By Davis Friend, New Orleans Saints
J.T. Gray put together one of those special seasons for his 2021 campaign as special teams captain for the New Orleans Saints. Whether it be as a gunner, a blocker or trying to block kicks wherever the ball is, there a strong chance Gray was not too far away
The fourth-year pro from Clarksdale, Miss., just finished a banner season where he led the NFL with a career-high 19 special teams tackles, playing in 16 of 17 games. He also led the league with a career-best 16 solo coverage stops. The reward was the recognition of his first Pro Bowl selection, where he will spend the week with the league's all-stars in Las Vegas later this month, as well as being voted as an Associated Pressfirst-team All-Pro selection.
Named an APsecond-team All-Pro in his first full season in 2019, when he posted 16 stops, a blocked punt, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, Gray has only grown since then. In a franchise that has had great individual and team efforts and special teams throughout its history, whether Tom Dempsey's record-setting kick, Michael Lewis' NFL-record combined 2,432 kickoff/punt return yards in 2002, Fred McAfee's 119 coverage tackles and Steve Gleason's blocked punt in the Superdome re-opening, Gray is the only player in the special teams/coverage category to be selected to the illustrious All-Pro team.
In addition to his individual success, Gray was also part of a unit that in 2019 set an NFL record for the fewest punt return yards allowed in a single season with 52 in 2020 and has virtually eliminated big plays in the return game the past two seasons. The growing process is not limited to on the field according to the former Mississippi State Bulldog.
"I feel like I've grown, I'm steadily growing right now," Gray said." There's so much out there to learn as a player and as a person on and off the field and I feel like that I'm taking those additional steps to become a better person each and every day."
That growth took a massive step in 2021 when Gray was named a special teams captain for the first time, a responsibility he doesn't take lightly.
"It's an honor to be respected by the guys in the locker room, to be able to name me a captain," he said. "I work hard and want the best for everybody that's on the team and we all go out there and do our jobs, one through 11. Just putting my all into it and it's starting to show. It's a blessing just to be here in this situation."
For all his success in 2021, Gray's refrained from taking any credit, instead choosing to give it all to his teammates and the coaching staff, from punter Blake Gillikin, whose booming punts in his first season in the role put Gray in position to down punts and make stops or his teammates on the coverage and return units, for whom he raves about their unselfish approach to the phase.
"I wouldn't be able to make these type of plays if it wasn't for my team, everybody doing their (jobs), one through 11, as well as the coaches putting all their players in good positions to make plays," Gray said. Citing the play of Gillikin in particular, Gray explained, "He's been doing a lot of great things. He's been setting me up to make plays, setting up everybody else on the punt team to make plays and putting good balls out there. As you've been seeing, he's (allowed us to) downed a lot of punts inside of the five, inside the 20. And he's really been making my job easier as well."
Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi raved about Gray's development when recently speaking, fully aware of some of the outstanding players the unit has produced in its history including McAfee, Gleason, Chris Banjo and Justin Hardee.
"I'm certainly a little biased, I coach him every day, but I don't know if there's a core special teams player in the league that I would trade J.T. Gray for," Rizzi said. "He's an outstanding gunner. That's where he probably gets most of his recognition, but at the same time, here's a guy who's really good in the return game as a blocker. He's a tough matchup. He can block different body types. He can run. He works his tail off. He's a good work ethic guy, blue collar, comes to work everyday, got voted captain by his peers this year and he's a guy who over the last three years I've been here, I've been really proud to watch his progression. His production on the field is outstanding. J.T.'s production the last three years has been really unmatched."
When speaking about Rizzi and assistant special teams coach Phil Galiano, Gray returned their praise and cited how his vision has expanded under their tutelage these past three seasons.
"They've helped me expand my knowledge toward the game," Gray said. "I am starting to see things that I was not able to see before I got into the league. Being around them and being in the meeting rooms and learning from them, the things they're teaching us are the small detail things within the game that make you a better player."
Embracing a role on special teams isn't always the most glamorous or exciting thing to do when entering the NFL, but as a captain, Gray understands the importance of their unit to the team and the impact they have on the game.
"I take a lot of pride into it because we start the game off and essentially end the game so if we go out there flat, then the offense or defense goes out there flat so just going out there and setting that tone makes a big difference in the game," Gray said.
His path to becoming one of the NFL's best special teams players required a "relentless" mind-set, one that saw him embrace his role and perfect it as best he could, resulting in the play we see today. "Relentless focus," Gray said. "You need to have relentless focus, be relentless in your preparation and your routine. The things that you do throughout the week is going will show on gameday."
J.T. Gray's career is just getting started and with a more than steady foundation underneath him, there's room to take his already stellar play to another level. If you ask him, he won't talk about the fact that he's leading the league in special teams tackles, he'll explain how he wants to improve his blocking to give All-Pro returner Deonte Harris more opportunities to show what he can do. Although if you ask his coaches and teammates, the level he's playing at today will be tough to top.
"He's elite," Saints Coach Sean Payton said on his radio show the night after Gray's Dec. 19 performance against the New York Jets, where he had a game-high and career-high four stops. "We played another good one the other day in (Justin Hardee), but J.T. I'm not trading for any one of them. He can run. He's tough. Constantly draws the opponent's best matchup. He's a captain also, that's how well our guys think of him. He's an elite special teams player."