Every team in the NFL has a special teams coach (some even have two). They are the coaches who teach players to prevent the game from changing on a punt or kickoff return. They find the guys who can block kicks, which is very important. They are the coaches you see on the sidelines during games urging their players to cover those kickoffs, stay in their lanes, and keep an eye out in case there's an onside kick.
Those onside kicks can be really dangerous. Did you know that nearly 20 percent of all onside kicks last year were successful? It's true -- nine of the 46 attempts worked! And in the playoffs, there were three attempts with one being recovered by the kicking team. So these situations aren't as grave as some people think -- just ask the Vikings, who lost out on an onside kick recovery and subsequently lost their playoff berth against the Cardinals in the season finale.
As you know, there's a lot more to special teams. Included in that group are the kickers and punters, who can change the results of any game. A great field-goal kicker can be the difference between a one-point win or a two-point loss, and a great punter can change the field-position battle in a single play.
Look no further than Super Bowl XXXVIII if you want to see just how important special teamers are. After tying the game with 1:08 to play, the Panthers kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Patriots great field position without losing any time on the clock. That mistake gave the Patriots a much-needed opening to have Adam Vinatieri kick the game-winning field goal -- the second time he's done such a feat in a Super Bowl.
In general, players on kickoff and return teams are made up mostly of linebackers, defensive backs and bigger wide receivers. On field-goal units and punt teams, more offensive linemen are involved, along with a deep snapper -- a very, very important part of the unit. Many players earn a roster spot based solely on their ability to play on special teams.
Here are some of the better special teamers from 2003:
Alex Bannister, Seattle
Jarrod Cooper, Carolina
Rod Smart, Carolina
Gary Stills, Kansas City
Adalius Thomas, Baltimore
Granted, they are not household names like Brett Favre or Peyton Manning, but ask any NFL coach about them and they'll tell you just how valuable they are.
There are also some very good coaches who spend many hours during the season and offseason working on ways to improve what they do. These six coaches continue to earn praise from their peers:
John Harbaugh, Philadelphia
Alan Lowery, Tennessee
Scott O'Brien, Carolina (also the team's asst. coach)
Chuck Priefer, Detroit
Brad Seeley, New England
Mike Westhoff, N.Y. Jets
Before we start ranking these players, let's mention that those kickers and punters who went to the combine did not lift weights or run shuttles. They were measured and then did what they did best -- kicked the football.
Below are my rankings for kickers, punters, deep snappers, kick returners, kick coverage players and kick blockers.
1. Nate Kaeding, Iowa (6-01/4, 187)
Kaeding had an outstanding career in high school both as a placekicker (62.5 percent) and punter (45.3 percent). He also was a starter on the basketball team that won the state championship and kicked the winning goal for the state-champion soccer team. He's been the Iowa kicker for the past four years, converting 67 of 83 field goals. He's got very good leg strength for kickoffs as well as field goals, is poised, and can handle things like pressure and weather. In what may have been the biggest play of the 2002 season for Iowa, Kaeding nailed a 55-yard field goal outdoors against Penn State. That team went on to the Orange Bowl.
2. Josh Scobee, Louisiana Tech (6-1 1/8, 191)
In high school Scobee was a punter and a placekicker, and has been the regular punter and placekicker for Louisiana Tech over four years. He has very good follow-through, and he reminds you of Olindo Mare (Dolphins) with his style. A vocal, emotional player, Scobee has a very strong leg, which counts the most. He does need to improve on his off-the-field accountability.
3. David Kimball, Penn State (6-1 3/8, 209)
Kimball, who was at the combine, was a Parade All-American in high school and is from State College, Pa. In his first three years at Penn State, he didn't make a field goal (was 0 for 3) but handled kickoff duties. His first year was last year when he took over as Penn State's field-goal kicker. He looked good kicking at the combine thanks to his strong leg.
1. B.J. Sander, Ohio State (6-3 5/8, 219)
Sander punted at the combine. In high school, he was the primary punter and backup field-goal kicker. He was never the clear cut regular punter for the Buckeyes until his later years, but did see some time as a freshman. In 2003, he had a 43.3-yard average and had 36 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. A Ray Guy Award winner, Sander has a strong leg and good hang time on his punts. He gets the ball away quickly, which is very significant. He is poised and looks like he will be able to punt for a long time in the NFL.
2. Donnie Jones, LSU (6-23/4, 222)
Jones was a punter in high school, owning a 43.4-yard average as a senior. He was redshirted in 1999 and was the Tigers' punter the past four years. A left-footed kicker, he has a strong leg with good hang time. He averaged 43.0 yards in 2000, 43.7 yards in 2001, 44.0 yards in 2002 and 42.4 yards in 2003. He's a hard worker with a lot of intensity. He may be best known for his 86-yard punt vs. Kentucky in 2000.
3. Kyle Larson, Nebraska (6-0 5/8, 204)
Larson was at the combine. In high school, he was a center and linebacker! He also was on the track team, participating in events like the shotput and discus. He was redshirted in 1999 and was the backup in 2000. He's averaged over 42 yards per punt, including a 45.1-yard average in 2003. Larson has a very strong leg but had four kicks blocked in 2001 and 2002. However, that can be corrected at the NFL level.
4. Cody Scales, Texas A&M (6-0, 200)
Scales was injured and didn't kick a lot in 2003. He had a 43.7-yard average in 2002 and had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. He also doubled as the holder for kicks before last year.
If you're a reliable snapper, you can have a long NFL career. He may not be the most popular member of the Chargers, but long snapper David Binn has been playing there for 10 years. Now deep snappers are making good money because a solid one isn't easy to find.
In 2002, the Dallas Cowboys gave unrestricted free agent Jeff Robinson a $1.1 million signing bonus. Last year was Robinson's 10th year in the league.
1. Cullen Loeffler, Texas (6-41/2, 243)
Loeffler played tight end in high school and has been the regular deep snapper at Texas for three years. He can really fire the ball back for the punter or holder.
2. Jared Allen, Idaho State (6-6, 265)
Allen ran the 40 in 4.75 seconds. He played defensive end at Idaho State and was voted the I-AA defensive player of the year. He is also a very good deep snapper and has coverage ability for special teams.
3. Don Muhlback, Texas A&M (6-3 7/8, 255)
Muhlback's first season was 2003 as a regular deep snapper. He's very consistent at hitting the spot and has served as the emergency punter as well.
4. Danny Young, N.C. State (6-41/2, 250)
Young was the deep snapper for four years. He also made 11 special teams tackles in 2002. Not bad for a guy who played wide receiver in high school.
1. Dexter Wynn, Colorado State (5-91/4, 175)
Wynn ran a 4.50 in his 40. At Colorado State, he averaged 29 yards on kickoff returns in 2003 and 11.1 on punt returns. He had a career punt return average of 15.2 yards. Also plays cornerback and could be a fourth corner.
2. Mike Waddell, North Carolina (5-10 7/8, 187)
Waddell was the leading kickoff return man in 2003, thanks to his 4.34 speed. He can be a backup cornerback for a team and he has outstanding athletic ability. He had a 371/2-inch vertical jump and a very good time in the three-cone drill (6.84 seconds). He returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma in 2002 -- probably the highlight of his collegiate career.
3. Patrick Crayton, N.W. Oklahoma (6-03/4, 207)
Clayton played quarterback and wide receiver. He made the NAIA All-America Team as a kick returner. Crayton has returned 10 punts for touchdowns and two kickoffs for touchdowns of which two punts and two kickoffs came this past year. He caught 15 passes for four TDs last year and 17 TD catches over his four years there.
4. Derek Abney, Kentucky (5-91/4, 179)
Abney (4.57 in the 40) has returned eight kicks for touchdowns at Kentucky. He has quickness and burst to be a good return man, and he can be a good backup wide receiver as well.
KICK COVERAGE PLAYERS
1. Deryck Toles, Penn State (5-10 3/4, 224)
Toles ran a 4.60 in the 40, and is a very fast, competitive player with athletic ability.
2. Derrick Pope, Alabama (5-11 5/8, 246)
He ran a 4.65 in the 40. Pope has speed and athletic ability to cover kicks. He could also be a backup linebacker.
3. Tom Crowder, Arkansas (6-1 1/8, 203)
Crowder ran a 4.42 in the 40. He's a wide receiver who does not have great hands but can run and make plays on special teams. He had a 381/2-inch vertical, an 11-0 long jump and is a tough minded player.
1. Chris Thompson, Nicholls St. (6-0, 189)
Thompson, who runs a 4.50 40, has blocked 12 kicks in his career. He also plays cornerback and could be a fourth corner for a team.
2. Rashad Washington, Kansas State (6-2 1/8, 223)
Not only has he run a 4.64 in the 40, but Washington was the starting safety at Kansas State. He blocked four kicks in 2003 and was an outstanding athlete in high school.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Only five kickers have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft:
Charles Gogolak (WAS, 1966)
Ray Guy (OAK, 1973)
Steve Little (St. Louis Cardinals, 1978)
Russell Erxleben (NO, 1979)
Sebastian Janikowski (OAK, 2000)
- Gogolak was drafted the highest - No. 6.
Previous Gil Brandt position analysis columns:
Gil Brandt was vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89. He is now in his eighth year as NFL.com's chief personnel guru. (Brandt is of no relation to Packers VP of Player Finance Andrew Brandt.)