All that stood between Rams punt returner Nsimba Webster and the end zone was Jets punter Braden Mann. Mann might have been more than just a touchdown obstacle, though — he may wind up the difference between New York getting Trevor Lawrence or not.
The Jets (1-13) won, 23-20, against the Rams (9-5) on Sunday afternoon thanks in part to Mann’s touchdown-saving tackle. The win pushed the Jets out of the driver’s seat for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, a selection widely viewed as the right to select Clemson’s quarterback, Lawrence. With two regular season games remaining, the Jaguars are now in control of landing Lawrence, and while it’s always about more than one play, Mann played a major part in that reality.
Mann lined up to punt with 5:33 remaining and the Jets leading, 23-20. Webster burst past the initial line of New York pursuers, and once in space, it appeared Webster beating Mann might result in a clear path to the end zone.
The 5-11, 198-pound Mann has actually garnered attention on multiple occasions in 2020 for his tackles, first against Denver’s Diontae Spencer and more recently against the Dolphins’ Jakeem Grant. In the grand scheme of punters who could be waiting for Webster, Mann was likely one of the most probable to wrap him up.
Mann evades one blocker who started to leak out past the punter, almost as if Mann wouldn’t be a worry, and then the punter gets low into a stance before diving and hitting Webster, knocking the return man down.
There appeared to be at least one Jets defender (No. 38 Lamar Jackson) in position for a potential tackle if Mann missed, but Webster would’ve held the advantage if he’d easily evaded the punter. Instead, the Rams started a drive at the New York 43 with about five and a half minutes to go. A penalty pushed Los Angeles further back, and Jared Goff eventually threw incomplete on fourth down.
The Jets and Sam Darnold ran the clock out from there, preventing the Rams from one more chance to tie the game. If Webster had broken free, Darnold would have needed to lead a touchdown drive to ruin the Jets’ chances at Lawrence.
It didn’t come down to Darnold heroics, though. As it turned out, all it took to fall out of the draft’s No. 1 spot was a tackle by the Jets’ punter.