Many people, Braxton Berrios included, have called Jets HC Robert Saleh the consummate storyteller. Poignant, instructive, often amazing tales from the man charged with changing the Green & White's culture and building a consistent, long-term foundation.
Thing is, Berrios isn't a bad story all by himself.
Waived by New England in 2019, Berrios touched down again in the AFC East when he was claimed by the Jets. As the cliché goes, the rest is history.
After the conclusion of the season as the Jets' No. 1 kickoff and punt returner, and several star turns at wide receiver, the "quick but not fast" Berrios was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro at KR. He was also named an alternate to the NFL Pro Bowl, which will be played in Las Vegas on Feb. 6. (He could end up playing in that game if a player opts out or is a member of a Super Bowl team.)
After receiving the news about the AP award, Berrios posted on Instagram: "1st Team All-Pro as a Kick Returner ... I can't wrap my head around typing that. This game will test you in ways you've never imagined. It'll take from you with no promise of giving. That's why as I type this I can't begin to explain the gratitude I feel, the pure joy. From a cast-off to an All-Pro. It just doesn't get any better. Thank you to my teammates who made this possible and every suppertor along the way. We're just getting started."
During the 2021 NFL season, Berrios, who had mostly been a bit player as a sometimes wide receiver and mostly returning punts, took full advantage of the opportunities that came his way. He became the Jets' No. 1 kickoff returner, held on to duties returning punts and emerged as an important receiver when the group sustained injuries (Corey Davis and Elijah Moore, for example) and dealt with virus outbreaks.
"The camaraderie of this team was unbelievable," he told host and team reporter Caroline Hendershot. "Things didn't work how we planned and hoped for, but this was a great locker room and I really enjoyed it. It was my first time really taking over the kick return responsibility for the entire year, I did some spot duty in college [at Miami], and the same thing here the last couple of years. It was an incredible opportunity. Our punt returns have been pretty good the last few years, and this year I finally got to combine them. I couldn't do any of it without the other 10 guys creating seams and holes."
Berrios became the first Jets player to make the first-team AP All-Pro since S Jamal Adams in 2019. KR Andre Roberts earned the distinction in 2018. Berrios, who was drafted No. 210 overall by the Patriots in 2018, led the NFL averaging 30.4 yards per kick return while his 852 kickoff return yards ranked second (28 returns). While receiving 27 of 50 first-team votes at kickoff returner, he also garnered 2 votes as a punt returner. On punts, he ranked second among returners (at least 15 returns) with a career-high 13.4 average.
See the top images of the Jets visiting the end zone during the 2021 season.
Of course the highlights returning kickoffs were a 79-yard scamper against the Eagles, then a 102-yard TD (tying the longest return in the NFL this season) blast against Jacksonville.
"Against the Eagles, that was through the middle of the field," he said. "It parted like the Red Sea. The guys did an incredible job. I saw it open up and knew I had to hit, but came up short of finishing. On the one against Jacksonville, they did a great job again. There were two seams there and the kicker tried to fill one so I hit the other one, cleared it and there was no one in front of me so I took it the rest of the way. We finished that one."
In addition to his work as the Jets' No. 1 returner, Berrios flashed as a wide receiver, catching the ball while also injecting excitement into the run game on sweeps that often helped keep the opposing defense honest.
As a receiver, he became the only Jets wideout with a rushing and receiving TD in the same regular-season game (Week 17 vs. Tampa Bay). He scored a pair of rushing TDs, which was the most by a Jets WR, and became one of only two WRs in the 2021 season with two rushing and two receiving TDs -- becoming one of only 19 NFL players to accomplish that feat since 1970.
"We're a really close group," he said of the receivers. "We have a lot of fun. Everyone in the room works their butt off and that makes it easy to fight for each other on Sunday. It's an explosive group. We dealt with injuries, that's across the league, and we're a really tight group and it's been fun."
On a Jets team that came to rely on a goodly number of rookie and second-year players, Berrios has special praise for perhaps the team's two most important rookies last season -- Robert Saleh and QB Zach Wilson.
"Zach is a tremendous athlete, a phenomenal football player, and he's our leader," Berrios said. "He continued to work every week, everybody in the building has seen that. Now he feels more comfortable and like everyone else, was working in a first-year offense. Everyone is settling in and he's thriving in the role.
"I can't really comment on head coaches. I've never been one, I've been a player. But everybody loves playing for Coach Saleh. He's a tremendous, tremendous story teller. He's a fiery guy and someone you want to play for."
Berrios, who could become a free agent, would love to stay where he experienced a professional breakout campaign.
"Absolutely. This locker room is full of great people, great leaders. This team has awesome staff as well. I love being here. I really do."