clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is the Redskins’ special teams’ unit on the verge of being truly “special?”

New, comments
NFL: Washington Redskins-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, during the pre-season, Redskins’ special teams’ coach Nate Kaczor was the subject of scrutiny for his unit’s poor performance. The 2019 regular season, however, was a dramatic improvement. Despite a 3-13 overall performance, the Redskins’ special teams unit was one of the best in the NFL.

Sports’ Illustrated’s Rick Gosselin ranked all 32 special teams units at the end of the season, and the Redskins ended up 4th overall, behind just the Saints, Bengals, and Patriots. Gosselin rated special teams performance in 22 different categories, and the Redskins finished among the best several on them.

Kickoff Returns:

4. Redskins - 25.8 yards per return

Punting:

1. Redskins - 49.2 yards per punt

Net Punting:

2. Redskins - 43.8 yards per return

The Redskins’ top special team performance was corroborated by other sources as well, including Football Outsiders, who had them ranked 7th overall (an improvement from 8th overall the year before).

Despite finishing well in 2019, Kaczor was optimistic that the team could get even better going forward. In December, he offered the following:

“It’s not like it just started happening, but penalties and consistency and ball handling are always elements that you’re striving to get better at. I don’t think those are the elements where you would ever say you’re good enough at.”

Given the high-level play of Kaczor’s unit, it’s not surprising he was one of only a few coaches - and the only coordinator - retained by new head coach, Ron Rivera, when he took over the team in January.

Top Performers in 2019

Steve Sims, Jr. - During week 12, Sims was named “Special Teams Performer of the Week” for collecting 124 return yards, including a 91-yard kick return for a TD. During the 2019 season, Sims had the most kick return yards in the league (819) and the 6th best kick return average (25.6 yards per return).

Tress Way - The following week, Redskins’ punter Tress Way took home the “Special Teams Performer of the Week” award for his incredible performance against the Panthers where he booted 5 punts for 290 yards, including a 79-yard punt and two punts that pinned Carolina inside their 20-yard line. Way’s stellar performance in 2019 earned him second team All-Pro honors, an invitation to the Pro Bowl, and a 4-year contract worth $13.65M.

Dustin Hopkins - Hopkins wasn’t a top performer, he was middle of the pack in terms of both FG% (83.3%) and extra point % (95.5%), but given that 2020 is a contract year for him, it will be interesting to see how the Redskins proceed at kicker after the coming season.

New Additions in 2020

Antonio Gibson (RB/WR/KR)

The Redskins’ third round pick out of Memphis, Gibson was used as both a running back and wide receiver on offense. He was also used as a kick returner on special teams his senior year, and was tied for 9th in the nation with 28 yards per return, including the 97 yarder below. It’s certainly possible the Redskins could use him as a kick returner - and he’s surely depth in that role - but I think there’s a decent chance he ends up being too valuable to Scott Turner’s offense to risk injury as a return man.

Isaiah Wright (WR/RB/KR/PR)

Gibson has gotten most of the attention since the draft, but the reality is that the Redskins may have picked up an even better return man AFTER the draft. Undrafted free agent, Isaiah Wright of Temple, was named a Sporting News All American returner after his junior year in 2018, having returned two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns that season. That year he also led Temple in all-purpose yards with 1,428.

Over the course of his 4 years at Temple, he had 5 return TDs and nearly 2,500 yards in returns. Given Gibson’s likely importance in an “offensive weapon” role, and the possibility that Steven Sims could be more focused on his WR duties in 2020, it’s not unthinkable that Wright could end up being the team’s primary return man by the end of the season.

Khaleke Hudson (LB/S)

During his time at Michigan, 2020 fifth round pick, Khaleke Hudson, accumulated 5 blocked kicks and punts. He may be a little small to compete for a full-time starting role at linebacker initially, but Hudson can almost certainly be counted on to get a strong shot playing special teams his rookie year. He was among the fastest linebackers at the Combine (4.56 40), and was among the strongest as well (30 reps). Hudson could add an element to the Redskins’ special teams that hasn’t existed for a very long time - the ability to consistently turn kicks into turnovers.

Kamren Curl

I hadn’t realized it previously, but Curl was apparently one of Mel Kiper’s “sleeper picks” in the 2020 draft. According to Kiper:

“Kamren Curl came out early at Arkansas, but he ran 4.59, 4.60,” Kiper said on a recent podcast. “He plays a little faster than that. He’s a big corner. He’s got really good arm length. He has one of the longest arms of anybody in this draft. He’s played safety and corner. He played corner then he moved to safety, so he’s got that ability to help you out in both ways. Good, not great, tape. But I think Kamren Curl as a late-round pick will have a chance to make a team. He’ll help you on special teams. And he can be a corner or safety with great length.”

Kiper’s assessment was similar to that of the Draft Network:

Kick coverage and special teams will definitely boost his value; he profiles as a long-term value player in that capacity.

It also turns out that Curl had communicated with the Redskins’ special teams’ coordinator at the Combine:

“I talked to the special teams coordinator [Nate Kaczor] at the Combine and the DBs coach a little bit at the Combine. It wasn’t that much, but we had some conversations, so I knew they had interest in me.”

Whether or not Curl will ever play reliably for the Redskins in the secondary is still very much up for debate. What’s extremely likely however, is that Curl will be an addition to Kaczor’s coverage teams in the coming season.

Final Thoughts

With the addition of Chase Young to the Redskins’ defensive front, much has been made of the degree to which the team’s defense should be improved in 2020. There is less optimism for the team’s anticipated offensive production - in large part because so much is dependent of the development of second year quarterback Dwayne Haskins in a new offense, under a coordinator who will be getting his first full season in the role.

Special teams rarely gets the same level of attention as the other two phases of the game, but, of course, it’s crucial as well. The punting and coverage unit are critical in providing the defense a long field to protect. Conversely, the return game is responsible for putting the offense in the best position to score, and, if exemplary, can put points on the board itself.

In a league where over 20% of games are decided by three points or less, the kicking game is decisive, with every field goal potentially a game winner. Finally, defending kicks and punts is almost a lost art in DC, while the best teams in the league routinely block 3 or 4 kicks a year. The ability to do so represents a massive momentum shift and can translate into enough points to win an additional game or two over the course of a season.

During the 2020 offseason, the Redskins have added a number of rookies - and likely some free agents - to their roster who should significantly improve their already solid special teams unit. At the same time, none of the players they lost in free agency or through cuts or trades were significant contributors to the special teams’ game. If all goes well, and Nate Kaczor’s troops continue to improve, we could potentially be looking at a top 5 unit this coming season.

Poll

How do you think the Redskins’ special teams group will perform in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 78%
    Better than 2019.
    (1009 votes)
  • 19%
    The same as 2019.
    (253 votes)
  • 2%
    Worse than 2019.
    (26 votes)
1288 votes total Vote Now