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Special team standout J.T. Gray having special season for New Orleans Saints

Sean Payton on New Orleans safety: 'He's elite'

The New Orleans Saints take on the New York Jets in Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season on December 12, 2021.
The New Orleans Saints take on the New York Jets in Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season on December 12, 2021.

J.T. Gray isn't given to hyperbole and oratorical musings that drag on, but among the words the New Orleans Saints safety is willing to share are these: He believes he's the best special teams player in the NFL.

"I just know that whatever I'm going to do, I'm going to go all in at it," he said. "I'm going to be the best at whatever I'm doing."

And he's constructing a pretty solid body of work to back him up this season.

Gray is tied with Indianapolis' Ashton Dulin for the NFL lead with 16 special teams tackles this season, and leads the league with 13 solos. In 2019, when Gray was named second-team All-Pro, he had 16 special teams tackles, blocked a punt and recovered a fumble on a muffed punt.

"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," Saints special teams coordinator Darren 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 every day, 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."

"He's elite," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We played another good one the other day in (Justin Hardee of the Jets), 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."

Gray, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2018, knew early that his path to playing was on special teams. So he has poured himself into a mantra.

"I've got to beat the man in front of me, go out there and dominate," he said. "What goes into it is pride, paying attention to the details and the preparation that it takes throughout the week to perform at a high level."

"The game and the battles are won throughout the week. So I prepare, I study my opponent, I study him down until I know exactly what he's going to do before he even does it.

"I like to study off how they got beat. One of the better gunners that I watch is Justin Hardee, and (New England's) Matthew Slater. I take notes from them to see how they beat the people that I go against that week."

He'll use that knowledge against friends, too.

When New Orleans played the Jets on Sunday, and posted a 30-9 victory, Gray went head-to-head with Hardee, a Saints teammate from 2018-20 and one of his best friends. Four tackles later, Gray had submitted one of his best NFL games.

"I just know that I was going against Justin Hardee," he said, smiling. "I knew it was going to be a tough battle, we were out there battling the whole game. He made a play on me early on in the game, I was like, 'I gotta get right, I got to turn up.' So that's what happened during the game."

What's happened this season is Gray has made an imprint on several games, and several times has come within a whisker of blocking a punt. He'll confess to believing he's the best in the league, but that's about as far as the praise goes.

"A lot of people tell me that I'm doing good, but I feel like there's so much that I can get better at," he said. "I like to listen to the criticism before I look at the accomplishments, because I know there are more things I can get better at. If I can fix those things, I'll be better than I was before."

NO PAYTON: Payton was absent from Wednesday's practice, described as "under the weather." He tested negative for Covid-19.

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