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Not so "Special" Teams

The Redskins draft filled areas of need and carved out new niches for younger role players. However, a drop off in special teams returns and coverage could be an unintended consequence.

Patrick McDermott

It's safe to say that, both offensively and defensively, the Redskins helped themselves in this year's draft. However, the draft haul seems to be devoid of contributors to that third (often ignored) element of the game: Special Teams. After 9 years under Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith, the Redskins are finally moving in another direction. Allowing Danny to leave comes at the pleasure of a large portion of the fanbase. Maybe it was the two blocked punts in the first two weeks that did him in. Or the failures of Billy Cundiff and the failed Brandon Banks experiment, the guy Danny Smith would famously "stand on the table" for? How about the lack of overall production on special teams that led the unit to be ranked 27th by the Football Outsiders and 31st by Rick Gosselin in his annual special teams rankings. Whatever it was, a change seemed appropriate. Enter new ST Coordinator Keith Burns.

Where is the Return Specialist?

There's no doubt Niles Paul and Richard Crawford were upgrades taking over for Brandon Banks as kick returner and punt returner, respectively. However, you have to believe that the Redskins would welcome a more dynamic set of returners in 2013. For this reason many had hoped the Redskins would select an all-purpose, slot receiver like Ace Sanders, Denard Robinson, or Quinton Patton to fill this void. From the looks of it the Redskins are holding out hope that Chris Thompson can get healthy and assume one or both of those roles. Either that or they hope to find a gem in the UDFA pool like WR Nick Williams or WR Skye Dawson that can bring excitement to the return game.

Potential Coverage Woes in 2013

Worth noting is the fact that the Danny Smith-coached kick coverage units have not given up a kick return touchdown since 2007. That puts the Redskins in a class with only the Giants, Eagles, and Bears in the entire league. So chalked up in the file called "Be Careful What You Wish For" is the potential for our consistently solid coverage units to take a step back. Adding to the potential of a decline is a few other factors:

  1. Loss of Lorenzo Alexander- Where do you even begin? As the captain of the special teams unit, Zo seemed to be in on just about every special teams tackle. He led the NFL with 21 special teams tackles, of which 17 were solo! The Redskins saw 94 punt and kick returns against them, so Lorenzo was in on close to 1 out of every 4 special teams coverages. With those stats supporting his claim, he represented the Redskins in the Pro Bowl as NFC's standout special team contributor. His level of impact will be hard to replace to say the least.
  2. Touchback Shortage- Kai Forbath was easily the unsung hero of the 2012 season. He led the NFL in FG%, connecting on 17 of 18 FG's. Nonetheless, in the 11 games he played, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of touchbacks our unit forced on kickoffs. The team stats show that the Redskins had 33 touchbacks (only 3 shy of the league average of 36). However, in the 5 games Billy Cundiff started in, he accumulated 18 touchbacks. Kai finished the season with only 15 of his 61 kickoffs going for touchbacks. Extrapolating that number over a full year puts him at second worst in the NFL in kickoff-to-touchback ratio. By giving the opposition more opportunities to return the ball it increases their chances of returning the ball deep or even running it back for a touchdown. Increased workload for the coverage unit.
  3. Roster changes- Back to the draft. The Redskins drafted 7 players, of which 3 are offensive guys (Reed, Thompson, Jamison) who are unlikely to tackle anyone. As the first pick made, it's safe to say Amerson is unlikely to get thrust into the special teams role either. That leaves Rambo, Thomas, and Jenkins as potential contributors. However, many are hoping Rambo and Thomas can show enough early to warrant being Week 1 starters at FS and SS respectively. That makes it less likely for either of them to play kick coverage. Additionally, the drafting of Jordan Reed and the two safeties brings question marks around ST stalwarts Niles Paul and Reed Doughty and their chances to make the final 53.

Special Teams Projection

In an attempt to speculate who would comprise the 10-man kick coverage unit, I looked into units we trotted out for the opening kickoff and first punt versus the Saints in Week 1 and the same for the Cowboys in Week 17. Specifically, I noted each player's role outside of special teams.

vs. New Orleans (Wk 1)
vs. Dallas (Wk 17)
Kickoff Punt Kickoff Punt
Lorenzo Alexander, LILB2 Lorenzo Alexander, LILB2 Lorenzo Alexander, LILB2 Lorenzo Alexander, LILB2
Reed Doughty, SS2 Reed Doughty, SS2 Reed Doughty, SS1 Reed Doughty, SS1
Niles Paul, TE2 Niles Paul, TE2 Niles Paul, TE2 Niles Paul, TE2
Rob Jackson, ROLB2 Rob Jackson, ROLB2 Rob Jackson, ROLB1 Perry Riley, RILB1
Chris Wilson, LOLB2 Chris Wilson, LOLB2 Chris Wilson, ROLB2 Chris Wilson, ROLB2
Darrel Young, FB1 Darrel Young, FB1 Keiland Williams, RB3 Darrel Young, FB1
DeAngelo Hall, LCB1 Richard Crawford, RCB2 Jerome Murphy, LCB3 Jerome Murphy, LCB3
Cedric Griffin, LCB2 Perry Riley, RILB1 DJ Johnson, RCB3 DJ Johnson, RCB3
Madieu Williams, FS1 DeJon Gomes, FS2 Bryan Kehl, LOLB2 Bryan Kehl, LOLB2
Jordan Bernstine, SS3 Nick Sundberg, LS Jordan Pugh, FS2 Nick Sundberg, LS

Looking at the units, there were 6 guys that were consistent contributors: Alexander, Doughty, Paul, Jackson, Wilson, and Young. It seems like after those 6 the rest of the unit was filled out week to week. They accounted for over 60% of the special teams tackles.

Taking the current depth chart let's plug in a projection. We'll compare it with the 2012 Week 1 kickoff unit as it was devoid of injuries. Also, let's assume Doughty and Paul are cut due to the insurgence of youth at their positions.

vs. Saints (Week 1) Projected 2013 Unit
Lorenzo Alexander, LILB2 Bryan Kehl, LILB2
Reed Doughty, SS2 Philip Thomas, SS2
Niles Paul, TE2 Keenan Robinson, RILB2
Rob Jackson, ROLB2 Rob Jackson, ROLB2
Chris Wilson, LOLB2 Darryl Tapp, LOLB2
Darrel Young, FB1 Darrel Young, FB1
DeAngelo Hall, LCB1 Richard Crawford, RCB3
Cedric Griffin, LCB2 EJ Biggers, LCB2
Madieu Williams, FS1 Bacarri Rambo, FS1
Jordan Bernstine, SS3 Jordan Bernstine, FS2
On face value the deficiency may not jump out at you but there are definite question marks. Rookie Brandon Jenkins may have to fill the void for Rob Jackson during his suspension. Bernstine and Robinson will have to be game-ready after their injury rehabs. Rambo and/or Thomas may have to assume the ST responsibilities along with their starting spots. Leaving those question marks aside, Reed Doughty and Niles Paul were #2 and #3 in ST tackles for the Redskins last year. In fact, Reed was tied for 10th in the NFL with 12 solo ST tackles. As for Niles, he brings added value as a solid kick returner. Also, as a gunner on punt coverage he was responsible for every single downed punt the Redskins had last year. ST coordinators often claim that lane discipline and relentless effort are attributes of great ST players. The 2013 projected unit doesn't seem to measure up to last years' in those departments.

So, the question is, "Does the value Niles Paul and Reed Doughty bring you on special teams ensure them a spot on the final 53?" I say...Yes! If the choice is between Aldrick Robinson, Pat White, or Evan Royster vs. Niles Paul, give me Niles Paul. If the choice is between Truck Neild, DeJon Gomes, or Chase Minnifield vs. Reed Doughty, give me Reed Doughty. New Special Teams Coordinator Keith Burns, of all people, knows the value of solid coverage players. Having Kehl, Doughty, and Paul anchoring the ST units will make Burns' job much easier.

Plus, it's always a welcomed sight to see hits like this...