Jets Justin Hardee Excited to Compete Against Special Teams Idol

Matthew Slater Is 'A Guy That I Can Look Up To' for Fifth-Year Player

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When Justin Hardee entered the league in 2017, the undrafted free agent looked up to the Patriots' Matthew Slater. Now in his sixth NFL season, Hardee has become one of the NFL's top special teamers and is eager to again share the field with Slater, a 10-time Pro Bowler, Sunday.

"I got familiar with Slater in 2017 as a rookie, watching his film with the coaches," Hardee said. "They pretty much showed me his effort, his hustle and everything. So, after I saw that, I put it into my game and tried to model myself after him. When you think of special teams, you think of Matthew Slater. And I want that to be the same way for Justin Hardee."

Hardee started his career with the Houston Texans and was waived before the 2017 season. Five days later, he joined the Saints' practice squad. Later that month, he earned a spot on the active roster. He was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in his sixth career game for a blocked punt that he returned for a touchdown.

Over his four seasons in New Orleans, Hardee emerged as one of the team's leading specialists with 32 tackles, according to TruMedia. He drew a lot from studying Slater on film, a three-time Super Bowl Champion and two-time first-team All-Pro with 161 career tackles on special teams.

"When you ask about a guy named Slater, the guy has been one of the best in this league," Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer said. "I think he is arguably, and if not, the best guy in the last 10 years to come along. I mean, he's still doing a great job and look how long he's played."

Slater, 37, reached out to Hardee in New Orleans to offer tips and share praise.

"We got connected, so me and him are actually good friends," Hardee said. "And he was just telling me how much he respects my game and telling me some of what he does.

"He has consistently been able to effect plays, make tackles, block punts, whatever you need in a special teams world that man has done. A lot of kudos to him. A man I respect and appreciate him for being a guy that I can look up to."

Since signing with the Jets in 2021, Hardee has become a staple on special teams. This season, he's tied for third in the NFL with 7 special teams tackles. He also forced a fumble in Week 4 at Pittsburgh and recovered an onside kick in Week 2 at Cleveland that set up an improbable come-from-behind victory.

"For me, I am trying to make my mom proud every time I'm running out there," Hardee said. "It is about her. It's about my son. And I think that probably takes the fear away knowing that what I am going after is so much bigger than the person that I'm going down there to tackle."

Boyer thinks Hardee is a Slater-type player, and Hardee sees Sunday as another chance to prove it.

"[Hardee] is the engine that makes our team go and our special teams unit go," Boyer said. "He does a great job and takes a leadership role and everything's similar to Slater. And in my opinion, he's having a Pro Bowl type of year."

Hardee added: "We are going against a good team and good man, but why not embrace that? Why not embrace the competition? No point in being afraid of the competition. I love it, man. If you want to be the best, you got to go beat the best."

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