting on.

Perhaps this motivates the Jets to more aggressively attempt to re-sign Ashtyn Davis, another Boyer favorite who led the Jets in special-teams tackles last season.

Either way, losing Hardee is a significant blow to the Jets' locker room and special-teams unit. Unfortunately, the NFL is a business at the end of the day, and the Jets made a business decision.